Friday, June 12, 2009

God and the Cinema Part X: Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman is one of the most original voices in the cinema today. Through just a few films as a writer, and one as a writer/director, he has established himself as one of the premiere auteurs in the film world. With the screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York he has explored the inner workings of the human mind. What does he say about God? We are all merely players in some sort of cosmic play in which has no beginning, middle or ending. If there is a God, then he’s laughing at us.

Kaufman exploded onto the scene with his screenplay for Being John Malkovich. That film was about a porthole into the mind of the famous, deranged actor discovered by a puppeteer (John Cusack). The porthole allowed you to see into the mind of Malkovich for 15 minutes, before spitting you out onto the New Jersey turnpike. What the film is really about is the desire to be someone else. Cusack is not happy with who he is – no one appreciates puppetteering anymore, his wife (Cameron Diaz) doesn’t like him as much as she likes her monkey, and the new woman he falls for (Catherine Keener), wants nothing to do with him, unless he is inside Malkovich. Using his skills as a puppeteer, Cusack goes inside Malkovich for months on end, controlling his every move, and using Malkovich’s fame to bring the art of puppeteering back to the masses. But Cusack can never really become Malkovich – he can only inhabit him for a time. He remains who he is, no matter what body he is in. When he tries to enter the porthole a final time just before it will close forever (and reopen in a different body), the plan backfires, and he is stuck inside the body of a baby – who is going to be raised by Diaz and Keener, who are now a lesbian couple.

Being John Malkovich was brilliant because it was utterly unique, perfectly cast (no one else could have worked except Malkovich, who was a good enough sport to make fun of himself brilliantly in the movie), and Cusack, Keener and Diaz fill out their roles remarkably well (as does Charlie Sheen as Malkovich’s best friend) and pitch perfectly directed by Spike Jonze in his directorial debut. In the world created by the movie, anything is possible, but in the end you are stuck with yourself, so you better deal with it. If you want to see this as a religious movie, you most likely could – but it certainly does not really represent a positive view on God. God merely seems to sit back and laugh at his creations as they try and change their lives.

Human Nature is undoubtedly the least known of Kaufman’s films, and admittedly it is the least successful, but it is still a fascinating little movie. Like Being John Malkovich, the film is really about how you can change who you are. Rhys Ifans stars as a “monkey man” in that he has been raised in the wild, and acts likes a monkey. He is “discovered” by a couple – Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette – who have very different reactions to him. Robbins, a scientist trying to teach mice table manners, decides that this monkey man would be an even better project. Arquette, who has a rare disease that causes thick hair to grow all over her body, once lived the way he did in the wild, before her sexual urges brought her back to humanity. It is these same sexual urges that makes the monkey man want to become a man – he correctly assumes that if he wants sex, he has to become more civilized.

So sex certainly plays a central role in this film. In Kaufman’s view, we are only “more civilized” because we want to get laid. We will do anything – even going against our own nature – in order to “get some” as the monkey man puts it. The fault is in trying to change things from their natural state – everyone in the movie who tries gets punished for it. Robbins ends up being murdered by the monkey man, but Arquette who views this as a failure of humanity, turns herself in as the murderer, but insists that the monkey man tell his story, about the evils of humanity, then go back to his “natural state”. He agrees to the first part – the movie is told mainly in flashback as he addresses congress – but at the end of the movie, he goes off with Robbins’ hot blonde assistant (Miranda Otto). It appears that to Kaufman, Human Nature is really about screwing over anyone, and everyone, to get what you want.

Kaufman was not satisfied with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where he famously clashed with director, and co-star, George Clooney. It is impossible to know how much of the movie was Kaufman’s vision, and how much Clooney brought to the film himself, but you still see what drew Kaufman to the material in the first place. Based on the “unauthorized autobiography” of Chuck Barris, famous game show host and TV producer, the movie stars Sam Rockwell, in an amazing performance, as Barris who insists that throughout his adult life, in addition to being a famous TV star, he was also a paid assassin for the CIA. Why does Barris fabricate this obvious lie (which in the movie is, of course, played as the truth)? Because Barris doesn’t like himself much. In fact, he hates himself. In his mind, he is a boring man, who no one could possibly like or be interested in, so he makes his own story more exciting than it really is. I quite love this movie – Clooney’s direction is remarkably assured considering it is his first film, and the performances by all involved are excellent. I would kind of be interested however in what the film looked like before Clooney took the reins.

Next up for Kaufman was Adaptation, the film that reteamed him with director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich). This time, Kaufman turned his unblinking gaze directly at himself, basing the movie around his own struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief. In a brilliant dual performance, Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman as a neurotic, insecure screenwriter who has had a little success, but is in over his head adapting a book without a plot. Cage also plays Kaufman’s twin brother Donald – who is wild, and easygoing the type of guy everyone likes, which of course makes him the exact opposite of Kaufman himself. Donald also decides to try his hand at screenwriting, and takes a screenwriting course, which of course teaches all the well meaning rules about screenwriting that Kaufman ignores in every movie. But when Kaufman struggles to find an ending for his new movie, he turns to his brother Donald, who writes a zip bang action ending for the movie.
The film is brilliant in the way that it weaves Kaufman’s story into his brothers into the story of the book being adapted (in which Chris Cooper, in an Oscar winning role plays the “hero”) into the story of the author of the book (Meryl Streep). The story is about the creative process, and each of these characters in their own way is an “artist”, whether they focus on high or low art. Once again, the characters are really powerless to change their circumstances or their selves. Charlie would love to be able to be as carefree as Donald, but he cannot be. The process takes too much out of him, and he insists on everything making sense, which Donald doesn’t seem to care about (his screenplay is about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder, who is also the victim and the cop chasing him. He doesn’t seem to realize that this will make no sense when it is revealed, since the same person has to be chasing himself. But then again, the makers of High Tension or Thr3E didn’t seem to realize that either). Donald would like to be as smart as his brother. Susan Orlean, the writer, would like to be closer to the The Orchid Thief she wrote about. And The Orchid Thief himself would like some of his painful story to not be true. But they cannot change their circumstances. They are stuck where they are. God just sits back and laughs at their desires.

Kaufman’s next film is probably his most popular, and his most rewarded. In 2004 he won the Original Screenplay Oscar for his work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which reteamed him with Michel Gondry, the director of Human Nature. It is undoubtedly Kaufman’s best writing, and the best film he has ever been associated with.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), a couple who have just broken up after years together. Clementine decides to undergo a radical new procedure that will selectively erase her memory – essentially making it so, in her mind anyway, Joel never existed. Angered by this, Joel decides to have the same procedure done, only to regret it part way through. The movie takes place almost entirely in Joel’s mind, as he tries to hide his memories of Clementine in with all the other ones. It is a futile fight – the process is too good – but he tries valiantly anyway. At the end of the movie, Joel and Clementine, who now know what they did, but do not remember anything about each other, decide to give their relationship another try – even though they know the last time they did, the relationship ended in failure.
The film is really about what makes us human. It is the sum of our experiences, both the positive ones and the negative ones. Yes there are things that we would all like to forget, but we cannot be truly whole if we do not go through good things, and bad things, and learn from our experiences. Joel and Clementine realize this by the end of the movie, and that is why they decide to give their relationship another chance. They know that there will be good times, and bad ones, and perhaps the whole thing is doomed to failure before they even start, but they want the experience nonetheless.

Like all of Kaufman’s film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is both funny and profound. The film is pure visual imagination by Gondry, who creates interesting, strange places, and blends special effects in effortlessly with the rest of the movie. The performances by Carrey and Winslet are both just about perfect – Winslet should have won her Oscar for this (she was nominated but lost to Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby) and Carrey should have received his first Oscar nomination for this (between Carrey’s snub, and Paul Giamatti’s for Sideways that year, the Academy really messed up the best actor category).

The film fits in with the rest of Kaufman’s films, as it is about how we cannot change who we are. Joel and Clementine try to do that, but realize that with the hole that each left in each other’s mind when they were erased, they were not the same people anymore. But notice that God never really enters into the equation here. He has once again abandoned Kaufman’s characters to fend for themselves, offering no guidance. Technology has made new things possible, but that does not necessarily mean they are good.

Which brings us to Kaufman’s latest film, Synecdoche, New York which was the first film he directed himself. In my mind (if in no one else’s) the film was the best of 2008. It tells the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director in New York, whose wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him, and takes their daughter with her, and who is then given a genius grant to complete a work of art in his chosen medium. Cotard then spends the next 40 years of his life, mounting a giant play in an abandoned warehouse with elaborate sets, where he essentially spends his time recreating the smallest facets on his own day to day life. He hires actors to play himself, and the people in his life. When his new wife (Michelle Williams), who also plays his wife in the “play” leaves, he replaces her with someone else. Caden spends most of his life in love with Hazel (Samantha Morton), who enters and leaves his life at will, although Caden is too scared to really do anything about it.

The film is complex, in that it weaves so many themes and motifs together into a giant tapestry of a movie. The key to the movie maybe in its title, as well as in the main characters name. Synecdoche means that one stands in for the whole – meaning essentially that Caden is meant to represent all of humanity. Cotard references the Cotard delusion, which is a neurological condition in which the sufferer believes he is dead, does not exist, is putrefying or has lost all of his blood and internal organs. Caden goes through one weird medical malady after another, after being hit in the head with a faucet that flies off the wall while he is trying to fix it. Does anything in this movie actually happen, or is it all just some fever dream that Caden has as he lies dying of a brain tumor? I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so. Watch how Kaufman weaves together the characters and stories, especially when Caden visits his daughter, now all grown up, but dying of AIDS, as she confronts him with having an affair with another man. By this point, Caden has cast Ellen (Dianne Wiest) in the role of himself, and he is slowly taking on the role of Ellen (which brings up a whole other can of worms about Jungian psychology and the four stages to the individuation process, which I am certainly not about to go into, although it fits perfectly in with Caden). The man who Caden’s daughter accuses him of having an affair with, has the same name as Ellen’s husband. The characters have had their roles shifted throughout the movie, to the point where they are not sure who they really are anymore.

But what is Kaufman really saying in Synecdoche, New York? It’s all well and good to talking about all the references, and the brainy theories and weird neurological diseases that Kaufman brings into the movie, but why does Synecdoche, New York resonate so much with me, when it seemingly left most people completely cold?

In a way, it goes all the way to Being John Malkovich, his first film, in that the movie is about a desire to be someone else. Caden feels inadequate when he compares his work to Adele’s, so he tries to outdo here - which he can’t. She is an artist who paints miniature paintings, that you need a magnifying glass to see. But Caden is much too literal in his worldview. He can only produce his art on a large, elaborate scale, where he recreates his entire life on stage, and as a result, never really accomplishes anything. Art is as much about what you take out, as what you leave in, and Caden seems incapable of leaving anything out. All the characters in the movie want to be someone else – and they all inhabit the role of someone else in Caden’s “play”, which stretches on for so long, that they have to start questioning if they are themselves anymore, or if they are the characters that they are playing.

It is also about how human beings obsess about their own lives to the point where everything else simply fades away around them. There are tanks in the streets of New York, that no one ever mentions, and a reference to how there are a “billion” people on the planet (what happened to the other 5 or 6 billion people or so?). Obviously, something is going seriously wrong in the world, but Caden doesn’t seem much to notice or to care. He is so obsessed with his own problems, he doesn’t notice that the whole world is collapsing around him.

In this world, free will seems to be a delusion. You cannot really control your actions, they are dictated by a force stronger than you. Yet that force in this movie is not God – it is the director, who sees himself as God. By the time the end of the movie has come, Caden has given up control of his own life, and is simply following the stage directions of Ellen, who has no become Caden, and vice versa, as he wanders through a world that has been almost completely destroyed, until he is given a final stage direction by his director – “Die”.

In total, Charlie Kaufman has been the driving force behind four masterpieces (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York) as well as two very good little films (Human Nature and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) in the last decade. That’s a pretty good track record. What makes it even more impressive is how complex the films are, the different layers that exist in each and every one of them. Kaufman’s films are not easy on the audience, even when they are entertaining and funny (and all of them are hilarious at moments). He makes you work as an audience member. Some, no doubt, resist this, but to the adventuresome out there, Charlie Kaufman is a genius.

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