The Saturday Auteur

Charlie Kaufman: exploring existential concepts through mindfuck surrealism
By Alex James Taylor | Film+TV | 24 December 2021
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of The Saturday Auteur

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Charlie Kaufman’s films scratch at your head and mess with your mind. One of Hollywood’s most imaginative screenwriters and filmmakers, the Oscar-winning auteur’s oeuvre is as distinctive as it is genius. So much so, even when his screenplays are realised by other directors, the film is often still referred to as Kaufman’s.

There’s Being John Malkovich, where a portal is found in a Manhattan office building that transports you inside John Malkovich’s head, seeing what he sees, thinking what he thinks. There’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman’s poignant twist on a rom-com where a couple erase their memories in order to avoid heartbreak, and ultra-meta dark comedy Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze, and starring Nicholas Cage as Kaufman himself (and his fictional twin brother) trying to write the screenplay for this very film.

This year, the filmmaker returned after five years with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a Netflix-produced adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel. A daring, maze of a film, it tells the story of a young woman (Jessie Buckley) on a snowy trip to meet her boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents at their rural farmhouse. What begins as a nice family dinner quickly take a strange turn – time begins to crack and memories collapse.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry, 2004

Born in NYC, growing up Kaufman was an introvert with a penchant for dark wit (the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce). Having studied film at New York University – where he met Paul Proch, friend and collaborator – he began his career submitting articles on spec to National Lampoon, writing a number of unproduced pilots, and landing gigs on sketch shows like Get a Life and The Dana Carvey Show.

During this time, Kaufman was a prolific writer, working on screenplays alongside his sketches, including Being John Malkovich – initially “a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife.” Rejected by numerous studios, the script eventually found its way to legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who then passed it on to his then-son-in-law Spike Jonze, who went on to direct the film.

Exploring themes of identity, mortality and fate, the film’s surrealist tones and existential themes set the scene for Kaufman’s career to come: one that spans screenplays, films, novels and a currently-in-production HBO TV series. Of Being John Malkovich, star Cameron Diaz famously said of its warping originality, “They say in Hollywood there are only fourteen scripts. Well, this is number fifteen.”

Being John Malkovich by Spike Jonze, 1999

It’s not too difficult to see why Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich script grabbed the attention of Spike Jonze, and subsequently cast members John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and John Malkovich himself.

The premise: inside a Manhattan office block, on the 7½th floor (squeezed between seven and eight) there’s a portal that transports you inside the head of actor John Malkovich – created as a vessel for those who wish to live forever. It’s Craig Schwartz (Cusack), a frustrated New York City puppeteer forced to get an office job due to a serious lack of recognition, who is the audience’s own portal into Kaufman’s absurdist world. The real joy of the movie, beyond the madness that changes every preconceived idea you have about storytelling, is that with every watch you notice something different, some avenue exploring concepts of identity, being and manipulation.

Being John Malkovich by Spike Jonze, 1999

Anomalisa by Charlie Kaufman, 2015

Speaking of puppets, we now move on to Kaufman’s 2016 work Anomalisa, a noir puppet animation about a motivational speaker, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis’ northern English tones), having something of a midlife crisis in a Cincinnati hotel. Struggling with a sense of apathy and boredom of life, he meets kooky brunette Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a one-night romance ensues.

Standard Kaufman, it’s all about the subtlety: Michael’s feeling of ‘sameness’ is symbolised in the film by all of the characters, except him and Lisa, being voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan, and having the same central features. Kaufman has since stated how this was influenced by his interest in the Fregoli syndrome, in which the person believes that everyone is actually the same person in disguise.

Portraying deep emotion and crisis through the softness and perceived-playfulness of stop-animation creates a remarkable film that challenges our preconceptions and blurs convention – Kaufman’s raison d’être.

What to watch by Charlie Kaufman:

  • Being John Malkovich, 2011
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004
  • Adaptation, 2002
  • Synecdoche, New York, 2008
  • Anomalisa, 2015

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