Monday, May 31

Pulling Rabbits: On Charlie Kaufman

There is a decent chance you have never heard of Charlie Kaufman, but you have probably seen some of his movies. The reason for this is that mr. Kaufman isn't an actor or a director. He is a screenwriter.

Let me tell you a little bit about how a movie is made nowadays.
When a studio decides to make a blockbuster, someone writes a script, a producer picks it up, finds a director who knows how to make words into pictures, they make the movie, it's a huge success and the studio people have a refill of their cocaine supply.
But when an "art-movie" is made, the script is mostly written by the director himself. And in the rare cases that a script is picked up, the studio usually change it (sometimes completely ruining them in the process), and the director gets all the creative credits.

You might have noticed that this is a pretty lousy deal for the screenwriters. A good script is rarely noticed by reviewers, but a bad script all the more often. Any movie geek worth his salt can name at least ten of his favorite directors, but very few can even name more then a few screenwriters, let alone their favorites. So I would like to give a little credit to one of the great cinematic visionaries of our time.

To quote his TIME 100-entry (he was on the list in 2004):
"Charlie Kaufman has ideas, which for a screenwriter is rarer than you would think. And not just obvious ideas like killer aliens or making your children really, really small. Kaufman's ideas for movies (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York) come from the part of your psyche you avoid."

Thanks, mr. Stein. I couldn't have said it any better myself.

There is a decent chance that you have seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Remember how incredibly clever that movie was? The two parallel stories of how Carrey and Winslet first met, which in the end turned out to be both first encounters, but in a different time? That is pretty much what Kaufman does all the time. Take, for instance, Being John Malkovich. The movie is about a puppeteer who found a little door in his office that, if you went inside, put you inside the head of John Malkovich. Played by John Malkovich. Confused yet? The protagonist of his next movie, Adaptation, is called Charlie Kaufman, and he is a screenwriter who visits the set of Being John Malkovich. Also, in that very same film he decides to write a script about somebody called Charlie Kaufman who writes a script. The Charlie Kaufman in the film has a brother, who doesn't exist in real life. But what appears on the credits of Adaptation? "Written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman".

Kaufman has the creepy ability to really get into your skull. His premises might sound ridiculous on paper, but they are worked out so cunningly that you will run along with them no matter what kind of crazy shit Charlie decides to heap on you next. This is really a testament of his skill: if there is one demographic that is eager to call bullshit on what they see, it's movie geeks.

I think that all of Kaufman's work is essentially about illusion. Adaptation and Synecdoche take this to the surface and ask questions about the workings of film and theatre, and how they are interlocked with our lives. Eternal Sunshine and Being John Malkovich, on the other hand, are about the illusions of everyday life. What in our lives is real, and how much do we pretend? Is our identity real? Our bodies, our memories? How much of what we do is trying to give an impression, and how much of it is "genuinely" us? These might sound like vaguely philosophical questions that you might ask yourself when you're stoned, but Kaufman really makes them matter.

Charlie Kaufman's movies, in short, fuck with your head. And you will love every second of it.


I normally try not to use music from the film's soundtracks, but I couldn't refuse this wonderful song from the soundtrack of Synecdoche, New York.


  1. Ugh he is so hit or miss for me. I liked Eternal Sunshine and Being John Malkovich but Adaptation. and especially Synecdoche were just awful. Nice song though.

  2. I've never actually heard of Charlie Kaufman or seen one of his movies, but now I'm curious.
    And also, in relation to your previous post, congrats on all the extra readers!