Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Charlie Kaufman
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"The usual thing for a writer is to deliver a screenplay and then disappear. That's not for me. I want to be involved from beginning to end. And these directors [Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze] know that, and respect it."-Charlie Kaufman

Over the past several months, this column has examined multiple directors, most of whom I have concluded to be auteurs. In fact, the only director to so far avoid that designation was David Mamet, who I used to introduce another aspect of the argument over film authorship"”the idea of a screenwriter as the true author of a film. Mamet was an excellent case study, as he has been both a screenwriter and a director during his career, and I think well proved my point that a director is not always the central source of film authorship. This installment will focus on perhaps the one screenwriter to receive wide recognition as the driving force behind his films over the last 15 years"”Charlie Kaufman.

To clarify, Kaufman has once stepped behind the camera to direct his most recent and arguably most ambitious film, Synecdoche, New York, yet he did so only when his director of choice, Spike Jonze (who previously directed his scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) became unavailable. Synecdoche, then, is a solid place to begin an examination of Kaufman as the author of his films, both because it is his sole directorial credit, and because it functions in many ways as a Rosetta Stone to the themes that run throughout his work. More than anything else, though, Synecdoche embodies a tendency of Kaufman's that runs throughout his work"”an ambitious attempt to squeeze entire philosophical worldviews within the runtimes of his films, and especially examinations of various characters as they endeavor to find existential freedom.

Synecdoche, New York is, in one sense, a movie about everything. If asked to rattle off a list of its themes, I could go on forever, but suffice it to say that the film covers mortality, the elusive nature of time, the prospect of eternal creation, the difficulties inherent in love, and pretty much any other theme the viewer can conjure to read into it. In a slightly less abstract sense, the film follows playwright Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) as he attempts to create a play that encompasses his entire life, and the entire life of every person involved in its production. What follows is an ever-expanding production that causes Caden to lose his perspective yet gain new insights into the way that people live their lives. If the film is, as I would contend, the closest Kaufman has yet come to letting audiences fully into his mind to explore his worldview, then how is his influence as a director not an important part of that equation?

I do not mean to demean Kaufman's direction of Synecdoche, which is accomplished if only for the fact that the movie is in any way explicable, yet the flourishes he employs throughout seem more from the wheelhouses of his frequent collaborators Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. Additionally, Kaufman freely admits that the film's direction was a distant second to his script. Shooting in only 45 days, the cast and crew occasionally shot dozens of scenes within a day. With a pace that accelerated, Kaufman relied very heavily on the screenplay he had written, which is dense in the best sense of the word. Fortunately, the screenplay is so layered and complex that any lack of directorial invention goes almost entirely unnoticed, so swept away are we in Kaufman's tour de force vision of the world and the passage of time. Trying to parse out all of the individual themes Kaufman plays with in Synecdoche would by itself take more space than I have in this column, and many of his themes are played with in a more in-depth fashion in his other works, which we will discuss in just a moment, but perhaps one of the key scenes in the film comes when a priest (who may or may not exist solely within Caden's play) delivers a heart-wrenching eulogy, opining, "There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won't know for 20 years. And you may never trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out." The entire scene is really beautiful and worth watching, below:

While that quote, and Synecdoche itself are hardly philosophically optimistic, they do offer a form of hope that Kaufman's earlier scripts tend to lack. Synecdoche tells us that our entire lives may slip us by, and we may never understand the significance of every choice we make, yet the film assures us that each of our choices do have significance. Again, I could write a full column on even one of the themes in the film, but it does in one sense convey hope that each of us can exert some control over our lives. Being John Malkovich, Kaufman's first script produced and his first collaboration with director Spike Jonze (the film also served as Jonze's directorial debut) seems in even its premise to laugh at the idea that we have any control over our lives or our feelings. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a puppeteer and sad sack trying to eke out a living as a filer in a mysterious office, until he discovers a strange portal that leads him into the mind of actor John Malkovich (played, not surprisingly, by an excellently game Malkovich).

The ability to escape from his life and watch another person live theirs with no responsibility is at first enough to excite Craig, his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz), his coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener, who well-deserved the Oscar nomination she received for the role) and the multitudes of people they begin charging to inhabit Malkovich's brain. Yet eventually, escape is not enough, and each character begins to use Malkovich for their own devices. Lotte becomes Malkovich in order to explore hidden transgender desires and begin an affair with Maxine. Maxine ingratiates herself into the real Malkovich's life to be close to Lotte. And Craig, in a last ditch effort to satisfy his need for control in his own life, discovers he has the ability to control Malkovich, and even to remain permanently inside him. The film explores the need for control in a chaotic world, the futility of unrequited love (and the frustrating inability to regulate who one loves), the trappings of fame and the desire (and dangers) of immortality. Kaufman juggles an array of themes expertly throughout the film, and despite the very solid direction by Jonze (who received a Best Director nomination, alongside Kaufman's Best Original Screenplay nomination) there is no question that the source of the film's myriad and complex ideas is the mind of Charlie Kaufman.

It is fitting, then, that Kaufman's next collaboration with Spike Jonze was Adaptation, a film that follows Charlie Kaufman (an Oscar nominated Nicholas Cage) as he attempts to write his next screenplay"”an adaptation of The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (played by Merly Streep, who of course got a well deserved Oscar nomination for the role). The film remains mired for most of its runtime in Kaufman's neuroses and his writer's block. He needs to create, to control his personal life, including struggles with his twin brother Donald (also Nicholas Cage), and to pay respect to Orlean's book, which is partially dedicated to her relationship with John Laroche (Chris Cooper, who actually won an Oscar for his excellent performance), the subject of the interview that launched her book. The film examines the difficulty inherent in creation, but more than that, it looks at how one man comes to a level of understanding about himself and learns to better live his life, even if that understanding only arises because it's the perfect ending to a movie. Late in the film, as Charlie and Donald crouch together in a swamp, Donald tells Charlie, "you are what you love, not what loves you. That's what I decided a long time ago." Rather than allowing an external influence to shape him, Charlie realizes that he himself has the power to be who he wants to be and to decide for himself what he will become.

Before the somewhat cathartic ending of Adaptation, which truly did arise out of the existential crisis Kaufman faced over several years as he tried to adapt Orlean's book, Kaufman teamed with Michel Gondry to create Human Nature, an in-depth, if often flawed, look at the things that constrain us from being fully free. The film follows the uptight scientist Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) whose parents raised him to avoid giving in to his basest instincts, as he studies Puff (Rhys Ifans), a man raised as an ape, and tries to make romance work with Lila (Patricia Arquette) a woman whose body is covered in hair, and Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) his "cultured" assistant. The film examines the internal battle between man's base urges and the "civilizing" influence of society, as each character struggles to find the balance between civilized repression and animalistic freedom from human constraints.

Kaufman struggled over the issue of authorship most directly during the production of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, when George Clooney greatly altered his screenplay because the script contained, "really funky scenes that would never reach the green light of being a studio film." What results is a Kaufman film with almost all of his particular influences drained out of it. A few scenes still reflect Kaufman's intent with the screenplay, like an excellent monologue on the nature of murder delivered from one assassin (Rutger Hauer) to the film's central character, game show host (and alleged CIA assassin) Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell), or a scene in which Barris has a paranoia-driven on-air breakdown, yet the majority of the film feels decidedly un-Kaufman. As Charlie himself put it, "I spent a lot of time working on the script, but I don't think that he was interested in the things I was interested in. I've moved on, and I don't have any animosity towards Clooney, but it's a movie I don't really relate to." Kaufman further clarified that, "I had a movie that I wrote and that isn't it. I've always been involved in the process with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. If there's any rewriting to do, I do it. But with Clooney it was different. Even the end of the movie is different. I mean, Clooney went on forever about how my Confessions screenplay was one of the greatest scripts he'd read. But if someone truthfully felt that way they'd want the person who wrote it to be on board offering their thoughts and criticisms. But Clooney didn't. And I think it's a silly way to be a director."

Fortunately, Kaufman next reteamed with Michel Gondry for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, perhaps his best movie and arguably the most coherent translation of his vision to the screen. The film follows Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) as he undergoes a process to have his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role) erased from his memory. As their relationship plays out in reverse, Joel realizes that in spite of the pain of his loss, the memories of their time together are worth saving. Joel then embarks on another of Kaufman's quixotic quests for freedom as he battles the procedure and even his own mind in an attempt to hold on to memories of Clementine. The film works so well in large part because Michel Gondry's talents as a director fit so well with Kaufman's script. Gondry is known for surreal, artistic images, and he uses that skill to perfectly evoke Joel's experience inside his own mind. Rather than changing the script or getting in its way with directorial flourishes, Gondry champions the script and improves upon it with his own personal skills.

Charlie Kaufman is almost definitely the most ambitious mind working in film today. His screenplays are complex webs of philosophical ideas made relevant by their moving emotional underpinnings and packaged in some of the most unique and original premises in recent history. Whether he explores the nature of freedom, creativity, identity and mortality through the lens of a portal into the head of John Malkovich, a man raised as an ape, a game show host turned CIA assassin, a heartbroken lover trying to move on, a playwright forever expanding his greatest creation or through the lens of Charlie Kaufman himself, his themes persist and his vision almost always commands the films he is associated with. Kaufman writes scripts of astonishing depth and shocking emotional resonance, and when paired with directors that respect his vision, he is able to shine through as the proper author of his films.

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Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

8/15: Todd Solondz

8/29: Jean-Luc Godard

9/12: Sergio Leone

9/26: Ingmar Bergman
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