The Kaufman Genre: The Singular World of Charlie Kaufman
Volta looks at the work of the spectacularly intelligent and masterfully quirky writer-director, Charlie Kaufman.
In order to describe Charlie Kaufman’s work, I have found myself adopting terminology most often bandied about in verbose university tutorials. Terms such as ‘meta-narrative’, and ‘postmodern reflexivity’ have been wheeled out, but somehow they don’t quite fit. Really, what makes Kaufman so interesting as a screenwriter, and now, as a director, is that he manages to find the tricky balance between formal experimentation and a compelling emotional power which cannot be so easily explained away by fashionable cultural theories. And he does all this while still remaining a commercial prospect in La La Land, one of the few figures who can successfully pull this off such a neat trick.
Kaufman’s body of work – Being John Malcovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York - is open to almost endless interpretation. He is interested in ideas surrounding memory, mortality, identity, loneliness, the disconnect between mind and body, fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, subjectivity and objectivity – a whole host of dualisms represented with artistic singularity. He delights in making the nebulous tactile - characters can remove memories or get into another person’s mind through a tiny door in an office building. And he’s always – always – thoroughly weird. Kaufman’s films have so many sides to them, they’re positively round.
Although his work is distinctive, Kaufman can’t really be discussed in isolation. Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry are his usual partners-in-crime, but he has also worked with George Clooney on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and, most recently, has taking up directing himself with Synecdoche, New York. Perhaps it is the strength of these collaborations that have allowed Kaufman to become so prolific. He himself has commented "The usual thing for a writer is to deliver a script and then disappear. That's not for me. I want to be involved from beginning to end.” Gondry and Jonze understand that Kaufman isn’t interested in the writer’s role as Hollywood traditionally would have it and allow him significant creative input, even after the screenplay is finished. (Perhaps this is also why his collaboration with George Clooney was so trying for him – Clooney apparently changed a lot of the script without consulting him.) When Kaufman was included in Premiere magazine’s 2003 list of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood - the only non-directing screenwriter on the list - he commented “That's very flattering, but not very realistic. I don't have anywhere near that kind of power. No screenwriter does.” Kaufman may be dismissive of the extent of his powers in Hollywood, but he is nonetheless in an unusual - and enviable - position for any screenwriter. He can maintain a considerable amount of creative control over the finished product because he has the talent and the commercial pulling power to back it up.
Not a lot is known about Kaufman’s personal life. He is originally from New York and now lives in Pasadena, California with his wife and two children. In interviews he claims to be a very private person. Yet this is the same private person who audaciously wrote himself into his 2002 Adaptation as the hero of the piece, played to new levels of neuroticism by a balding, sweaty, mumbling Nicolas Cage. If a kind of cult-ish interest in Kaufman himself develops, it can hardly come as a surprise. Watching the film you wonder just how close this erratic on-screen version is to the real Kaufman. Is it an exaggeration? A caricature? A complete fabrication? Or perhaps it’s so true to the real-life Kaufman it could be cinema vérité.
Authenticity, inauthenticity and identity are issues that pop up time and time again in his films. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind focuses on a gameshow host who writes a fake memoir, claiming to have been a CIA agent all along. Being John Malcovich features a real John Malcovich playing a fictionalized version of himself. (During filming, Spike Jonze would regularly joke with Malcovich that “Malcovich wouldn’t have done it like that.”) And of course, Adaptation not only presents us with a fictionalized Kaufman, it also features a (fake) twin brother, Donald, who gets a writing credit at the end of the film. Adaptation’s blurrings of truth and fiction don’t end there. Susan Orlean, the real-life author of The Orchid Thief, the book at the centre of the plot, confessed that she “almost passed out” when she saw how Kaufman had linked the break-up of her marriage - which did happen - to a steamy, drug-fuelled affair - which did not. Orlean consequently described Adaptation as “going from faithful to crazily unfaithful”.
A lot of the pleasure of Kaufman’s work is his authenticity – his honesty in the face of relationship break-downs (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) or mortality (Synecdoche, New York) – but so much else is in the artfulness of his inauthenticity. All of this makes for a compelling set-up. With a new Kaufman/Jonze collaboration rumoured to be in development (a satirical comedy about a group of world leaders) as well as a comedy musical about a powerful Hollywood blogger, questions of authenticity could ultimately be irrelevant. Kaufman is interested in being true to himself. That, to him, is the real meaning of authenticity. In an industry of formulaic screenplays and executives apparently determined to play it safe, the only genre Kaufman is interested in is Kaufman.