Being Charlie Kaufman

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When Tom first asked me to write an article about Charlie Kaufman after hearing me rave about Synechdoche New York, I knew it was going to be a difficult article to write. I didn’t realise how difficult. I have seen Synechdoche New York, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, all written by Kaufman with Synechdoche being directed by him as well. Throughout these four films, Kaufman tackles such huge and varied issues in his work that I had no idea where to begin. After a couple of false starts I settled on writing about how Kaufman uses abstract, unreal plot devices and concepts in order to expose truths about life and art. That quickly spiralled into an article about Kaufman’s unflinching devotion to attempting to express truth about what it is to create art and what it is to be an artist. I then wrote about 700 words solely on Synechdoche New York without an end in sight. I finally realised that the film of Kaufman’s that I had seen but decided not to write about for sake of brevity, Adaptation, was the film which speaks most about truths personal to Kaufman’s own life. I then shut down my word-processor in exasperation and didn’t write another word for any articles at all for around two weeks. Every time I considered writing I remembered the damned Kaufman article, the grand un-tameable beastly mess lurking within my hard-drive, and swiftly moved on to something that seemed to offer more potential enjoyment, like playing video-games. Or tidying up. Or going for a walk. Anything would do, so long as it wasn’t that article. I felt like I couldn’t start anything else in this time either – the mammoth weight of the task I had given myself paralysed me and made me incapable of moving forward with anything creative.

I thought a lot about the article – different ways I could tackle it, ways of framing it that allowed me to provide some valuable insight, or even a gentle introduction, to Kaufman’s work. Everything I came up with was either so general as to allow me to give no real detail and therefore no real insight into Kaufman, or was a perfectly functional, highly detailed description of a minute aspect of just one of his films that would eat up the word-limit I was aiming for while giving insight only into one narrow aspect of Kaufman, thereby doing a huge disservice to the rest of his work. How was I ever going to crack this!? Synechdoche New York alone contains beautiful explorations of a wealth of issues and ideas that are at the very heart of the human experience.

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Then finally, yesterday, I cracked it.

I was discussing my problem in finding a suitable way to write this article with Bravin, our guest indie/Swedish/artsy/pretentious/excellent film expert and a close friend of mine, when he linked me to an interview about Adaptation with Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, the director of the film. Adaptation stars Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman (and his fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman) and follows his attempts to adapt a non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, a novel primarily about flowers, into a screenplay. As the film goes on Kaufman’s life, the life of the writer of the book and the life of the main character of the book interconnect and intermingle in increasingly abstract ways, and the end result is a wonderful piece of fiction that Kaufman fully expected would never see the light of day.

Kaufman really was tasked to adapt this book into a screenplay, but he faced a massive challenge of his own. How do you write a screenplay based on a book about flowers? In the interview he describes how he tries to create art and to write about what his energy is focused on at the time. He realised that a huge majority of his creative energy was centred on his inability to find a way forward with his adaptation. At that moment he decided to write about this block, this writer’s purgatory that he was stuck in, and thus a spectacular film was born.

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This helped me realise that, if I was having such difficulties writing about Kaufman, then the best thing to do would be to write about how hard it is to write about Kaufman! I realised that I could capture something of Kaufman’s work, some truth about it, simply by illustrating how its breadth, depth and power had rendered me powerless to explain it in adequate terms. Kaufman himself held the key to figuring out how to approach a summation and an explanation of what it is that makes his creations so unique and beautiful. It would take an entire book, maybe multiple books, to fully explore the thematic and conceptual nature of his work and to even begin to do his genius justice.

The only solution is to realise that the task is impossible and to stop trying – a step that Caden Cotard of Synechdoche New York could never take as he attempted to tell the brutal, honest truth of life through his grand theatre piece. Cotard’s play eventually becomes so bloated and so literal in its attempt to portray life and truth that, instead of representing the world, it expands and expands until it becomes the world. In stark contrast Cotard’s wife, also an artist, manages to confine her art and her expression of what is real to her to tiny paintings that can only be appreciated using magnifying lenses. In introducing Kaufman I have aimed to avoid creating a huge, messy, overly literal and analytical description of his work, as I have aimed to avoid only showcasing a tiny aspect of his genius at the expense of all else. I haven’t even aimed to land somewhere in-between. I have tried to achieve my goal by giving up on my goal and abandoning all notion of creating something that captures the essence of Kaufman’s writing and captures the truths that he so elegantly captures in film.

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Instead, by exploring my own personal relationship with Kaufman’s work and my difficulties in approaching something so wonderful, diverse and mind-expandingly gorgeous I hope to tell my own truth and to create something of my own. The only way to understand what it is to experience Charlie Kaufman is to sit down in front of a screen and to experience Charlie Kaufman. I was a fool to ever think otherwise, but through his work Kaufman himself helped me to see the light. This is a man with ideas so metaphysical and abstract that his art cannot be analysed in conventional terms – the only way I have found to explore Kaufman is by using concepts, ideas and understandings that have been taught to me by Kaufman. If that isn’t enough to make you think that maybe his films are deserving of your time, then no amount of pontificating on the merit of his depiction of the ageing process in Synechdoche, of love in Eternal Sunshine, of a desire to escape oneself in Being John Malkovich or of the difficulties inherent in creating art in Adaptation is going to change your mind.

So stop reading this pitiful article, this excessively verbose and effusive tirade of praise that cannot hope to begin to capture the magic of this great man’s ideas. Grab a Kaufman film and experience him for yourself.

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