How Charlie Kaufman Goes Deep into the Human Condition in Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Other Movies

We all remem­ber our ear­ly encoun­ters with the work of Char­lie Kauf­man, though few of us knew at the time — or even know now — that it was the work of Char­lie Kauf­man. Now acclaimed as a screen­writer and the direc­tor of the films Synec­doche, New York and Anom­al­isa, he brought his pen­chant for the inter­sec­tion of the philo­soph­i­cal and sur­re­al even to the first projects he worked on. These include episodes of tele­vi­sion shows like Get a Life, the ear­ly-1990s sit­com known pri­mar­i­ly for its weird­ness, and the more sub­tly askew Ned and Stacey a few years lat­er. But only at the end of the 1990s did Hol­ly­wood and its audi­ences taste Kauf­man’s writ­ing in its purest form in Being John Malkovich.

Direct­ed by Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich, a film about a pup­peteer who dis­cov­ers a tun­nel into the mind of the tit­u­lar actor, launched a cin­e­mat­ic explo­ration of Kauf­man’s sig­na­ture themes: con­trol, con­nec­tion, iden­ti­ty, mor­tal­i­ty. That explo­ration would con­tin­ue in Kauf­man and Jonze’s next film, Adap­ta­tion, as well as in his col­lab­o­ra­tions with direc­tor Michel Gondry, Human Nature and Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind“Writ­ing with Hon­esty,” the Chan­nel Criswell video essay above, shows us how Kauf­man has approached those themes in the films he has writ­ten for oth­er direc­tors as well as for him­self.

In Kauf­man’s work, says Chan­nel Criswell cre­ator Lewis Bond, “the craft and strug­gle of the writer is ever-present with the raw sin­cer­i­ty with which the angst of every per­son is put on dis­play.” This has required Kauf­man not just to break long-estab­lished rules of screen­writ­ing but to put him­self into his screen­plays in unusu­al­ly direct ways (as evi­denced by Adap­ta­tion’s depic­tion of screen­writ­ing guru Robert McK­ee and use of a screen­writer main char­ac­ter named Char­lie Kauf­man). His “explo­ration of the human con­di­tion” neces­si­tates “plac­ing his own anx­i­eties at the cen­ter of his work. His naked ego is com­plete­ly exposed to the audi­ence, to the point of unbri­dled self-scruti­ny.” In oth­er words, “the fur­ther he probes into his char­ac­ters, the deep­er he actu­al­ly delves into him­self.”

This may sound self-indul­gent — and nobody acknowl­edges that more than Kauf­man him­self — but Bond describes the process as “test­ing his own per­sona as he’s plac­ing him­self in sit­u­a­tions that he does­n’t know how to over­come. He watch­es oth­ers watch­ing him­self, giv­ing him the lib­er­ty to write as he dis­cov­ers.” He dis­cov­ers, as his writ­ing takes him into the realms of the abstract, the metaphor­i­cal, and the sym­bol­ic, that he and his view­ers share an inner self. “Por­tals to the head of John Malkovich, a fake twin broth­er he writes as real, a the­ater the size of a city tak­ing pri­or­i­ty over the end of the world: all these are clear peeks into the soul of Kauf­man, his attempts to rec­on­cile his per­son­al foibles, and through this we rec­og­nize our own frail­ties and anx­i­eties in his.” Hence, per­haps, the mem­o­ra­bil­i­ty of our encoun­ters with Kauf­man’s work: they’re also encoun­ters with our­selves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Film­mak­ers Tell Their Sto­ries: Three Insight­ful Video Essays Demys­ti­fy the Craft of Edit­ing, Com­po­si­tion & Col­or

What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchi­an: A Video Essay

Watch a Video Essay on the Poet­ic Har­mo­ny of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film­mak­ing

44 Essen­tial Movies for the Stu­dent of Phi­los­o­phy

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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