Sunday, 6 December 2009

Maestros of the Movies: Charlie Kaufman

Who the hell is Charlie Kaufman? That's the question Charlie Kaufman has been asking himself across the course of his screenwriting career. Not in the trivial sense of delivering six autobiographical pieces when few lives deserve one, least of all that of a cranky Hollywood screenwriter. But in the deeper sense of exploring the human condition and the nature of the conscious self:

- In 'Being John Malkovitch' a struggling puppeteer discovers a portal into the mind of a well known actor, who ultimately becomes a world-renowned puppeteer, bringing the art of puppetry to a mass audience.

- Again working with the Director Spike Jonze, 'Human Nature' concerns a scientist couple's attempts to train a man brought up by apes in the ways of the world, until the freedom of the wild life becomes more attractive than civilisation.

- A fictionalised Charlie Kaufman gains a twin Donald in 'Adaptation', more successful in life, love and work but without his artistic integrity. Charlie struggles to adapt an intriguing work of non-fiction, 'The Orchid Thief', seeking the advice of Donald's screenwriting guru, before finally travelling to Florida to confront the author and her real-life lover and inspiration, with tragic consequences that break Kaufman's writer's block.

- 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' is the biopic of the gameshow host and supposed CIA hitman Chuck Barris, directed by George Clooney who opted to strip Kaufman's scripts of much of its surreal and reflexive trickery and go back to source; the movie bombed and Kaufman disowned it.

- 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' was Charlie's first Oscar-winning script, in which the shy Jim Carrey character seeks the help of a medical team who can erase all memory of a failed romance with cookie Kate Winslet from his brain, following her decision to do the same. Two years later, they meet again, just as instructed in their last shared memory, and have another try at mismatched love.

- 'Synecdoche: New York' is Charlie Kaufman's first movie as writer-director, a five-year labour of love in which an alienated and depressed theatre director, Caden Cotard, receives a genius award, funding a project into which he can pour his whole self, a recreation of city life in a gigantic warehouse. Years later, the production has become a world within a world in which Caden Cotard finally relinquishes control to take on the part of a cleaning lady, still obsessed with the artistic problem he has set himself as his mimetic urban creation is abandoned and his own existence ends. It is a dream of life as life is, a rare and fragile thing.

You'll have concluded that a Kaufman movie doesn't lend itself to the one sentence elevator pitch. Though stars queue to work with him, they aren't star vehicles either. Never short of critical acclaim, he's also flirted with popular success; it's prospect has driven him deeper into exploring his self, universalised in the most significant corpus of twenty-first century cinema so far realised.

In 'Adaptation', Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman confronts the aforementioned screenwriting guru with a question: "What if the writer is attempting to create a story when nothing happens?" Larry David asked himself the same when conceiving 'Seinfeld' two decades ago with nine series - fifteen if you include six seasons of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' - of hilarious consequences. "You write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you'll bore your audience to tears," comes the reply. Charlie has spent his entire career proving that advice wrong, provoking tears of gratitude and joy in those of us who follow his work.

There is conflict of course: the inner conflict of coming to terms with your self in the world and trying to create something worthwhile out of it; the challenge of artistic endeavor taking on philosophy's perennial conundrums. Beginning with a bang - 'Being John Malkovitch' was the most stunning authorial and directorial debut of the last decade - and ending with a terrifying whimper - I'm convinced I may be living in my own Synecdoche, even though I can neither pronounce or define the term - Charlie Kaufman has broken all the rules of screenwriting. In doing so, he has created a new set of principles for screenwriters - indeed, creative writers of any kind - to follow:

- Write from yourself, not about yourself. There is a Kaufman-like character at the heart of each of his most successfully realised scripts. None of them - even his namesake in 'Adaptation' - are living a Kaufman-like life in the outer world; all of them share one of his inner obsessions.

- Bring the inner world outside. His subjects - the philosophy of mind, the creative process, human nature, the predicament of mortality - are not promising cinematic subjects. But with them, he makes great cinema, by finding a means of untangling them in the outer world, that we all can share, thus proving that big ideas can make big movies, without the conventional virtues of character, plot and story arc dominating their construction.

- Make the unreal real. All Kaufman films are predicated on a ridiculous premise. That's Hollywood. The trick is to make the audience believe it isn't Hollywood for a couple of hours. Charlie takes it further by making movies that Hollywood should never have taken on, and proving those who said so wrong.

- Learn the rules, then break them. Any poet should know their way round a sonnet, but you need a good excuse to write one in couplets of rhyming pentameter. All artists should have a go at drawing from life, whatever their ultimate discipline, however contemptuous they may become of the figurative painter. CK understands the rules of cinema and story telling but isn't constrained by them.

- Trust your audience. So many mainstream movies - and American TV shows - are scripted by committee, that by the time they're made, all the jagged edges of individuality have been smoothed off. We are patronised by such creations, designed for mass appeal, the greatest art form of our times reduced to a marketing exercise. Real artists believe if they resolve a problem for themselves, they resolve it for others.

- Screenwriter good, auteur better. Charlie Kaufman has worked with some talented and individual directors. Spike Jonze has complementary genius: the ability to create compelling visuals from abstract ideas. Michael Gondry also began his career as a pop video maker, but has discovered a talent for intellectually and aesthetically satisfying comedy. But as good as these directors have been, none of them have gone as deep into the Kaufman world as K himself. 'Synecdoche: New York' is a Russian doll of a movie that we may never get to the bottom of, but will keep returning to, happily and unhappily, until we can return no more.

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