The Absurd Realities of Charlie Kaufman’s Universe
I think, I feel, I suffer
An introverted man, an extroverted woman, and the procedure of erasing memories, and through that - the person itself? A portal that opens up to a famous actor’s mind and lets you be a puppeteer of his actions? A sexually frustrated screenwriter whose search for passion entwines his life with his twin brother’s? A hypnotic narrative of one man confronting the failures of his life as it leaves his body? The Fregoli Delusion where every person around you ceases to have a unique identity of their own?
When you walk into a Kaufman film, you cannot predict why and how drastically your life will change once you walk out. Throughout the film, you may weave a certain narrative in your head, you may also be naive enough to believe that you know exactly what is happening, but you never do. This ability of Kaufman to muddle our heads and leave us with more questions than answers, is what makes him an enigmatic screenwriter as well as director.
Every unconventional choice that Charlie Kaufman makes is always in service of strengthening the story’s philosophical conflict, as we will explore through the plots of a few of his films.
Charlie Kaufman: Screenwriter, Director, Surrealist?
Oscar winning director and a revered auteur in his filmography and film plots, Charlie Kaufman is best known for his meta fictitious and unconventional storylines: most of which leave you in a trance, or in utter confusion. His films are open ended, and open for interpretation. Kaufman does not like to discuss the themes of anything that he writes because once you’re done making a film or a piece of art, it exists as a separate identity, and breaking down this identity lowers the possibility for individual interaction with the viewers.
Kaufman credits Franz Kafka and Philip K Dick for being the inspiration behind his iconoclastic and inventive screenplays. What began as simple sketch shows and landing gigs transformed into a fully fledged style of filmmaking - a trademark largely associated with exploring the nuances of loneliness, identity and grief. He has gained his fame by writing self conscious films in a self conscious time period.
Of Being John Malkovich, star Cameron Diaz famously said, “They say in Hollywood there are only fourteen scripts. Well, this is number fifteen.”
What makes a film Kaufman-esque?
Despite his films expanding across various different themes and characters, they are tied together with a single thread - the unwavering loyalty to being as whimsical and existential as humanly possible.
Non linear narrative/ extensive monologues, mind-setting, main character as an artist, blurry lines between reality and imagination, and out-of-the-box storytelling are some characteristics that are overtly visible in all his screenplays. He toys around with the metaphysical questions of self existence and morality. In The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Clementine erases Joel out of her memory. The ethical issue that is raised here is: whether companies such as Lacuna Inc should be allowed to take advantage of the vulnerability of its patients? Is memory erasure real? Are our memories simply files that can be deleted with just a click, and if yes, what does this say about our individual and hyper-real experiences?
Similarly, in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, an adaptation of Iain Reid’s titular book - the audience is puzzled till the very end scene. Filled to the brim with symbolism and confusing language, this masterpiece requires a rewatch just to comprehend its complexity. This entire film is merely a fragment of Jake’s mind, and thus reality warps as per his desires. He dreams of, and creates the film he was too afraid to ever live, and through his eyes we see all he could have been.
As is often the case with Kaufman's work, I like to think that every interpretation is valid and all can co-exist simultaneously. His films allow us to be critical of our own thoughts, and of how we perceive the world around us. His films also strip the characters bare, down to their sincerest insecurities and flaws. His characters are not superficial or idealised, and that is how they resonate with their audience. We all have animalistic ambitions, one of which being the pressing need of society to validate our existence.
Being John Malkovich focuses on a puppeteer who dreams about being a celebrated puppeteer, but loses control when Malkovich stops being a puppet and a kind of puppeteer himself. And Synecdoche, New York is about a theatre director who’s so obsessed with developing a play that expands in scale until it is impossible to tell the difference between the play and reality.
Art should offer an opportunity to recognise our common humanity and vulnerability from the experience of watching someone fumble.
Kaufman Plots and Why They Work
If you have sat through Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the initial thoughts that raced through your head might be those of perplexity and confusion. It is a film that refuses to be deciphered in a single watch, and demands a deeper understanding.
Released in 2004, this film - starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, follows a non-linear narrative of two people falling in, and out, of love. At first glance, Clementine (Kate Winslet) may seem like a manic pixie dream girl, who only exists to propel the male character arc. But as the movie progresses, we unlearn that assumption.
“Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a f****-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours.” - Clementine Kruczynski
The central love story of the film is shown backwards - we see them as strangers with zero recall of each other first (because both of them have simultaneously erased the memories of the other person from their mind), and then slowly the plot focuses on the love they had for each other, before it fizzled out - mainly through Joel’s perspective.
Clementine’s hair colour is one way to identify what part of the relationship is being shown on screen.
Clementine’s hair is first Green, when she meets Joel for the first time.
Clementine then dyes it Orange when she’s dating Joel.
Clementine then dyes it Blue when she has deleted her memories of Joel after their break up.
Another one of his films that set him apart as a screenwriter and director was Being John Malkovich. This quirky cult classic is the door to understanding Kaufman’s mind.
The plot of this film revolves around a beaten down puppeteer who takes up the job of an office clerk on floor 7 1/2. Whilst working there he discovers a hidden door - a portal that takes you within the mind of John Malkovich, for 15 minutes at a time. Through this seemingly simple setting, we obtain a front seat entry to the ups and downs - love, identity, infidelity, emerging sexuality and human isolation.
“The nature of self, the existence of the soul. Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?”
Writing A ScreenPlay: The Basics
“Writing is the journey of self discovery of all the things inside you that you don’t want to acknowledge”
Adaptation (2002), by Kaufman, is a sort of autobiographical film, in the sense that Kaufman projects himself onto the character played by Nicholas Cage. With this film, Charlie Kaufman ventures deeper into the mind of one of cinema’s most tortured artists - himself. It’s a dizzying rabbit hole that delves into the process of writing a screenplay while stuck in a rut, and how this inevitably shifts into madness.
Adaptation is evidently one of Kaufman’s most personal works. And because the film is based more on Kaufman’s experience in attempting to adapt the unadaptable, it becomes an allegory of the sacrifices a writer has to make in order to move forward within “the industry”.
“I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know... or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know. I mean... The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that. You know, it just isn't. And... I feel very strongly about this.”
“I think that’s what art should offer: an opportunity to recognise our common humanity and vulnerability. So rather than pretending I’m an expert, I’m just telling you I don’t know anything.”
- Charlie Kaufman
A great film isn't synonymous to a great novel, and to convey any message, screenwriters must learn the form of the screenplay, the language of cinema on paper. But these guidelines are just guidelines at the end of the day. There is no right or wrong way to write a screenplay, because cinema ultimately is storytelling - and although these conventions can be good to follow, a story can be anything.
Kaufman’s writing is idiosyncratic because his preeminent topics are rooted deeply in what is most important to him - the courage to venture into the deepest depths of our very own being and explore our most sacred of places.
Charlie Kaufman’s Screenwriting Tips
“I don’t really have anything against stories, but I just want to feel something happening. I read something that Emily Dickinson said that I'm going to paraphrase: you know something’s poetry if a shiver goes up your spine.” - Kaufman
Finding your voice is a process of figuring out how to ‘do you’
You need to explore and develop your individual voice instead of falling into conventional screenplay styles that are dependent on their predictability quotients. As a writer, your imagination is your superpower, and it is your responsibility to know how to wield it properly.
Understand what drives you to write in the first place
There has to be a wound that urges you to put yourself on paper and display it to the world. It is both specific to you, and common to everyone around you. it is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.
It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition, your philosophical treatise, your screenplay is born. If you don’t acknowledge this you will come up here when it is your time and you will give your speech and you will talk about the business of screenwriting. You will say that as a screenwriter you are a cog in a business machine, you will say it is not an art form.
You will say, ‘Here, this is what a screenplay looks like.’ You will discuss character arcs, how to make likeable characters. You will talk about box office. This is what you will do, this is who you will be and after you are done I will feel lonely and empty and hopeless. And I will ask you for my two hours back."
Don’t be a zombie to formula
We mindlessly consume content that runs along similar lines - stock characters and archetypical tropes have been ingrained in our heads and this consumer culture has made us into zombies.
We need to step away from systemic indoctrination and reflect on the content we are putting out into the world. Your goal should be to create something honest that speaks to you.
Don’t be afraid of ambiguity
"It’s always a mistake to settle on any explanation for anything, because whatever you settle on you will be wrong, even if you’re right. Everything is ephemeral; everything is in a constant state of flux. Thinking past any conclusion you’ve drawn will reward you with a more complex insight and a more compassionate worldview. This is something I’m constantly trying to learn and relearn…”
Let go of conventional approaches and do not be afraid to be slightly offbeat in your stories. Movies share so much with dreams which, of course, only deal with interior lives. Your brain is wired to turn emotional states into movies. And your imagination knows no bounds.
A screenplay is an exploration
A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. It’s a step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere; there is a starting point but the rest is undetermined.
It is a secret, even from you. There’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them. We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form. Like any big business, the film business believes in mass production. It’s cheaper and more efficient as a business model. Do not reduce your art to simply a business venture.
Don’t lose yourself in cheap tricks. Stay focused on the world you are trying to build
With a screenplay you’re creating a world; consider everything, every character, every room, every juxtaposition, every increment of time as an embodiment of that world. Look at all of this through that filter and make sure it is all consistent. As in a painting, every element is part of one whole composition, just as there is nothing separate in the actual world there should be nothing separate in the world you create.
Charlie Kaufman’s films linger with you long after the credits roll out, not only because they delve into philosophical enquiries - but because they are grounded in real emotions that are universal to us all, we all have loved and lost, we have faced creative stagnancy, and have pondered over what it means to be human.
No matter how surreal, absurd, or strange things get, everyday humanity is still felt. These are the core themes of his films, and of life itself.