The great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is 56 years old today. But is he really “great”?! I’m open to the argument that he isn’t. Maybe he is just good and basically every other screenwriter in Hollywood is a hack. Or maybe it is that he is almost the only screenwriter who is allowed to write anything interesting. Regardless, his work is remarkable.
I don’t want to put this too broadly. There are great screenwriters. Three off the top of my head: Woody Allen, Paul Schrader, and Tony Gilroy. But Kaufman’s work is distinctly expansive of the format in ways that simply aren’t the case with Quentin Tarantino or Robert Towne or Paddy Chayefsky. He has a novelist’s view of the screenplay, but the novelist is more Kafka than Hemingway.
It is hard to appreciate Kaufman in small video clips, but I’m going to try. Let’s start with Being John Malkovich. Here is the introduction to the 7½ floor. It strikes me as quite a lot like Eugène Ionesco, although the film later panders a tad to external reality:
There is much good to say about Human Nature, even if it doesn’t fully work. But I can’t find any clips of it. So we will move on to Adaptation. It is a marvel of meta-art — a vicious attack and loving embrace of genre writing. But it still has this affecting scene in the middle of a totally ridiculous sequence:
Let’s skip by Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which I like quite a lot, because I think it had Kaufman’s soul ripped out of it. So we move to one of my very favorite films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It really is the cinematic equivalent of Crime and Punishment. And it is the best directing that Kaufman has ever received, which is interesting given that I don’t think much of Michel Gondry as a director. “Meet me in Montauk…”
Then there is Synecdoche, New York — a film so deep it gets lost inside itself. I think of it as “Charlie Kaufman does MC Escher!” It was the first time he directed, and he does have a distinctive style. But it seems very much like a director who has waited fifty years to direct. The density of the film is overpowering. It isn’t at all surprising that the film was a commercial failure. But it is an amazing film. And visually, it reminds me of the photo realist Scott Prior, who I believe was greatly influenced by Edward Hopper. Check out this scene with its world within a world:
And then nothing. Well, apparently he wrote and directed a television pilot, How and Why. But it isn’t going to be picked up. There’s a shock. And maybe this is it. Kaufman is honest enough to admit that his career has largely been a matter of luck. And it is likely the Hollywood was only interested in him because he was “weird” and surprisingly “cool” for a time. But after Synecdoche, New York, it is hard for them to escape the conclusion that he is an artist and that is not a safe conduit to the commodities and profits that they wish to create.
Happy birthday Charlie Kaufman!