How the Films of Charlie Kaufman Explore the World of the Mind

Charlie Kaufman’s protagonists are lonely, insecure men searching desperately for meaning and connection, though neither seem to last. Given that one of these protagonists has the name Charlie Kaufman, we can safely assume these characters are based on the writer himself. These men are white, often balding artistic types that are too busy struggling to understand themselves and the world around them to chase what they want — especially since they very rarely know precisely what they want, or why they want it. With the recent release of his new film Anomalisa, the list now includes another sad sack white male, this one made of clay and animated through stop-motion.

Kaufman uses the old “art as therapy” trick. With each film he pens, he is working through something, trying to understand some aspect of himself and the world around him. With Being John Malkovich, he explores the desire for fame and, more broadly, to be anyone but one’s self. He worries about his quest for artistic originality within the restrictive medium of film in Adaptation. He ruminates on the tragedies of ending a relationship and muses on what it means to begin a new one despite an apparently foregone conclusion in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He again returns to artistic aspirations and frustrations with Synecdoche, New York, while placing an added emphasis on mortality and the wish to create something that will last out of a life that certainly won’t.

Source: Focus Features
Source: Focus Features

Many directors, like Woody Allen, have used their films as therapeutic exercises, but Woody Allen never made a picture quite as strange as, say, Synecdoche, New York. Most films take place in the real world, but Kaufman’s take place within the world of the mind and of art, either directly, as in Eternal Sunshine wherein Joel Barrish is trapped inside the fading memories of his old flame during a sci-fi memory wipe procedure, or indirectly, as in Adaptation, where it becomes clear by the end that the character Charlie Kaufman is trapped inside the very screenplay he’s struggling to write.

The surreal logic of the mind and of art allow Kaufman to explore ideas through metaphor and meta-commentary. Like Adaptation, Synecdoche, New York is a comment on itself as a work of art, poking fun at its author’s lofty aspirations even as it tries to achieve them. The protagonist of Synecdoche, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), receives a grant to direct his own play, but the project intended to be his masterpiece becomes an overly ambitious, unwieldy beast of its own — a functioning ecosystem filled with actors playing every person who exists in the world, whose creation is never complete and only ends up sucking away what remains of Caden’s life.

Like Caden’s unfinished play, Synecdoche is unwieldy and sprawling and overly ambitious, overflowing with ideas and images that often aren’t easily understood but are always fascinating. Like Caden’s unfinished play, Kaufman was given unexpected license to direct his first feature film. Kaufman is perhaps the most obvious case wherein a screenwriter has become the auteur of his films — as his voice shone effortlessly through the directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry in his earlier works, making their contributions to the film seem slight by comparison. Nonetheless, Kaufman struggles with the pressure of making his directorial debut within the confines of his directorial debut. What better forum is there to express such concerns, after all?

Source: Universal Pictures

Because of his willingness to explore himself and his art onscreen, Kaufman involves his audience in the creative process, inviting them to inhabit his complicated head-space for an hour or two. Since he’s apparently such a thoughtful and wonderfully weird guy, it’s always fascinating to be there, but his films are poignant because one can almost always find a piece of oneself within Kaufman’s mind and art. We might not all be as reserved as Joel Barrish is, but we’ve all likely agonized over the end of a lengthy relationship, wishing we could forget our own memories just as much as we wish we could return to them and even live inside of them forever. Our bodies might not be decaying at the same alarming rate as Caden Cotard’s, but haven’t we all obsessed over some work that we want to be absolutely perfect to the point that we lose sight of ourselves and what we originally intended?

Kaufman’s films are many things — surreal, difficult, metaphorical, self-referential, ambitious, darkly comic, downbeat — but they all come from a deeply human place. In exploring himself and his art, he explores what it means to be lost and flawed and frightened — in other words, to be human. Though his latest film may concern anthropomorphic pieces of clay, I have no doubt it will continue this same trend of filmmaking. After all, it’s still a Charlie Kaufman movie.

Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf

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