Charlie Kaufman: Using the Surreal and Existential to Excavate the Human Condition

Writer-director Charlie Kaufman may be Hollywood’s most accomplished absurdist. His oddball visions have worked wonders since his screenwriting debut of Being John Malkovich in 1999. He’s the mind behind films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa, and the upcoming Netflix film I’m Thinking of Ending Things (which will be released on the streaming service on September 4th). His work is one of layered metaphors, movies that tend to exist in some other world where the normal rules of neither movies nor reality seem to apply. They’re often heady and dense, and can take time to unpack. (For example, there’s a four-part, eighty-minute analysis of Synecdoche, New York.) But within all that wild imagination, there is a rich humanity filled with anxieties, love, and existentialism. His work resonates with me, personally, arguably more than any other filmmaker for an array of reasons, but maybe most of all being how intimately personal everything feels. No matter how surreal, absurd, or strange things get, everyday humanity is still felt.

Kaufman has been open in how he places his own personal anxieties in all of his work; an open sense of self-indulgence; therapy through one’s work; nakedly exposing his ego to the audience, which only further enlivens his characters. But, at the same time, his work can’t be defined by any one genre or style. Anarchy put into form is a constant in Kaufman’s work. Indeed, his movies often exist in open rebellion against the established traditions and constraints of screenwriting and storytelling. As both a writer and a director, Kaufman is dedicated to blowing up the conventions of Hollywood cinema. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a powerfully strange sci-fi love story that essentially focuses on all the ways love can go wrong. Being John Malkovich is centered on a puppeteer (John Cusack) who finds a portal into actor John Malkovich’s head, but loses control when Malkovich stops being a puppet and a kind of puppeteer himself. And Synecdoche, New York is a sprawling, wildly ambitious meta-movie about a fatalistic theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who’s so obsessed with capturing the totality of existence that he develops a play that expands in scale and scope until it is difficult to tell the difference between the play and reality (possibly, because there may be no difference at all). The artist’s struggle to portray the world slowly becomes the world itself.

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Synecdoche, New York. Image via Sony Pictures Classic

As Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York received somewhat mixed reviews during its initial release in 2008; it has since grown in reputation, with Roger Ebert eventually calling it the best film of the decade. But one of the most revealing of Kaufman’s films is Adaptation, about a screenwriter not-entirely-coincidentally named Charlie Kaufman (but played by Nicolas Cage) who struggles with the process of adapting Susan Orleans’ book The Orchid Thief, while watching his twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) succeed with more conventional fare (a thriller in which a cop, his love interest, and the serial killer he’s chasing turn out to be the same person). Naturally, the movie grew out of Kaufman’s real-life assignment to adapt Orleans’ book and after struggling to crack it, he decided to put himself (and a fictional twin) in the movie. But, as the movie progresses, Donald slowly gets more and more involved with Charlie’s script, and as he does, the movie we’re watching slowly turns more and more into a conventional Hollywood thriller. (Adaptation‘s screenwriting credit even reads: “Written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman.”)

Each of Kaufman’s films exist in a kind of recursive postmodern loop, as a hall of mirrors and metaphor, in which art and life intermingle almost interchangeably and the artifice of cinema becomes a way to portray the artifice of real life. They’re like a M.C. Escher drawing in movie form, refusing to hold a single, consistent form. But they’re all emotionally grounded as well, dwelling on the individual human experience and the loneliness of existence as characters struggle to make connections beyond themselves. Which leads possibly to Kaufman’s best (or maybe just my personal favorite), the excursion on the banality of existence that is 2015’s Anomalisa.

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Adaptation. Image via Sony Pictures

At first glance, Anomalisa might seem to break the Kaufman mold: It presents itself as a more conventional drama about a middle-aged man on a business trip, albeit one made using an innovative stop-motion animation technique. The main character, author Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), arrives in Cincinnati to give a speech on customer service, and proceeds through a series of dull interactions — with his airplane seatmate, his cab driver, the service workers at his upscale hotel. In typical Kaufman fashion, elliptical conversations emphasize the mundane and the terrible difficulty of true human connection. But as the conversations continue, the more you realize how subjective to Michael’s perspective this movie is, as the movie is rapidly overtaken by weirdness, because apart from Michael, every single face has the same basic characteristics, and every single voice — whether it be man, woman or child; family, friend, or stranger — sounds exactly the same. (They’re all voiced with brilliant straightness by Tom Noonan.)

That is, until Michael meets Lisa, the only other person who has a voice of her own (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s an anomaly (hence, the title). Their meeting sparks an emotionally intense one-night fling, which eventually leads to Michael’s sad realization that their spark will fade and Lisa’s voice will come to sound just like everyone else’s. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa is a sad, lonely anti-love story about the ways life and romance can and will disappoint us. Like Synecdoche, New York, which was partially inspired by the Cotard or Walking Corpse delusion (hence the name of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Caden Cotard), Anomalisa derives its central metaphor from a real-life, incredibly bizarre neurological syndrome. The hotel where Michael and Lisa are staying is called the Fregoli — which is a Kaufman winking reference to the Fregoli delusion, in which a person (Michael) becomes convinced that numerous people in his/her life are secretly the same individual in disguise. Anomalisa makes literal this paranoid idea in order to explore the intense “you and me against the world” feeling that someone who’s stuck in a rut can experience upon making a random euphoric connection with another human being. It materializes strangeness into something defiantly real.

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Anomalisa. Image via Paramount Pictures

With its very intimate scale and setting, Anomalisa is arguably the most grounded and human story Kaufman has ever created. The majority of the movie takes place in a single hotel, and much of the action consists of mundane, everyday activities — checking in, taking a shower, calling room service. Staging it all through stop-motion puppets/animation has the effect of calling special attention to all the normal things that happen on screen. None of them would be particularly notable if an ordinary human actor were doing them, but played through the marvelous puppet work they become a thing of magical beauty. Sure, it’s somewhat gimmicky, but the purpose behind it is so strong: It’s a way of distancing the audience while also drawing them closer in the process by asking them to look more intently at what they would normally ignore.

And this, more than anything else, may be Kaufman’s true through line strength as a filmmaker: He uses the surreal, extraordinary, and primely existential to the portray the ordinary, and to reveal a slice of the human condition that is often felt but rarely captured. It’s weird stuff, and the turns his films take are often dark and continually unexpected. The normal rules of movies rarely seem to matter. But that’s why Kaufman’s unconventional approach can be so emotionally satisfying, particularly resonate with myself. It’s fitting, really: He’s an absurdist humanist obsessed with the impossibility of human connection — but through his movies, he’s connected with real human experience by remaining powerfully, defiantly, and accurately absurd.

Where to Watch:

Being John Malkovich is available to stream on Netflix

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is available to stream on Netflix

Anomalisa is available to stream on Popcornflix

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