In Five Films

In Five Films: Charlie Kaufman

With I'm Thinking of Ending Things now on Netflix, Ella Kemp looks back at the films that have come to define the writer-director's extraordinary body of work

Can an entire career be captured In Five Films? We attempt to showcase every side of a particular filmmaker, actor, or film person in just a handful of picks.

The idea that escapism is cinema's primary purpose feels somewhat outdated – particularly when you’re talking about Charlie Kaufman. The American filmmaker, always screenwriter and often director, makes movies that deliver catharsis: introspective portraits of people confronting their demons, or, at least, clearly needing to confront them so urgently that escape, pure distraction, is never an option.

These aren’t high-concept fantastical pictures – there are no spells, dragons, or mythology – but there is always an element of heightened reality, an exploration of the ways in which our minds can distort facts and experiences, without magic or science-fiction needing to fill in the gaps. Reality is slippery, often scary, and Kaufman writes films that force you to grapple with that notion.

Such introspection can at times be alienating – catharsis can sometimes be for the viewer, but it’s often only for the maker – yet Kaufman's willingness and daring to go deeper and deeper into himself is always stimulating and rewarding.

To coincide with the release of his latest film, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, here are the five films you need to understand one the most incisive and inventive filmmakers working today…

 

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

How often have you daydreamed about wanting to be, just for a moment, someone else? Stepping out of your own mind, your own shoes, to see the world through another person’s eyes? Kaufman’s first film as a writer, deftly directed by Spike Jonze in his debut, takes this question and runs with it – framing the bizarre journey of a puppeteer who finds a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich. The conceit of having Malkovich play himself is so specific and far-fetched that it often feels like something you could only dream up, something that should only be able to remain convincing for the length of a comedy sketch. But Kaufman’s writing is so focused, so compelling and constantly confounding, that it’s impossible to look away. John Cusack plays our puppeteer, Craig Schwartz, with a brand of midlife mediocrity that makes his discovery feel even more urgent. Opposite him, Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener exemplify Kaufman’s knack for penning female characters both crucial and, if anything, a little too life-altering, seductive, and irritating to be anything more than the figment of a man’s imagination. Still: Being John Malkovich remains one of the most intelligent, bizarre, upsetting and utterly fascinating stories about insecurity, fame and identity that any writer has ever been able to think up.

 

Adaptation (2002)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Hindsight allows us to judge Adaptation as Kaufman’s most self-indulgent work – purely because he, a fictionalised version of himself, is the main character. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred again, as we meet Kaufman on the tail of the success of Malkovich and facing writer’s block for his next project – an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s 1998 non-fiction book The Orchid Thief. The process is mapped via Kaufman’s own inner turmoil and the obstacles that come with such a task – you’d be overwhelmed, too, as Orlean is played by none other than Meryl Streep – thus documenting both one man’s fundamental neuroses and the problems that can plague any writing exercise on such a scale. It’s a curious, sometimes frustrating film, as Kaufman here is played by Nicolas Cage at his most skittish and egocentric, while also portraying Kaufman’s fictional twin brother Donald (who is credited as co-writer). Why? It’s best not to ask. Suffice to say that if any one film could give both a detailed understanding of Kaufman’s mind, while further repelling anyone ever irritated by it – this Adaptation is nothing if not faithful.

 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Memory is slippery and people are disappointing – but what happens when the pain caused by a relationship at its most volatile pushes you to make a decision that could erase it altogether? Eternal Sunshine is the best example of a Kaufman script with such a high-concept that at first it seems like the execution could only be something fantastical, inaccessible. In practice, it answers questions that almost anyone who has been heartbroken might take some comfort in. The film concerns Joel and Clementine, a couple who have decided, separately, to have their memories of one another erased. We see their time together played back in reverse, like a completed jigsaw puzzle that's been broken up in a burst of frustration: their first encounter, their most intimate moments, the searing arguments, the loneliness, the regrets. Kaufman’s trademark angst and frustration and self-examination is all here, but the foundations of a love story offer a calmer, more quietly devastating world for the writer to work around and pull us into. Add Jim Carrey at his most raw and vulnerable, Kate Winslet as a hurricane of desire and desperation, and a Jon Brion score for the ages, and what remains is one of the most troubling and affecting portraits of a mind and heart unravelled this side of the century.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

It seems staggering that Synecdoche, New York marked the first time Charlie Kaufman directed a film, yet his previous scripts proved that the same topics – the dissolution of a mind, the heaviness of a heart – had been within him for years. This was just the next logical step in bringing them to life. Philip Seymour Hoffman, always beguiling and transformative, is Caden Cotard, a theatre director slowly losing his grip on reality. It’s Kaufman’s most extreme and upsetting film, as what fades away here isn’t merely an aspect of the outside world, but one man’s own sense of self. As the characters and actors in his play gain greater importance than the people living the lives they are based on, Caden spirals out of himself – are you defined by your body? Your relationships? Are you still yourself if you pretend to be someone else? These tethers lose their grip, people fade away without finding the strength to say goodbye. But the show must go on, and it does. It doesn’t matter who’s watching anymore, which means that by the time the curtain calls – we are in a warehouse, a miniature of Caden’s city and senses and wishes – everything ends without ceremony. And because nothing is as it should be, the fade to black evaporates into shades of grey.

 

Anomalisa (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Disorientation and loneliness manifest in both visual and sonic mazes in Anomalisa, Kaufman’s first foray into stop-motion animation, based on his own 2005 audio play of the same name. David Thewlis (set to fully bloom as a Kaufman favourite in his latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) voices Michael Stone, a pessimistic businessman plagued with a homogenous worldview – literally, as every other human being is voiced by Tom Noonan here – until he meets Lisa, a self-conscious woman who makes everything feel brand new. But this isn’t a straightforward warm-glowed love story – could Kaufman ever make such a thing, and would we want him to? The idea of a world smoothed over, blurred and dull, forcing the one man living it to be the only one with an original mind, is familiar to Kaufman, but animation softens the edges of these characters, the pastel hues of beige felt skin and dim golden hotel room lights give a sense of claustrophobia, of total destruction waiting just beneath the surface (teased by one specific detail in the characters’ design) without ever truly erupting. It’s unnerving, almost heartbreaking, but somehow still just clinical and cerebral enough to let you wonder about what is going on beneath the surface.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix on September 4.

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