Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre consists of films that play with style, reality, and filmic structure to discuss deep issues of humanity.
A Kaufman script has a few idiosyncrasies of style and structure that make it very clear who the writer is. What is most notable about Kaufman’s style is his ability to take the ordinary and make it otherworldly. He presents us with normal people, most often an everyday guy, and then puts them into situations of science fiction, fantasy, multi-dimensionality that are wildly different from the average life Kaufman first portrayed. The stories he weaves create a stasis that is so normal and menial it hurts, but the inciting incident never just disrupts the world of the film, it blows it open expanding and twisting the world to almost unrecognizable proportions.
All memorable Kaufman scripts work in this deconstructive manner. As the worlds of the films are pulled into these wild proportions Kaufman allows the audience to see the main points the film is trying to discuss. Subjects such as love, film structure, relationships, and even the brain and its thinking patterns are never just presented. Kaufman portrays these subject in a way that is fairly normal and understandable, until he flips them on their head and twist them to present a new point of view.
This technique is effective in causing the audience to really think about what is happening in the film. It’s a very Brechtian approach to telling stories. While Brecht’s epic theatre framed the narrative through multiple layers of storytelling and providing reminders that the world on stage is not real, Kaufman chooses to imbed stories into the main world. These imbedded worlds never take away from the original world, but add on to the action already happening.
When taking a look into the scripts of Charlie Kaufman, they all follow a general set-up, structurally. The audience is introduced to a central character. This character is usually a man and will be the focal point through which all action revolves, even when he is not involved directly with the action. This man is a regular everyday guy; often mundane in a way that’s weird and a bit sad. To start the ball rolling this man will either be faced with an opportunity to be something different, or he will be faced by a theoretical and philosophical question that is then played out visually throughout the rest of the narrative. Kaufman’s ability to portray complex ideas through film alone makes him a true genius.
If you take a look at some of Kaufman’s most notable films this model still stands as he finds new ways to manipulate the world of the film. Being John Malkovich (1999), for instance, starts with Craig Swartz (John Cusack), a puppeteer who can’t find any work, until he is hired as a paper filer. As previously mentioned Craig is aggressively mundane and at first glance uninteresting except in his interests that are exceedingly strange.
It is through Craig, though, that we meet plenty of more interesting and exciting characters. Lotte (Cameron Diaz), married to Craig, works at a pet shop and usually takes care of the animals that are injured. Maxine (Catherine Keener) is a very pretty co-worker, Craig meets at his new job who only talks to him because she is board. Dr. Lester, is Craig’s new boss who has a secret portal to John Malkovich’s brain. These characters have their own stories and actions separate from the central character, Craig, but the audience is still privy to what is going on in their heads and storylines. The web-like structure of the film, that connects characters to each other and the main character, is not common in most Hollywood films, but it appears in many of Kaufman’s films.
Having established his unique form of storytelling, Kaufman then will deconstruct the world he has so nicely created, usually by smashing all of these stories together. In Being John Malkovich, the people who journey into John Malkovich’s mind make their own discoveries about themselves, that have a large impact on Craig. Lotte emerges from her trip through John Malkovich’s mind realizing she likes women and that she felt more comfortable as a man than a woman. This, of course, throws all of Craig’s plans out the window, as his wife falls in love with Maxine who Craig has been after since the beginning. By distancing the characters from the plot or even the ‘real world’, especially in this case where Lotte ventures not into her own subconscious, but someone else’s, an objectifiable view of the ‘real world’ is observed. In this new world that is not outside of the narrative- therefore not necessarily a framing device- the characters can be more than puppets for drama.
As mentioned before though, these trips and character-developments are not simply means of drama, but also means of philosophizing. In this other world, the characters take on the questions that Kaufman is also trying to pose to the audience. Being John Malkovich asks questions of sentience, what it means to truly know yourself, and self-worth. It’s no coincidence that Craig is a puppeteer who then is able to puppet a person, which brings up questions about the existence of the soul and the mind and the heart. All of these metaphysical abstract concepts that would sound boring to talk about become fantastical adventures of life, death, and love. Kaufman can take such simple wants and desires and frame them in ways that ask real questions of humanity and he does this all the time.
Adaptation (2002) also follows this similar structuring, with its own unique play with filmic form. The main character, this time Charlie Kaufman himself, explores how to portray the deep philosophical ideas found in books and create an adaptation for film without losing the ideas. His answer as the movie plays out is to literally mess with the form of the movie being watched as if testing what works and what doesn’t.
The movie opens with Charlie (Nicolas Cage) dictating how the movie is to start; this movie, the one you are currently watching, black screen to his voice to what he is saying. It is an amazing ride as the audience watches the format of the movie as the character flounders trying to break the 3 Act-Structure mold only to hit the third act and falls right back into the expected formatting. The audience routes for Charlie to break from the norm, but when he fails and just goes back to the norm a sense of catharsis is established. The film portrays the writers struggle to write, who is also the main character, who needs to portray the struggle of the book narrative he, Charlie the character, is trying to write.
So once again, there are deep ideas that only make sense and become interesting through the creation of layered world. The floundering of the character Charlie Kaufman is only interesting, because the audience knows the actual Charlie Kaufman at one point was stuck on how to write a film only to finally come to a conclusion. He must have, because the film is finished, it is being watched, it must have an ending. Another layer to the world is added through the narrative from the book that character Charlie is trying to make into an adaptation. Again, this narrative is not exactly a frame, because while the story may at first seem disconnected from the ‘real world’ it is the autobiographical account of the writer who Charlie’s character starts to obsess over. This film is a lot lighter on the unrequited love, but the amount of one-sided interest that Charlie feels is almost comically attached to everyone and everything, which is probably just screenwriter Charlie Kaufman expressing his own search for self-worth through other people, but I digress.
With such a strong and entertaining oeuvre, what could be the next great philosophical world shattering ride Kaufman will create?
Back in August 2016, Kaufman stated that after writing the first draft adaptation for the YA dystopian novel The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. He is no longer involved with the project Chaos Walking, either.
He also stated his doubt that the project would ever happen. In late May, however, a Deadline article reported that Kaufman was co-writing with author Patrick Ness and John Lee Hancock. While IMBD has Kaufman accredited with writing the screen play it also has the estimated release date of 2019 and some big names attached to the project.
Whatever influence Kaufman has over the script will have to wait a few years to be seen, but no matter how much the script may change there will undoubtedly be some leftover bits of Kaufman. Look forward to a play with narrative structure, a central character (Tom Holland, at this time), perhaps some unrequited love, and at the very least a dip into the more philosophical aspects of humanity.
- Cover article image of Charlie Kaufman was originally posted to Flickr by annainaustin at https://flickr.com/photos/23349893@N08/27441349145. It was reviewed on by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.