Breakouts and Outbreaks: Charlie Kaufman with ‘Being John Malkovich’

Charlie Kaufman reportedly worked for years as a phone receptionist that dealt with calls inquiring about lost newspapers. At some point he gave up and tried to make it as a screenwriter. I think we can all agree that that was a pretty good career move. But that job is just bizarre enough to have come from a Charlie Kaufman movie. Kaufman is the rare screenwriter that has such a strong personality that from merely penning films gained both notoriety and a following. He is a natural talent with style and depth, he truly puts himself into his work, literally, watch Adaptation.

With his career, it is pretty easy to see his breakout. Out of nowhere, the newspaper receptionist from Minnesota conjured up Being John Malkovich, which found its way into Malkovich’s hands and left him scared enough to call a lawyer. Somehow, Malkovich went from being afraid of this potential stalker to starring in his movie. And it is a good thing he did, because Being Christopher Walken just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Being John Malkovich is a seminal film, a breath of fresh air that also served as the breakout for director Spike Jonze. Kaufman’s screenplays are strong in three distinct ways. They are all fully unique from the start, a Kaufman film is never cliché and they are always full of fascinating, colorful characters. They are all highly quotable, in other words they have little exposition and are filled with strong dialogue that is amusing, if not entirely believable. But most importantly, they have substance, they are not about nothing. Walking out of a Kaufman film leaves your brain fried and will likely have you thinking for days. You can’t watch a Kaufman film just once and expect to get it. Particularly Synecdoche, New York. I’ve seen it four times and I still can’t tell you what it’s about. In the immortal words of Holden Caulfield, “I have no idea what I mean by that, but I mean it.” That is how I feel about his work as a whole. I’m never sure exactly what he is trying to say, but I know I relate to it and I really feel that I understand a lot of the emotions he is trying to express and elicit. Even if I don’t see it the same way he does, I know I’m not wrong, because his films have enough substance to warrant varying perspectives and are grounded so strongly in human emotion that any viewer can connect with in their own way.

Back to his breakthrough; like many of the other artists I have written about in this column, Kaufman’s personality was present from the start. Like a director working from only the words on a page, he lit up the screen in one shot and put himself out there as a voice to stay. You can clearly see his films similarities in style. The sequence of Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz running through Malkovich’s subconscious looks a lot like what we would later see in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both conceptually and visually. All of his films seem to center on one isolated male, reexamining his life, in most cases looking for his place in the world. What I love so much about his work is that they don’t preach any one way of living. Each character is different and each character earns his rite of passage in a different way, and each film is equally relevant. His films don’t feature a Forrest Gump-style floating feather theory about how the world works. His films leave questions unanswered and allow the audience to fill in the gaps.

Unlike the characters in his movies, Kaufman seems to have found his place in the world, away from a phone in Midwest. His work continues to puzzle and enthrall viewers even in repeat viewings, he certainly divides his audience, but I myself am whole-heartedly a fan. I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next, although I’m not sure he will ever top Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I consider to be his masterpiece.

This is FilmMisery’s 1000th post!

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