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Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Kaufman’

‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

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I think it is reasonably well-known now that at one point in the late 1970s Tom Baker was trying very hard to make a Doctor Who movie, to co-star Vincent Price, but struggled to get the funding (as Baker co-wrote the script himself, it is perhaps for the best that the thing never got produced). At one point, he jokingly suggested his adoring public should send him five pound notes so that he could pay for the film that way. The result was, of course, that Baker had to spend even more money posting all the fivers back, as this was not an approved method of film finance. These days, of course, this sort of thing is all the rage, we just call it Kickstarter, and there are indeed people financing their films by asking people to send them money. One of them – and the first one I have seen – is Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.

anomalisa-poster

On paper, the plot of Anomalisa sounds deceptively straightforward for a Charlie Kaufman movie. David Thewlis plays Mike Stone, a customer service expert due to address a conference in Cincinatti. He is not a happy man, with all sorts of emotional issues weighing heavy on his mind, and an attempt to reconnect with an old flame concludes disastrously. Then he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman planning on attending his presentation the next day, and the two of them shuffle towards the sort of intimacy perhaps only found by strangers who have very little in common but their choice of hotel.

However, the first thing you notice about Anomalisa is that it is an animation, not a live-action movie: and not just CGI, either, but painstaking stop-frame animation using miniature puppets. Whatever else you think of this movie – and I can imagine a wide range of responses, to be perfectly honest – the level of technical skill and attention to detail on display is more than a little mind-boggling. The film-makers never seem to be taking the easy option, with anything up to a dozen puppets on screen at any given moment, all fully animated.

There is of course a sort of instant disjunct between the film’s medium and its message, as two strangers having a brief encounter of dubious wisdom in a hotel suite is not exactly the stuff of your typical animated movie, and to begin with I thought that the film had hit upon a new way of making people think about the small details of life – things you wouldn’t think twice about in a live-action movie do take on a whole new cast when you see them being done by puppets. I thought this was actually the point of the film, because the significance of its most important conceit – the fact that every other character apart from Mike and Lisa has the same face and voice (that of Tom Noonan) – took a while to sink in.

Before that, I just found myself slightly bemused by the spectacle of puppets going to the bathroom, ordering room service, smoking cigarettes, and so on: there’s a sort of studied insignificance to a lot of Anomalisa. And then… well, I was put somewhat in mind of my trip to the bunraku in Japan – a traditional Japanese puppet show, rather distinguished by its high quotient of misery and ritual suicide amongst the puppets. You don’t expect ritual suicide from puppets, but then neither do you really expect a fairly graphic depiction of oral sex, and yet this is where the film ends up going.

Some things in life do not make great spectator activities, I would argue, and this is one of them, whether it’s being done by puppets or not. But opinions clearly differ on this topic, as Anomalisa won the (presumably much coveted) (wait for it) ‘Best Depiction of Nudity, Sexuality, or Seduction’ gong from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Hmm. Charlie Kaufman’s films are usually stuffed with odd moments but they don’t normally feel quite as self-conscious as this one. You can almost feel the film-makers’ sense of delight at doing something so bold and unexpected with this mode of film-making – but it’s almost as if they’re setting out to shock, which is never a very impressive ambition. Plus, I can’t help thinking that if Nick Park set out to make a stop-motion blue movie it would probably have better gags than this one.

Well, as you can probably tell, this is a fairly weird film in many different ways, and it’s not one that wears its weirdness lightly: it’s clear virtually from the start that this is going to be a film of Significance and Substance. This is not a lightweight or disposable film: if anything it is a gravitic Anomalisa (I feel obliged to apologise for that much-more-than-typically contrived and obscure pun), and not especially easy going. A lot of the drama seemed to me to be a bit short on the old objective correlative, too: at one point we’re clearly supposed to be delighted and moved by the burgeoning emotion and tenderness between the characters, but all that’s happening is someone singing ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ a capella. For the contrast between the style and the substance of the film to really work, the drama has to be convincingly naturalistic, and it just isn’t. (And in places it’s hard to tell whether it’s being intentionally odd or not: Lisa’s friend tells her that Mike is ‘gorgeous’, which is somewhat odd as the nature of the puppet means he looks rather like a cross between Commander Data and Jacob Rees-Mogg.)

That said, other than a brief interlude of typically Kaufmanic institutional absurdity – a visit to a functionary whose office is so huge he’s laid on a golf cart to ferry visitors from the door to his desk – this is a tightly focused story, even if the subject of that focus isn’t immediately obvious. Things which look like just being odd stylistic conceits actually turn out to be rather important to the message of the film, which is something to do with how we interact with each other as human beings.

I don’t think Anomalisa is quite as clever or profound as it thinks it is, and the film remains peppered with odd little moments and creative decisions which are ultimately rather obscure and often a bit baffling, but it’s still one of the smartest films I’ve seen recently, made with obvious care and attention to detail, and the central metaphor carries considerable power and emotional truth. I can’t honestly call this a great movie, but it’s never less than interesting to watch.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 10th 2003:

[Another attempt at smart-arsery. I wish I could say it was out-of-character. Sorry everyone. Don’t worry about all the h2g2 in-jokes and just roll with it.]

Simulated dust motes danced in simulated sunlight as Shazz made yet another of her occasional attempts to clear up the mess in the H2G2 Post Office. I’m not surprised this is a virtual environment, she thought, it’s virtually uninhabitable for one thing.

Thrusting another half-dozen empty doughnut cartons into an already overflowing bin she paused to light her pipe. Rich, aromatic green fumes added to the already murky office atmosphere and a languid moment was only disturbed by a salvo of liquid barking noises as Shazz nearly coughed up a lung.

The cleaning attempt temporarily put on hold Shazz sat down behind her ink-stained desk and mused about the next edition. All the usual suspects, she thought, although as usual one member of the team was shockingly behind deadline, delaying her, inconveniencing the Towers, and letting down the other contributors. Utterly, reprehensibly irresponsible, Shazz thought with disgust. When I get my hands on –

‘Awix!’ she said, cranking a saintly smile onto her face as a familiar figure shambled in through the virtual door. There was no mistaking the pallid hairless dome, the rolls of fat, or the terrible dress-sense. ‘I was hoping you’d pop in today.’

‘Uh, well, erm,’ Awix responded with a confused smile. He stepped aside to let his slim and lovely girlfriend Lisa follow him into the office. ‘Got the, uhr, stuff if you still need it.’

‘Great. Hi Lisa,’ Shazz smiled. ‘Wow, that dress looks great on you!’

‘Thanks, it’s Italian.’ Lisa and Shazz did that French air-kissing thing – Shazz could tell Awix was watching and thinking about Tatu from the gawping lasciviousness of his expression. ‘So, what have you got for us this week?’

‘Um, right.’ Awix fished about in his pockets. ‘Freshly edited episode of 168, same again for The Edge… oh, and we were thinking about doing another TV review thing.’

That’ll play well with readers from outside the UK, thought Shazz in near-despair. ‘And what about one of your film reviews? That’s the really popular thing you do!’ Though God alone knows why…

‘Oh, yeah, that. Well, you see, I, um…’

‘What Awix is trying to say that is that he feels we’re stuck in a bit of a stylistic rut at the moment,’ Lisa explained. ‘He feels every review kicks off with some generic comments, then we write a synopsis with some cheap and obvious gags in it, then try to make serious critical points for a couple of paragraphs. He wants to try something different.’

‘Oh. Good,’ Shazz said dubiously. ‘So what did you go and see this week?’

Adaptation.,’ Awix said. ‘It’s got that guy out of Con Air in it but he’s got really fat. It’s dead weird.’

‘It comes on like the sound of one man screaming into his own navel,’ Lisa revealed. ‘It does seem like an incredibly self-indulgent film. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, has written himself into his own screenplay as the main character. He was supposed to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief but he’s written a film about how he impossible he actually found doing that. And God knows how or why, but the studio made it.’

‘Wasn’t this the one with a few Oscar nominations?’ Shazz enquired helpfully.

‘Uh, yeah. The fat guy, and the guy what wrote it, and wossname Cooper,’ Awix said cheerily. ‘Only one of them won though. The thing is that most of the characters are, like, real people, but made-up versions of themselves.’

‘Fancy that,’ Shazz sighed. ‘It sounds a bit self-reflexive. You know, in-jokey?’ – this last added to try and dispel Awix’s look of blank incomprehension.

‘Oh, yeah, that,’ Awix said. ‘I didn’t get all the jokes, you’d need some kind of brochure to explain it to you, probably. Well, I didn’t, Lisa was there to explain it all to me, weren’t you, chickadee? And the Kaufman guy comes off as really kind of up himself, writing himself as this neurotic geeky guy – God, I despise these self-pitying writers, always putting themselves down and fishing for compliments. He’s given himself this imaginary twin brother, too, played by the same guy out of Con Air.’

‘But to be fair to him, Kaufman makes a reasonable stab at justifying what’s basically a wildly and possibly unnecessarily eccentric and convoluted script,’ Lisa said, smiling fondly at her beloved. ‘Kaufman the character writes the script of the film he appears in, which can get a bit weird. But all the performances are really very strong and it’s a very funny film.’

‘Oh, good,’ Shazz said distractedly. Awix had started poking through the pile of litter she’d just painstakingly assembled, in search of doughnut fragments. Fat chance of that with Greebo about, she thought. ‘So how does the plot work? Is there one?’

‘Well,’ Lisa said, her face becoming more serious. ‘For most of the running time this is a film really without a conventional narrative. Kaufman sets out to write something completely at odds with the traditional screenplay structure, a story where the participants don’t have traditional aims or motivations and without a normal sense of closure. So we get a series of scenes reflecting this, intercut with him worrying about how a script of this type is actually impossible to write. He’s really trying to have his cake and eat it here but it’s enormously entertaining.

‘Then, near the end of the film, he gives in and the movie adopts an almost hyperbolically cliched thriller style, as if to mock his earlier aspirations. The shift in style is brilliantly, subtly achieved – and, come to think of it, what I’ve just said probably counts as a massive spoiler, so I’d better leave it out of the actual review when Awix and I get around to writing it. The whole film is self-indulgent and probably too clever for its own good, but it’s also an extremely witty wail of frustration from a writer, despairing of the tyranny of regular storytelling structure but also giving in and accepting that, in order to work, that kind of structure is normally essential – films need closure, characters need to grow, objectives must be attained.’ Lisa shrugged. ‘It’s as simple as that.’

‘So, to make an analogy, any kind of review, simply because it’s a review, must contain a few solid paragraphs of analysis somewhere down the line?’ Shazz enquired.

‘Yes, that’s about right,’ Lisa agreed.

Awix sighed and put down the bin he’d been rooting through. ‘I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say in the preview of the movie,’ he announced. ‘Y’know, in the new style.’

Review, honey,’ Lisa said with an indulgent smile.

‘Whatever. I thought I’d be, like, punchy and outspoken and maybe give a rating – like three out of five little stars? And some pithy comment like how this kind of clever arty film is all very well once in while but give me something with kung fu and rappers and lapdancing any week. Oh, and then I thought I’d put in a kind of blatant plug-stroke-link for The Vault of Lies-‘

‘I shouldn’t bother, no-one ever reads the back issues,’ Shazz said. ‘What do you want to put as the byline?’

‘The what?’ Awix gawped at her.

‘The bit on the front page saying what the article’s actually about,’ Shazz sighed.

‘How about, “Another brilliant film review by Awix”?’ he said with an artless grin. ‘Or “Awix honours us with his words of wisdom once more.” Or –‘

‘How about, “Awix risks seriously pissing off his editor”?’ Shazz suggested, deadpan.

Awix blinked at her. ‘Erm, well, if that’s what you think is best. It’s only a movie for smart-arses, after all.’

‘Personally I really liked it,’ Lisa said with a shrug. ‘But it’s your column, darling. I know what you mean though – Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant writer and can pull this kind of metatextual conceit off. I shudder to think what would happen if any old amateur hack tried copying his style. One thing’s for sure, it wouldn’t be pretty.’

Shazz shuddered involuntarily. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It absolutely wouldn’t.’

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  May 6th 2004:

A couple of years ago, there was nearly a strike in Hollywood about – amongst other things – the possessive credit. This is when a film opens with the legend ‘A Film By Reuben Claxheim’ or something similar. Where the same person writes and directs the film, this seems fair enough, but it’s the instances when the director appears to ignore the writer’s creative contribution that caused the dispute.

But it does seem to be the case that films are defined by their star or director, rather than their writer. Everyone thinks in terms of Hitchcock films, barely aware of the army of scribes the great man employed. It’s just one of those things. Well, except in the case of Charlie Kaufman, arguably the only star screenwriter currently working. Kaufman is the man responsible for the acclaimed Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and now he’s written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry.

This is the rather Phildickian tale of Joel (Jim Carrey), a New York cartoonist coming off the back of an ugly break-up with his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). Already distraught, he is very nearly traumatised to learn that she has had all memories of him erased by Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his rather shabby team of assistants. Understandably, Joel decides to wipe Clementine from his own memory, not realising that once begun, there’s no way of halting the process…

This being a Kaufman script the plot is inevitably much less straightforward than that precis makes it sound. This is certainly a much denser and stranger film than the cast list (which includes Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood) would suggest, and anyone turning up for some knockabout laughs with Jim Carrey acting like a gimp is in for a rude awakening. (I suspect this film may generate some rather poisonous word-of-mouth because of this – two people quite separately stumped past me muttering ‘Boring crap’ at the end of the screening I went to.) Eternal Sunshine is essentially more of the neurotic surrealism that Kaufman is famous for, grounded by some naturalistic cinematography and some affecting performances.

Truth be told (and as anyone who read last summer’s review of Bruce Almighty will know) I’m not a particular fan of either Carrey or Winslet in normal circumstances – but here they are both likeable and touching, particularly in the film’s opening sequence (some films have a twist ending – this probably qualifies, but goes one better and also has what’s arguably a twist beginning!). That said, many of their scenes together are set in Joel’s rapidly-dwindling memory, and – despite some visual pyrotechnics from Gondry – things do get a tiny bit samey. It’s probably just as well that there’s another major strand revolving around the messed-up relationships of Mierzwiak’s employees, who have a convincing and amusingly shambolic attitude to their work. Dunst is good, but then she can do sweet-and-vulnerable-but-troubled in her sleep. Rather more interesting is the way that Elijah Wood has opted to play a rather less than wholly sympathetic character in his first post-Baggins outing – he makes an impressive job of it, too.

But I can’t help feeling that, overall, Kaufman is writing himself into a Shyamalan-esque corner – Eternal Sunshine doesn’t have anything like the novelty value of his earlier films. It’s not actually a bad film, but it’s neither as clever or as funny as the best of his work. The fact that there’s already been one film about memory erasure already this year (and I feel certain there have been more, but I can’t remember what they were) isn’t exactly a help.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is essentially an arthouse movie that’s somehow lucked into getting an A-list cast and a major release. It’s a well-played, intelligently written and directed piece of work – even if the conclusion feels like the film is straining too hard to surprise the audience. I liked it, but even so, I don’t think it’s nearly as original or witty as it thinks it is. And Kaufman’s reputation as a ‘name’ should stay intact: this is one for his fans more than those of Carrey or Winslet.

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