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Movies suck these days. All Hollywood seems to care about anymore is making profitable movies, not thinking twice about what the movie might actually be about. Whether it’s another special effects-ridden clunker, a giddy romantic comedy, or another lame-plotted action flick, they just don’t seem to get it. Although a small handful of films over a year’s time are occasionally worth seeing, for the most part it’s all about making money and not about the true art that filmmaking can be.
Charlie Kaufman is exactly the kind of anomaly that the film industry needs. Kaufman was born in November 1958 in Massapequa, Long Island and spent his childhood there. Later his family moved to West Hartford, Connecticut, where he went to high school. After graduating, he attended Boston University for a short time, but soon transferred to New York University to study filmmaking. Kaufman got his start in writing for television for sitcoms such as Ned and Stacey and The Dana Carvey Show (Couzens). After his work with sitcoms, however, he began writing some of the oddest scripts that have ever been conceived. It was just over four years ago when Kaufman presented his very first film, Being John Malkovich, which was nominated for both Oscar and Golden Globe awards, as well as winning many others, such as the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay and Best Screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics. That is not something every screenwriter is able to do with their first script. His fortune of being nominated came again with his third film, the genre-bending Adaptation, which was a fictional movie about him working on writing the screenplay for a movie adaptation of a book that was based on a true story. His work on this won him the Golden Satellite Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. His latest work, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is being hailed as “remarkable” with “groundbreaking performances,” which gives it a very likely chance of being nominated for awards (Travers, 2004). Although his reputation is already respectable, Kaufman didn’t easily get to where he is now. His struggles of becoming a film screenwriter were not without boundaries, but every time he tripped, he got back up and kept going.
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After graduating college, Charlie Kaufman was hired in 1991 by the Fox Network to write for a sitcom called Get a Life, a comedy about the odd adventures of a 30-year-old man who held a job as a paperboy and still lived with his parents. The show only lasted 35 episodes, and since Kaufman was hired during the second season, he didn’t get a chance to show off his hidden talent. His bad luck continued when he was hired in 1993 by Warner Brothers to write for a new sitcom called The Trouble with Larry, a quirky comedy about a man who gets kidnapped in the jungle by a baboon during his honeymoon and doesn’t find his way back home until ten years later, only to find that his wife had re-married and had a child. This sitcom was cancelled after only a few episodes. In 1995, Charlie was hired by the Fox Network again to write for Ned and Stacey. This somewhat successful sitcom, which ran for 48 episodes, was about a couple who married each other only one week after meeting. Ned wanted a promotion, Stacey wanted a nice apartment, and since both could give each other that, they decided to tie the knot. Charlie Kaufman’s work in television ended after the failed sketch comedy The Dana Carvey Show was cancelled. This show focused on a former Saturday Night Live comedy star, but his comedy alone obviously wasn’t enough to please audiences (IMDB). It was time Charlie Kaufman tried something new, and with his short-lived but credible television writing experience, he had the ability to gain attention from some powerful names in the film industry.
During Kaufman’s work throughout the 1990s with television shows, he was also piecing together an unusual script about an unsuccessful puppeteer (played by John Cusack) who takes a job as a file clerk for a bizarre company, only to discover a small door in his office that leads to a portal into the mind of the famous actor John Malkovich. This puppeteer tries to make a profit from the experience of briefly controlling Malkovich (played by Malkovich himself) by allowing paying customers to crawl through the doorway and enter John’s mind (Being John Malkovich 1999). Many people might think this movie sounds like a crazed joke, but, to others, it is a masterpiece. Spike Jonze directed the movie to much avail, helping bring the odd visions of Kaufman into thematic poetry (IMDB). Charlie Kaufman finally showed his audience what he had been trying to display during his years of writing sketch comedies. Being John Malkovich was only the beginning of Charlie’s eccentric style, and he had secured his name so that he would not be looked over any longer.
In 2001, Kaufman’s next script, Human Nature, was presented to his hopeful fans through the direction of Michel Gondry (IMDB). This story seemed to be inspired by his work with The Trouble with Larry. Human Nature involves a scientist, a naturalist, and a man raised by apes. The scientist tries to teach the ape-man the basic ways of life, while his girlfriend, the naturalist, tries to preserve the ape-man’s life from the corruption of the world (Human Nature 2001). Kaufman seemed to be trying to show the relationship between the sometimes differing views of science and nature. Although this script is considered Kaufman’s weakest because of its subject matter and confusing plot points, it still has signs of being purely original and unique in its own way.
Charlie Kaufman’s next script was, simply put, revolutionary. Adaptation is about Charlie Kaufman himself (played by Nicolas Cage in the movie) as he works on writing the screenplay for a movie based on a true-story book, The Orchid Thief, written by Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), which is about a woman’s journey of writing a story about an eccentric flower hunter named John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper). Kaufman also presents the audience with his fictional twin brother Donald (also played by Nicolas Cage), a character that brings a sense of foolish hope to the movie (Adaptation 2002). While it mainly tells the story of the struggles of writing a screenplay based on someone else’s work, it fulfills its point in being a movie adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book. This was a unique way of writing an adapted screenplay, a way in which had had never been attempted before. The point of doing this can be argued, but most likely it was to show what kind of person he wished he could be compared with who he really was. Adaptation offered brilliant insight into actually writing a script, all the while telling the story about the book he is writing about in the movie. In one scene of interaction between Susan Orlean and John Laroche, we can see Kaufman’s talent of bringing emotion out through the seemingly over-analysis of a plant by Susan and John:
You know why I like plants?
Because they're so mutable. Adaptation is a
profound process. Means you figure out
how to thrive in the world.
Yeah but it's easier for plants. I mean they have
no memory. They just move on to whatever's next.
With a person though, adapting is almost shameful.
It's like running away. (Adaptation 2002)
Adaptation was also the second time Charlie Kaufman teamed up with Spike Jonze after making Being John Malkovich. This movie was a hit among many critics, many of them praising Kaufman’s never-ending surplus of creativity. It seemed as though every new script Kaufman produced kept getting better. He was nominated for both Golden Globe and Academy Awards for Adaptation, giving audiences even more evidence that he was a true master of cinema prose (IMDB).
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was Charlie Kaufman’s fourth script that was turned into a movie in 2002, this time being directed by actor George Clooney. Kaufman adapted yet another book, this time the autobiography of Chuck Barris, a famous game show host of the 1970’s (IMDB). In this film, Kaufman tries to bring out the story of Chuck Barris, who claims he was not only a game show host, but also a hitman for the CIA (Confessions 2002). Kaufman seemed to make this movie more grounded, with less absurdity than his earlier scripts. With Adaptation, he was able to convolute the story seemingly more than this one. Confessions seems to lack the signature odd style that Kaufman is so well known for, although it does have its share of brilliant dialogue. This movie still has its own strengths even if it might not challenge the mind as much as Kaufman’s other work does.
On March 19, 2004, America was once again welcomed into the puzzling mind of Charlie Kaufman by way of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This splendid, thought-provoking film was originally thought up by Michel Gondry, the director of Kaufman’s earlier work, Human Nature, who handed the idea to Kaufman to write the screenplay (IMDB). In this completely original story, Joel Barish (played by Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski have their memories erased of their relationship together; however, as Joel is enduring the process of having her erased from his memory, he decides that the sorrow he feels for losing her is overcome by the wonderful memories of their past (Eternal Sunshine 2004). This movie offers so much on so many levels, and is guaranteed to boggle the minds of even the most clever audience members. Charlie Kaufman proved his talent above and beyond in this film, and Michel Gondry got it right this time as well, in comparison to their earlier collaboration. Kaufman manages to turn his abnormal thinking into an image of true love despite the flaws of many relationships. It is by far the best work Kaufman has produced, and will surely be nominated and hopefully win Kaufman an award that he very much deserves.
Kaufman is currently working with Spike Jonze for their next project. It is supposed to be released in 2005, but that could change. All that is known about Charlie’s script for this one is that it is of the horror genre, something he has never taken on before as far as movie scripts go (IMDB). With the success of Jonze and Kaufman’s last two efforts, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, it is likely they will be successful once again. Hopefully Kaufman will continue to mesmerize the audience with his writing for many years to come. His technique is something new and original, and is truly hard to compare with any other screenwriter out there at this time.
So what exactly does Kaufman do that makes his scripts so unique and entertaining on a whole new level? His characters are deep and diverse, but that is not his greatest strength. The settings are surreal yet dreary, and still that is not the best thing about his work. Charlie Kaufman’s writing is so great because of the effect it has on the mind. It somehow touches the nerves deep within our minds and hearts. When watching his movies, it almost seems as though you are having an unusual dream in which you can’t quite figure out what’s going on until the end when you wake up, and realize it was all just a dream. Whether Kaufman presents us with a delusional nightmare such as Being John Malkovich, a heartbreaking daydream such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or a dream within a dream like Adaptation, he gives us something that is usually only found in the depths of our hearts and minds.
After reviewing the work that Charlie Kaufman has accomplished, one must ask the question: why would I enjoy a movie with such eccentricity? This question can only be answered by watching the movies that Kaufman left his fingerprints on. Although many audience members might not enjoy his dark, quirky plots, his unparalleled talent cannot be ignored. Charlie Kaufman is simply a genius of scriptwriting in an industry that lacks imagination.
Couzens, Judy. Internet Movie Database. “Mini Biography.” 1990. Amazon.com Company. 12 April 2004. <http://www.imdb.com /name/nm0442109/bio>
Internet Movie Database (IMDB). 1990. Amazon.com Company. 12 April 2004. <http://www.imdb.com /name/nm0442109/>
Travers, Peter. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Rolling Stone. 10 March 2004.
Being John Malcovich. Director Spike Jonze. Writer Charlie Kaufman. Perf. John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener. DVD. USA Films, 1999.
Human Nature. Director Michel Gondry. Writer Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins. DVD. Fine Line Features, 2001.
Adaptation. Director Spike Jonze. Writer Charlie Kaufman, Susan Orlean. Perf. Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper. DVD. Columbia Pictures, 2002.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Director George Clooney. Writer Charlie Kaufman, Chuck Barris. Perf. Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore. DVD. Miramax, 2002.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Director Michel Gondry. Writer Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry. Perf. Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet. Focus Features, 2004.