Can Charlie Kaufman Get Out of His Head?
Kaufman became famous writing self-conscious films in a self-conscious time. In his début novel, he reminds us of the triumphs—and blind spots—of a generation.
By Jon Baskin
August 12, 2020
“Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. Maybe if I were happier my hair wouldn’t be falling out. . . . I’m a walking cliché. . . . I need to fall in love. I need a girlfriend. I need to read more, improve myself. . . . Just be real, confident. Isn’t that what women are attracted to?”
This is the voice that greets us at the beginning of “Adaptation,” from 2002, the third major film written by Charlie Kaufman. As the black screen resolves, we discover that the person who needs to improve himself is a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman. Played by a decrepit-looking Nicolas Cage, he skulks around the set of “Being John Malkovich”—Kaufman’s breakout début, from 1999—and berates himself for failing to make progress on his new project, which involves adapting Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay. Kaufman wants to represent the authentic passion for orchids that Orlean (Meryl Streep) has captured in her book, a passion that he idealizes without being able to inhabit. As he struggles to write, he struggles to do many other things, like tell his date that he likes her, or endure a lunch meeting with his producer. At the last minute, Kaufman realizes that the only way out is through: the script, he sees, can be about the struggle to make the script. “Adaptation” ends when Charlie Kaufman has finished writing the movie we have just finished watching, the last scene of which shows him managing, finally, to “be real” to his date.
Revisiting “Adaptation” for the first time in more than a decade, I was reminded of why I’d been so drawn to Kaufman as a teen-ager. It wasn’t just that I identified with his chronically insecure narrators. Kaufman was, more importantly, one of the most successful ambassadors for what was sometimes known as the “third way” in contemporary art. Like his slightly younger peer David Foster Wallace, his writing promised a path between the Scylla of postmodern nihilism and the Charybdis of consumerist kitsch. His films employed postmodern techniques like narrative fragmentation and meta-commentary—e.g., making himself a character in his own film—but did not employ them toward conventionally postmodern ends. Detachment, irony, and “critique” were not their goal but their starting place; their ambition was to work their way, as “Charlie Kaufman” does in “Adaptation,” to authentic expression.
In their most successful works, artists like Wallace and Kaufman reassured their audiences that earnest emotion remained possible, even at the end of history. That these artists used so many postmodern techniques in the first place, however, testified to their sense that sincerity in an age of irony was no simple matter. In Kaufman’s triumvirate of early-career masterpieces—“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” from 2004—sincerity tended to come only after a harrowing journey into the back channels of the self. Famously, in “Being John Malkovich,” the actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich) dives into the supernatural “portal” that others have been using to tunnel into his brain and finds himself in a restaurant where the waiters, lounge singers, and even his own date all share his face and speak only one word: “Malkovich.” The scene is a terrifying depiction of the solipsistic imagination, and the viewer shares Malkovich’s relief when he is expelled from it. Later in the film, in another dazzling sequence, the two female leads, played by Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener, chase each other through Malkovich’s subconscious, which appears as a parade of shameful childhood memories. In one, he stands at the foot of his parents’ bed while they have cartoonishly enthusiastic intercourse; in another, he is taunted by a bus full of schoolboys as urine dribbles onto his shoes.
This turns out to be a test run for my favorite sequence in any Kaufman film, which comes midway through “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” when Joel (Jim Carrey), having paid a company to “erase” his memory of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) while he sleeps, changes his mind during the procedure. Trying to escape the company’s technicians, he drags Clementine off the “map” of their shared history and back to his childhood, where he hopes the erasers cannot follow. There we see Joel—still played by the adult Carrey—getting his arm twisted behind his back by some bullies in the park, hiding under his kitchen table, and almost being caught masturbating in his room by his mother. Eventually, the technicians bring Joel and Clementine back onto the map, the worlds of Joel’s childhood collapse like houses of cards, and the couple find themselves on the beach in Montauk, at the barbecue where they first met. “What do we do?” Clementine asks, knowing that the memory erasers will come for this, too. “Enjoy it,” Joel says.
Among other things, such scenes reveal something about Kaufman’s picture of the self. Inside each one of us, it seems, there is a reel of images running on loop. The loop contains our happiest moments and our saddest ones, and some negatives that are so shameful we can hardly bear to look. Typically, Kaufman’s characters are haunted by their most painful memories, which is what causes them to seek an escape from the “curse” of consciousness, as the beleaguered puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) calls it in “Being John Malkovich.” But, as Joel and Clementine learn in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” what is really accursed about consciousness is that the strip cannot be snipped: our painful memories are an indissoluble element in the same film as the happy ones.
In their wiser moments—as at the end of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” when Joel and Clementine decide to give their relationship another try, even knowing the disappointments in store—Kaufman’s characters come to understand their pain as a condition of self-expression: they emerge from the maze of the inner self intact and, at least for the moment, capable of genuine feeling. But a more unsettling possibility runs in parallel through the films, a band of unease about the porousness of self and other, past and present, real and imaginary. In “Being John Malkovich” and in Kaufman’s directorial début, in 2008, “Synecdoche, New York”—which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a death-obsessed director who embarks on a massive theatre project about his own life—what constitutes the “real” world is inflected and sometimes overwhelmed by the protagonist’s inner reel. In the animated film “Anomalisa,” which Kaufman co-directed with Duke Johnson, in 2015, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a customer-service guru on a business trip to Cincinnati, suffers from an inability to hear the voices of others as anything but a grating echo of his own. Briefly released from his condition by a woman he meets in his hotel, then cruelly returned to it, he appears to us as a cautionary tale: not everyone who journeys into the depths of the self is able to find the way back.
It makes sense that Kaufman, one of our deepest and most imaginative thinkers about the self, would want to write a novel, one of our most conspicuous channels for self-investigation. That novel, “Antkind,” has arrived, and, due to its length and slapstick sense of humor, it has already been labelled Pynchonesque. But the author referred to most often in the book is Samuel Beckett, and this offers a better clue about the tradition Kaufman aspires to belong to. In contrast to Pynchon’s political epics, Beckett’s work is one of the landmark achievements of literary introspection. “Molloy,” the first book in his mid-century trilogy (and the one most often alluded to in “Antkind”), contains no secondary characters and hardly any events. It is famous partly for showing that great art can emerge solely from a mind wrestling with itself.
Although “Antkind” runs to just over seven hundred pages, the major plot points can, “Molloy”-like, be summed up quickly. The mind wrestling with itself belongs to B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a flailing middle-aged film critic on a research trip to St. Augustine, Florida. Rosenberg’s neighbor in his hotel is a reclusive amateur filmmaker named Ingo Cutbirth, an African-American who claims at one point to be a hundred and nineteen years old. Cutbirth convinces Rosenberg to sit for a viewing of his life’s work, a film whose run time is three months. Rosenberg quickly judges it a masterpiece—the “last great hope of civilization.” Ditching his research, he determines to bring the film back to New York, sure that in promoting it as a “holy text” he will finally find the approval and fame that has eluded him. (He really means the film is his last great hope.) Then, less than a third of the way into the showing, Ingo dies. After arranging a hasty funeral, Rosenberg loads the film stock into the back of a rented truck and begins driving home. When he stops for fast food, the truck catches fire. Burning himself in a doomed attempt to save the film, Rosenberg wakes up weeks or months later (it is impossible to know) in a hospital. For the rest of “Antkind,” Rosenberg attempts to remember what he saw of the film and to re-create what he didn’t, often with the aid of a dubiously qualified hypnotist named Barassini.
To render the above events even with this modest level of clarity, however, is misleading. It is never obvious if Ingo actually exists, if the film exists, if Rosenberg really stops for fast food, if there has been any fire. Secondary characters and even the cultural touchstones that Rosenberg harps on—some recognizable (he’s a huge Judd Apatow fan), others fictionalized (like Ingo’s film)—echo thoughts we encounter earlier in Rosenberg’s internal monologue, such that we suspect them of being psychological projections. For a time, Rosenberg delivers sandwiches and laundry to a woman he is infatuated with named Tsai. Later, he believes himself to be a prisoner in Plato’s cave, occasionally speaking with a Nazi propagandist (also named Rosenberg) about filmmaking. Later still, he murders what he believes to be a robot that is impersonating him, then moves into the robot’s apartment with its wife.
Much can be said about any one of these episodes, and many others: Kaufman the fiction writer is no less inventive than Kaufman the filmmaker. Piled on top of one another, however, they threaten to cancel each other out. If in his films Kaufman has always sustained a productive friction between the external and the internal worlds of his characters, in the novel it too often feels as if we are stranded inside Rosenberg’s internal reel, and the film is a surrealist cartoon. The experience is not helped by Kaufman’s prose style, which vacillates between attempts at a Beckett-like philosophical density (“Something happens or nothing happens, and either way, I have to decide what to do next.”) and a more rambling, theatrical register that recalls Ignatius J. Reilly, the grandiloquent malcontent at the center of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” At its worst, the book reads like one of Kaufman’s self-lacerating film voice-overs spooled out over hundreds of pages, where they lose their comic bite and become merely tedious. (“I am repulsive, pathetic, disgusting”; “ My memories are preposterous. My ideas are laughable. I am a pompous clown.”) The result is that, despite his many similarities to Kaufman’s film protagonists, Rosenberg remains a comparative hall of mirrors, failing to win our sympathy or even, for the most part, our disdain.
This is a shame, because the novel contains the traces of something much more compelling. The subject of Rosenberg’s research in St. Augustine—gender and cinema—echoes one of the motifs in his inner monologue, about his attempts to satisfy evolving norms around race and gender. On one hand, Rosenberg embraces the new expectations and often goes beyond them; he repeatedly denounces his white, male toxicity and insists on using “Thon,” a gender-neutral pronoun, even when others tell him that they prefer a different designation. Yet Rosenberg also senses that he is engaged in a performance, one that does not come naturally to him and that he can only take so far. “Certainly it is wonderful to be in a world where everyone is equal and nobody is special, but I come from a different time, a different land, a land of ego and ambition, of endless striving, of envy,” he says, in a rare eruption of self-insight. “These traits have burrowed deep into my being, and now that everyone is celebrated . . . I find my primitive being wants to stand out.” The ghost of an absorbing social novel peeks out from behind these lines, one that would track the attempts of a critic raised in the golden age of film, when “ego and ambition” were proclaimed from the mountaintops, as he navigated a landscape in which the battle for distinction is often waged in the raiment of social justice. But such a novel would have required the narrator to confront a nuanced and realistic social world, as opposed to the blurry dreamscape we get in “Antkind.”
It would have also required Kaufman to move beyond what has become the rather well-demarcated psychological territory of his art. To the extent that the novel succeeds in saying something concentrated, it is—familiarly for Kaufman—about criticism. Rosenberg’s penchant for criticizing those around him and himself, sometimes under the guise of professional duty, appears as both his only salvation and the keynote of his dissatisfaction. The work of judging, comparing, and denouncing is never over, and this includes judging the work, to add another Kaufman-style touch, of the screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman. “Adaptation,” Rosenberg says, was “bizarrely amateurish and offensive.” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is marked by its “profound simplemindedness.” Upon hearing that Kaufman’s new project is “shrouded in stupid secrecy”—possibly a reference to “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which will arrive on Netflix in September—Rosenberg proclaims, “Whatever it is, it’s certain to be yet another turgid, overhyped foray into Kaufman’s self-referential, self-congratulatory psyche.”
The joke of these appraisals is that Kaufman is probably the most critically acclaimed screenwriter of his era. The truth beneath the joke is that, based on the crumbs that Kaufman always leaves connecting his self-hating characters to their creator, Rosenberg’s voice likely reflects that of Kaufman’s harshest reviewer—the one inside his head. And his main development as a character comes when, finally “remembering” the last scenes of Ingo’s film, he begins to resist that voice. The scenes, Rosenberg tells us, depict “antkind,” a futuristic civilization that is superior to our own because ants “know who they are without knowing they know who they are.” Antkind, in other words, is free of the curse of self-consciousness and therefore of self-criticism. This ending works a change in Rosenberg: it was his critical habits, he sees, that had alienated him from the possibility of authentic expression. “Am I the person who wrote the scathing review of Synecdoche, New York, in which I called Charlie Kaufman a pathetic narcissist on the scale of Adolf Hitler or, quite frankly, beyond, who the world is fortunate does not have any real power?” he asks himself. “I don’t know. It was ten thousand lifetimes ago.” The novel, it turns out, is an act of self-expiation.
Iam sympathetic to this “third way” impulse, which suggests that sincerity is earned by exorcizing one’s inner critic. Partially, I am sympathetic because I began consuming art in the late nineties, around the same time Kaufman was writing the films for which he is still best known. Today, it can be hard to recall what that time was like, when even the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton alleged that the “inverted commas are here to stay.” It can be hard to recall because the inverted commas—the need to endlessly ironize, doubt, and deconstruct—seem to have been shed. As I was writing this review, the quarantine months gave way to a political uprising whose size and unironic passion would have been unimaginable in the nineties. Rewatching Kaufman’s films during this time was a moving experience, in part because of their untimeliness. But reading “Antkind” tempered my nostalgia, as it reproduces one of that era’s characteristic false dichotomies. Was it ever true that we needed to transcend self-consciousness—become antkind, rather than humankind—in order to make what’s called, in the novel, an “authentic gesture”?
It’s worth noting that many of that generation’s most acclaimed artists—Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem—have been white, relatively privileged, and male. This is not to discount the concerns of their art, but to draw a connection between their social position and their tendency to view consumerist kitsch and self-alienation as the chief enemies of earnest expression—a tendency alive and well in “Antkind.” There were, of course, plenty of other writers working at that time, and a contiguous narrative of turn-of-the century fiction could just as easily revolve around novels like Paul Beatty’s “The White Boy Shuffle,” from 1996, a tragicomic coming-of-age story set in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict; Zadie Smith’s multigenerational social novel “White Teeth,” from 2000; and Percival Everett’s “Erasure,” published in 2001, a melancholy satire about the iron cage of expectations for Black writers. These novels, too, grappled with the legacy of postmodern self-consciousness, but they did not divorce that legacy from a set of social and historical narratives that were far from being resolved by the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The vectors of that literature remain with us today and, like Kaufman, they move promiscuously between fiction and film. In 2017, Jordan Peele made a movie that was, like “Being John Malkovich,” about white people inhabiting bodies other than their own. It was not a psychological drama but a horror story, in which the refusal of white people to accept their natural limitations resulted in the torture and occupation of Black people. If Kaufman’s generation was obsessed with the challenges of personal expression, Peele’s film fixed our attention on the narcissism that hovers at that obsession’s edges. It also offered a warning to anyone eager, regardless of the risks, to trek back into the maze of the self: make sure to get out.