Since escaping anonymity as a writer for various sketch comedies and short-lived TV shows through his debut Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman’s filmography has proven to be in turns charming, perplexing, and completely unforgiving – sometimes all at the same time. In any case, he has proven himself one of the most imaginative and idiosyncratic writing talents in recent memory.
Existentialism is clearly Kaufman’s medium, and in it he finds the humanity that makes his work so shattering and memorable. His aforementioned break from anonymity had as much richness and originality as one could hope for in an entire career, let alone in a debut. It was as thoughtful as it was hilarious, a talent that takes a lifetime to master but one that Kaufman managed straight off the bat and which would evidently continue for the rest of his career up to this point.
From Being John Malkovich, we move swiftly on to the incredible Adaptation. It is hard to explain just what was so incredible about this film; perhaps the best way to sum up Kaufman’s inimitable talent here is to point out the fact that he managed to write a film about himself writing a film adapted from a book by an author writing about that same author’s personal journey. Additionally, it was a film in which Nicolas Cage starred in two roles simultaneously, without for a second seeming pompous.
From this, via Confessions of a Dangerous Mind which Kaufman has all but disowned, comes perhaps his most popular effort: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It must be said, it is his most popular effort for a very good reason: in just under two hours, Kaufman managed to encapsulate our greatest desires, our greatest anxieties, and our greatest fears and insecurities; all bubbling to the surface in the unforgiving grip of that often referenced, but seldom understood, four letter word for which we all strive, yet struggle to possess. It was a shatteringly sincere exploration, reminding us of the incredible pain that love can cause but how, despite this, it remains an utterly indispensable part of our existence. For this reason, Eternal Sunshine represents Kaufman at his most accessible, and this is by no means a bad thing; he wrote a film that was accessible if only for the reason that it tapped into a collective human experience which is all but impossible to communicate effectively, and one which, to Kaufman’s credit, he managed with impeccable clarity.
Brevity is a curse when talking about Charlie Kaufman, and the surface has only been scratched in this very short exploration of his undeniable genius. Perhaps this is for the best though as this in itself reflects Kaufman’s career. There is a feeling that he is only just warming up, as his crushingly perplexing directorial debut Synecdoche, New York – which would take a tome to even begin to unpack – has indicated, and one can but wonder where he will go from here.
Image: Focus Features