I mentioned Charlie Kaufman when I wrote about characters of American Hustle (YES, I am SO quoting myself right now!).
To become a slightly more believable and concrete, I watched most of his films again so that I could explain what exactly I meant by that ‘modernity’ I was talking about. Turns out that it is something embarrassingly different from what I first thought. Well, WHATEVER! Here it is.
Film creates its own world (diegesis) where the characters live (being also part of it). Things exist and happen in this world, everything has its own logic (possibly impossible to understand) and the characters of the story make sense of it together with us.
But films also have a meaning that goes beyond their diegesis. They communicate something by the overall picture of the story, which we can put into a context and interpret. This kind of meaning is reserved for the audience and differs from man to woman.
Kaufman’s stories are more important than the characters. Sometimes they become even independent on them.
Being John Malkovich (1999) has characters who apply different ways how to exploit the passage into J. M. – to prolong their lives, to fulfil their transsexual nature or to be able to start off their career. Ultimately, the need to control and to use people takes over the psychological aspect of the characters and the film becomes a study of this kind of behaviour.
By the end of the film, we do not care very much about Lotte, the most complicated and interesting personality, or even Maxine, who underwent the greatest character change. We are chilled by the image of two creeps Malkovich and Sheen watching a little girl, who will quite soon become the victim of their parasitism, and Craig, guy who is already trapped in her mind and who will stay there forever! (If this is not the HELL, I don’t know what is.)
But importantly, the story works almost regardless of the psychology of the characters. It could be played out by different people, and nothing much would change (providing that we would similarly sympathize with some of them and detest others).
Characters of classical Hollywood films were built somehow vertically and holistically, from the basic types of personality to the fine aspects of their fears passions and motivations. Kaufman’s personas from Human Nature (2001) are drawn with a use of what we could call a ‘Freudian ellipsis’.
Their behaviour is engrafted on a skeleton of basic instincts and traumas. ‘You can’t reduce my passion to a parental indoctrination,’ says Dr. Bronfman to his therapist, but we see that apparently he can. Similarly to this, Kaufman makes his characters act on basis of a few simple premises as lust, need of security, or feeling of their own imperfection.
To a certain extent Kaufman creates caricatures, but they are based on genuine human feelings, and rather expose what might otherwise be obscured by a layer of emotions. In this case it is the inner clash of a nature and culture in human mind. Once educated, we cannot return into the primal state of blessed ignorance.
Adaptation (2002) could complicate the argument a little bit, because it features Kaufman himself as a necessarily complicated personality. However, Kaufman tells us directly that his character in the film does not have any great importance. ‘I wrote myself into my script’ says Charlie at one point ‘its narcissistic, solipsistic it’s pathetic’ (Kaufman puts loads of clues for interpretations into the lines). Why did he create the Charlie character? Because his main point of focus is the creative process he is going through. The pile of false starts, Charlie’s fictional brother’s all-admired nonsense script, even the Charlie’s catharsis regarding the Hollywood pathos in the moment of Donald’s death, they all talk about how it is TO WRITE. The persona of Kaufman is not that important after all.
I should mention that one of the reasons I write this article is the death of P. S. Hoffman, who makes Synecdoche New York (2008) unforgettable.
Characters of Synecdoche mirror each other, play each other and therefore present each other again only as creations of Kaufman’s imagination. In contrast to Dr. Bronfman from Human Nature, Caden Cotard is drowning in emotions, melancholy and fear of death. Again though, these few emotions seem to be the only driving force for his actions.
True, in Synecdoche, more than in any other films mentioned above, we witness the impact of the situation on the character and the psychological response. The inner worlds of Caden, Sammy, Hazel and others, seem to be very subtle and complicated.
Moreover, Synecdoche projects in very specific way the inner reality of its characters outside, into their surroundings and the situations they go through. Their world is as complex as they are.
The giant mass of the film is very difficult to handle and Kaufman even emphasizes this impression.
HOWEVER (and I AM finishing!), one of the last scenes of the film shows a piece of Caden’s play already directed by somebody else, an actress who was cast for the role of Caden, one of the next generations of his mind. In this scene she starts directing in, let’s say, more casual way and finally manages to get to the core of Caden’s feeling. Kaufman shows that the art is not overly complicated and it does not mirror the reality (part of the scene is projected on the screen behind the stage). We find the truth about ourselves in a crafted simplified picture.
The main concern of Charlie Kaufman’s work is not in the characters. He rather focuses on the message suggested by the story. Ultimately he talks about the human matters (what else could he talk about) but he communicates it through the film as a whole rather than through individual characters. This approach IS unconventional and also somehow generous to the cinema (which after all always tried to overcome its dependence on drama). Whether it feels modern to you or me does not in fact really matter.