Escapism in the Films of Charlie Kaufman

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve revisited four Charlie Kaufman films — Adaptation; Being John Malkovich; Synecdoche, New York; and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — and remain at the same time moved and annoyed by his work. Annoyed insofar as he can’t seem to write a screenplay without coloring himself into the film, sometimes viscerally (see Adaptation). Moved, though, far more intensely due to the connected pleasure I often find in Kaufman’s world-weary male characters. Add ever-reliable casting and soundtrack decisions to the mix and it’s abundantly clear why I keep coming back. Kaufman is film’s Radiohead; polarizing to the mainstream, forever adept at creating a safe space for young men to view their lives through a prism of cursed and poetic desolation.

In my most recent visitation to Kaufman, a related set of themes revealed themselves and better helped me understand his appeal. Sure, I’d grasped his commentary on modern romance and terse exploration of the male mind in previous sittings. Watching the films back-to-back, however, brought another perspective to the surface — Kaufman, consciously or not, has assembled a tragic study of escapism over the course of a human life.

In the Spike Jonze-directed Adaptation, Kaufman takes on the very real-life persona of author Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), painting a picture of her struggle with identity and purpose despite maintaining a career as a prominent journalist for the New Yorker. On assignment to South Florida to cover orchid collector John Laroche (played brilliantly by Christopher Cooper), Orlean falls in love with the man — or, arguably the “concept” of him (another theme in Kaufman) — and, so begins their fated affair that ends viciously in a murky Florida swamp. As adventurous as the film can be, the real meat of Adaptation lies in the subtext of a woman divorcing herself from husband and high-society in a frail attempt to know passion in her life. A similar path awaits Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), who literally writes himself in as the disturbingly narcissistic lead male character, who abandons his extreme self-loathing once his “brother” Donald exemplifies a healthier, self-respecting way to love. Orlean escapes to her detriment; Kaufman escapes escapism to find himself again. In the following scene, we see the real Kaufman depicting Orlean at her lowest, aching for rebirth after a regretful downward spiral (contains strong language and a spoiler):

Whereas Adaptation deployed very literal, believable means of exploring escapism, Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine … relied on a surreal, comedic narrative to produce similar meditations. Perhaps this can be mostly attributed to the film’s director, Frenchman Michel Gondry, who is no stranger to fusing whimsy with relational drama. Regardless, it is Kaufman who tells the story of love lost between Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), two odd, endearing characters who employ a mind-erasing medical company to destroy all memory of each other once the reality of personal baggage begins to tarnish their otherwise playful relationship. Here, Kaufman is at his most obvious; instead of weathering the tumult of life internally or externally, his characters can pay a small fee to begin again (it wasn’t so easy for Meryl Streep). Kaufman’s “fix” is also a comment on Western culture’s addiction to instant gratification. Process, or healing in this case, becomes a remnant of the technologically unsophisticated past:

Just as surreal is Kaufman’s use of vicarious living in Being John Malkovich (also directed by Jonze). The miserable life of puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is given a boost upon meeting Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener) and their discovery of a portal into actor John Malkovich’s body. Pathetically insecure, the married Schwartz allows the attractive Lund to convince him that the portal should be exploited for financial gain. Kaufman uses the success of their joint venture to remind us how vulnerable to escape the human race is; for hours-on-end, Lund and Schwartz serve countless individuals who long to be anyone but themselves. As the story plays out, we see that Schwartz is the ultimate escapist, near-permanently occupying Malkovich in a failed attempt to retain the romantic interest of Lund. A scene from J.M. Inc’s early days:

Finally, escapism is most masterfully explored in Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut. Studied through the hazy lens of a theatre-director’s failed marriage and regular sicknesses, Kaufman utilizes a highly-talented cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson and Michelle Williams to name a few) to tell a richly-textured story of ambition and loss. The sheer scale of the film’s elaborate plot line can be taxing at times — it spans decades and continents, not to mention actors playing actors playing actors — but Kaufman ultimately delivers a cohesive commentary on death and dying unmatched in recent years. Every character in Synecdoche has his or her own preferred method of escapism sussed out slowly over the course of the film, alternating between suggestive and vivid depictions of their shared hurt. In this, we’re just like them, and Kaufman made a smart choice to allow escapism to become more complicated and universal than in Eternal Sunshine … and Being John Malkovich, where he comes close to detaching himself from the concept, making it shameful (which it often is) and rare (which it isn’t). Following is the near-final scene of the film, which provides a brutally honest take on life’s finality, absent any remaining reason to escape:

Hollywood loves to tell us how to fall in love, but not how to stay in love. Kaufman doesn’t attempt to address this problem, either — if we’re honest, this isn’t the province of art — but what I adore about his work is how his characters wrestle with love and loss the way you or I would. There are few, if any, sudden discoveries of romantic fondness, passionate sequences of lovemaking or tear-filled fist fights. Rather, in Kaufman’s world, the affections, jealousies, passions (or lack thereof) and escape routes of individuals evolve and inform relationships in a grossly complicated fashion. Sound familiar?

Download: Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime by Beck, which appears on the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind OST (Hollywood). The song was originally performed by The Korgis on their 1980 record, Dumb Waiters.