Charlie Kaufman’s movies are radical therapy

When Spike Jonze’s oddball fantasy film Being John Malkovich was first launched again in 1999, folks weren’t positive what to make of it. Whereas the movie was well-received, garnering reward for its “endearingly nutty” and “brilliantly inventive” writing, it additionally left viewers confused about what to make of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, on the time identified solely for his work on TV comedies like The Edge and The Dana Carvey Present.

Since Being John Malkovich’s launch, Kaufman has continued to baffle and impress viewers, as each film he writes or directs is completely different from the final: Adaptation; Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Thoughts; Synecdoche, New York; Anomalisa, and his 2020 Netflix nightmare situation I’m Pondering of Ending Issues. Followers and critics have tried to pin down Kaufman’s movies utilizing phrases like “surreal” or “meta,” however specializing in the construction reasonably than the content material of his work is the flawed method. It’s extra revealing to think about the shared theme that ties all Kaufman’s movies collectively, together with his newest, the animated Netflix youngsters’ film Orion and the Darkish.

Orion and the Darkish
Picture: DreamWorks Animation/Netflix

Charlie Kaufman’s protagonists have one essential commonality: their shared psychological well being struggles. Melancholy, nervousness, obsessiveness, low shallowness, and different psychological well being points have been key elements in all of Kaufman’s movies, explored by way of protagonists who every have other ways of coping. Whether or not it’s the driving battle (in Anomalisa or I’m Pondering of Ending Issues) or only a byproduct of the journeys they bear (in Being John Malkovich or Adaptation), it’s a constant, prominently featured theme in Kaufman’s work. Having psychological well being points is an inescapable destiny for a Kaufman protagonist, and sooner or later, they may inevitably be compelled to confront these points whether or not they prefer it or not, typically with little success.

At first look, Orion and the Darkish’s protagonist doesn’t appear to have lots in frequent with the unhappy, middle-aged white males on the middle of Kaufman’s different movies. However given the movie’s standing as Kaufman’s most child-friendly and approachable movie so far, it’s shocking how clearly it matches the sample: Orion suffers from crippling nervousness. He’s afraid of actually every thing, particularly the darkish, and that concern dominates his life.

Orion and the Darkish isn’t as grim and existentially terrifying as Kaufman’s different movies — it’s based on a children’s picture book, and aimed toward impressionable younger youngsters. However Orion continues to be basically a Charlie Kaufman protagonist. He matches all three of the factors that hyperlink Kaufman’s meta-narrative odysseys.

Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) lie in bed together, him relaxed with his eyes closed, her looking anxious with her eyes open, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Thoughts
Picture: Common Footage Residence Leisure

First, the standard Charlie Kaufman protagonist is insecure and continually questions their price or place on this planet. Due to these inside obstacles, they typically really feel distant from their communities, and unable to attach with anybody. This lack of socialization and safety is likely one of the first issues Orion mentions in Orion and the Darkish.

Like different Kaufman protagonists, Orion struggles with unresolved romantic emotions. He has a crush on his classmate Sally, however his nervousness makes it unattainable to take a seat down subsequent to her, a lot much less go on the varsity discipline journey together with her. Even when she instantly asks him to take a seat together with her, he can’t discover the braveness to reply.

Orion shares his loneliness and isolation with Anomalisa protagonist Michael Stone, who’s alienated from the world as a result of, in his view, everybody he meets has the identical face and voice. His situation turns into so overwhelming that he has a breakdown whereas giving a speech at a convention, and he’s unable to acknowledge anybody on the shock occasion his spouse throws him at his home close to the tip of the movie. Equally, Being John Malkovich protagonist Craig Schwartz and Synecdoche, New York protagonist Caden Cotard each expertise vocal nervousness after their wives alienate and resent them, and their loneliness leaves them questioning their place as artists and human beings.

Second, Kaufman places his major characters in unusual, unsettling circumstances or environments that solely they and a small group of individuals appear to acknowledge. Kaufman’s characters stay in almost-realistic settings that inevitably function absurd, logic-defying, fantastical components. These settings underline plot factors or worldbuilding that inevitably drive the protagonists, willingly or by power, to confront their inside points.

Theater director Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a balding, aging man in glasses, looks at a display of mannequin heads with wigs backstage at a play in Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York
Picture: Sony Footage/Everett Assortment

Orion’s concern of the darkish is so excessive that Darkish itself makes an attempt to show to the child that he isn’t scary and performs an necessary position on this planet. With the assistance of Darkish and different Evening Entities, Orion confronts one in every of his greatest fears and comes one step nearer to dealing with the others. Kaufman’s different movies have equally traumatic-yet-therapeutic, absurd gadgets, just like the portal into John Malkovich’s thoughts in Being John Malkovich, which leads Craig to the sense of self-confidence and self-worth he lacked for thus lengthy.

The memory-erasing process from Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Thoughts, Caden Cotard’s play and inventive recreation of Manhattan from Synecdoche, New York, and Lisa Hesselman being the one one that doesn’t have an an identical face and voice from Anomalisa all play comparable roles, forcing or luring the protagonists to confront their flagging sense of adequacy and connection.

Lastly, the meta-narrative that each one Kaufman protagonists navigate blur the strains between actuality and fantasy to such an extent that it’s troublesome for the viewers (and typically, the characters) to discern what’s actual and what isn’t. Whereas his movies’ surreal components typically initially shock his protagonists, they simply fall into these meta-narratives and turn out to be adjusted to their new “worlds.” Melancholy and social nervousness are such dominant points in these characters’ lives that they finally begin warping actuality.

That’s significantly true in Adaptation, as all through the movie, tellingly named protagonist Charlie Kaufman struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief e-book in a approach that doesn’t depend on Hollywood tropes and clichés. As Charlie’s inventive struggles turn out to be extra excessive, his nervousness consumes his psychological well-being, inflicting a sequence of surreal confrontations. By the third act, Charlie inserts himself into The Orchid Thief’s story, and the movie turns into every thing he initially didn’t need in his script: Hollywood schlock crammed with medication, gun fights, automotive chases, and emotionally manipulative deaths.

Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald (both Nicolas Cage) yell at each other in a messy hotel room in Adaptation

Picture: Columbia Footage/Everett Assortment

Equally, Orion and the Darkish reveals early within the movie that the principle plot involving Orion and Darkish can be a narrative grownup Orion is telling his younger daughter, Hypatia. And when Hypatia turns into unhappy with Orion’s story, she inserts herself into it to assist him repair the errors he made. Orion properly matches into all three standards for a Kaufman character. However there’s one vital distinction between him and previous Kaufman protagonists: He will get a simple, uncompromised comfortable ending.

When Kaufman writes a conclusion, he usually takes two completely different paths. Path A includes an sad, miserable ending the place the protagonist is left in a worse state than they have been at first (Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Harmful Thoughts, Anomalisa, and I’m Pondering of Ending Issues). Path B hints at a sliver of hope for the protagonist, although it’s finally bittersweet, compromised, and even deadly. (Human Nature, Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Thoughts, and Synecdoche, New York). Orion and the Darkish doesn’t take both of these paths. The movie as a substitute forges a brand new one for Orion, due to Hypatia’s affect.

Hypatia is the optimistic power Orion must inspire himself to overcome his fears. Due to his future daughter, Orion overcomes his social nervousness — an achievement few of Kaufman’s different characters may declare. Orion accepts that concern will all the time be part of his life, however he learns cease it from controlling his life and stopping him from indulging within the joys of dwelling.

Just one different character within the Charlie Kaufman canon has an ending as upbeat and hopeful as Orion’s: Charlie Kaufman from Adaptation. By the tip of the movie, Charlie not solely efficiently overcomes his author’s block and finishes his script, he says he’s “filled for the first time with hope,” that he’s refusing to permit his nervousness and insecurities to seize his life anymore.

Kaufman himself has said, “There aren’t a lot of happy endings in my movies. I think maybe there aren’t a lot of happy endings in life.” And but he grants two notable exceptions, for a fictionalized model of himself and a baby protagonist.

Maybe Kaufman sees a little bit of himself in Orion and needs to present him the identical sense of hope he gave his fictional counterpart from Adaptation. In spite of everything, they are each socially awkward characters who are overwhelmed by their fears and insecurities, battle with romance, and finally overcome their points after falling right into a meta-narrative involving an out of doors character inserted into the story. Both approach, each movies present that Charlie Kaufman’s protagonists don’t all the time need to let their psychological well being points swallow them up.

Michael Stone (a very realistic-looking stop-motion character who looks like a greying middle-aged man) stands naked in a bathroom, wiping condensation off the mirror with one hand to look at his own reflection, in the stop-motion drama Anomalisa

Picture: Paramount/Everett Assortment

That mentioned, Kaufman’s movies aren’t linked purely as a result of they function the identical sort of protagonist. His filmography is related as a result of his tasks all middle on the identical topic, and the characters are gateways into that shared theme. According to Kaufman, “I think that it’s probably not possible — or even desirable — if you’re writing something for it not to be autobiographical. I mean — what else ya got? If you’re gonna be true, then you have to put yourself in your work. I try to.” Every movie Kaufman writes and directs is instantly impressed by his private life, and a approach of him tapping into, inspecting, and processing his personal points.

His movies have the identical takeaway however not the identical focus, as a result of they every got here out at completely different factors in Kaufman’s life. His struggles with psychological well being could stay fixed, which is why it has turn out to be a shared theme in his filmography. However Kaufman’s actual commentary on the topic modifications from movie to movie as a result of, like everybody else, his life has been crammed with ups and downs.

Kaufman makes movies for himself, writing what he is aware of after which giving it a novel spin, and that’s precisely why his work stays influential. Like every nice artist, he finds methods to let audiences join with the work he’s doing. Once you strip away all of the meta-surrealism, introspective writing, and shared construction, you will have a sequence of tales a few man coping together with his personal anxieties. Movies like Adaptation, Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Thoughts, I’m Pondering of Ending Issues, and Orion and the Darkish could also be extremely private tales for him. However they’re additionally private tales for virtually everybody else on the planet.

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