Tag Archives: Charlie Kaufman

21. Being John Malkovich

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Right now I’m looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, which is spotty and needs to be cleaned.  Instead of whipping out the Windex, I look past the water spots and examine my hairline, which, by the way, is receding way too quickly.  At least, in my opinion it is.  I look at my nose.  I look at my ears.  I look at my probably unhealthy skin, and at the wrinkles on my forehead and around my eyes…  Fuck…  My gaze then fixes upon my gaze.  My eyes are looking at my eyes.  And I wonder, “am I me?”  Is the voice inside my head legitimately mine?  Or does it belong to a shifty, morose puppeteer pulling at my strings somewhere from within?  If so, how did he get there?  And more importantly, how the fuck do I get him out?  Shit.  Is God a morose puppeteer?  No.  Stop it.  It can’t be.  I’m in control.  I am.

I think I am?

These uncertain philosophical questions regarding the nature of self is what Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999) is essentially about.  Take the mind/body problem, for example.  How can the mind— invisible formless matter— be confined and relegated to a single body, a physical, tangible, touchable thing?  Why doesn’t the mind simply just float away?  Does it float away?  Can it float away?  Or is it truly bound to the physical body?  … Is there a physical body?  Look, what I’m trying to ask is this— is the mind a result of the body or is the body a result of the mind?

Perhaps offering an answer to these unanswerable questions, through a sort of hypothetical, bizarre trial and error system, Being John Malkovich demonstrates that the body is indeed the result of the mind.  Or, in other words, you are who you are, despite the physical body in which you reside.  Even if you could crawl through a portal on the seventh-and-a-half floor and into John Malkovich’s body, that wouldn’t change who you quintessentially are.  The body, in time, would simply change to reflect that mind (just as John Malkovich’s body does in this movie).

Deep metaphysical questions aside, what this movie also does is it examines our “15-minutes-of-fame,” reality-TV-obsessed culture.  Why, for example, would someone, anyone, want to change bodies?  I presume it has something to do with looking into the mirror and not liking what you see reflected back at you.  This feeling of inadequacy is inflicted by a superficial, manipulative society that places too much importance on physical appearance, rather than inner appearance (the mind), which as I discussed earlier, is actually what is relevant to who you are.

Speaking of manipulation, one of the more intriguing characters in Being John Malkovich is Catherine Keener’s Maxine, the one character who seems to be in total control the entire time.  She, unlike the others, seems to always get what she wants, either through manipulation or otherwise.  Ironically enough, she is also the only character who doesn’t desire to crawl through the portal and into John Malkovich.  In this way, she is the master puppeteer.  Not in a cynical way necessarily, but because she is the most confident.  She knows who she is, and she accepts it, thusly allowing herself to be open to following through on her instincts.

Now, I’ve spoken a lot so far about metaphysics and strange ethereal ideas, but I should also say this movie is damn funny.  It’s smart as hell, for sure, but more importantly, it’s funny.  It’s funny when John Malkovich crawls into his own portal and is confronted by a world populated by only John Malkovich’s.  “Malkovich, Malkovich?”  “Malkovich.”  It’s funny how Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) takes his profession as a puppeteer so damn seriously.  It’s funny that there is a seventh-and-a-half floor.  It’s funny that one gets spat out onto the New Jersey turnpike once your 15 minutes of being John Malkovich are up.  It’s funny, it’s funny, it’s funny, and who knew philosophy was so full of hilarity?

Well, apparently Charlie Kaufman knew, who, I get the feeling, was making it all up as he went along.  As if he thought of this incredible concept and just dove head first to see where it took him.  This is an admirable, bold way to tackle a screenplay, and while the result is a somewhat uneven journey, it’s also one that is full of laughter, surprises, distinctiveness, wit, and it ultimately leaves you in an unsuspecting place you never expected to be when you first began the journey.  For that, I’m thankful.

Oh.  And disregard that thing I said at the outset about my receding hairline.  I’m actually having a FABULOUS hair-day today.

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6. Adaptation.

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It’s been two days since I finished watching Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002) and now I’m sitting in front of my computer, drinking coffee with too much sugar, struggling to figure out how I should write this article.  I consider writing it as a musical, but the logistics of that seem difficult, and besides, I’m a lousy singer with a nasally voice.  So, I think about why I set out to write this blog in the first place.  That is, because I’m passionate about movies.  But I also want this blog to be original and unique.  I want it to be simple and straightforward.  Honest and real.  In essence, I want to find my voice.  This can be difficult at times.  It’s difficult to overcome self-doubt and negative obsessive thoughts.  It’s difficult to battle cliché and create something that is truly original and honest.

In these ways, I totally and full heartedly sympathize with the protagonist in this movie— a miserable, fat, balding character named Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage), who co-wrote Adaptation. with his fictional identical twin brother, Donald (also played by Nicholas Cage).  The result of this unlikely collaboration is an Academy Award nominated screenplay revolving around a morose screenwriter who is struggling mightily to adapt a book about flowers into a screenplay.  So, really, just as you have two writers, you have two movies here.  In one movie, you get a simple, straightforward adaptation of the book, “The Orchid Thief,” which, by the way, is a real book in the real world written by a real person (Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep).  In the other movie, you get a self-reflexive story about a lonely screenwriter failing in both love and in adapting Susan Orlean’s book (mentioned above).  These two complimentary stories interweave with one another in a symbiotic way until they literally crash into each other in the end.

This is a remarkably creative way to adapt a book into a movie.  But what’s even more remarkable is that Adaptation. does what I think is almost impossible to do.  It dramatizes the act of writing and somehow makes it entertaining to watch.  This is done so effectively that even if you’re not a writer, you can empathize with the ups and downs of Charlie’s life, the supreme feeling of inspiration followed by the sharp pain of self-doubt.  But what really makes this movie work is the humor.  Without it, the movie would be bleak and I’m not so sure it would hold an audience’s attention.  That’s not to say that this is a broad, raucous, slapstick, laugh out loud movie.  On the contrary, a lot of the humor is very understated, including jokes that feature the mispronunciation of the word, denouement (dey-noo-mah, whose definition is: “the final part of a narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are resolved”).  These types of brainy jokes can go over the head of many, but luckily, a good amount of the humor surrounds Charlie’s twin brother, Donald, an obliviously cheery character, whom never seems bothered by anyone else and who is always optimistic regardless of the circumstances.  The way these brothers play off each other’s opposing ideologies is hilarious, and because of this, the invention of the identical twin brother is perhaps the smartest conceit about this movie.  Not only does this invention fit perfectly within everything that is bizarrely “Kaufman-esque,” it also adds light to an otherwise dark-ish movie, which allows Adaptation. to be that much more accessible.

Adding to the themes of self-doubt, loneliness, and finding one’s voice, is the adaptation part of Adaptation.  In these sections, Meryl Streep’s Susan Orlean struggles to find her voice as she writes what will eventually become her novel, “The Orchid Thief.”  But as she observes her charismatic subject (Chris Cooper’s John Laroche), she realizes that there’s something quintessential missing in her own life— passion.  Early in the movie, she states that she wants nothing more than “to know what it feels like to feel passionately about something.”  Thusly, Laroche is Susan’s Donald.  Or, conversely, Donald is Charlie’s Laroche.

What this all leads up to is a mad-dash, hectic third act that ironically embodies everything that Charlie Kaufman (the writer of the script) is adverse to.  Sex.  Drugs.  Car chases.  Emotional manipulation.  Adaptation. becomes what Charlie Kaufman most despises in movies, which is an interesting choice to say the least, and the outcome is a movie that both dispels clichés and reinforces them at the same time.  Speaking of clichés, something else happens here.  Charlie undergoes change.  He finds confidence.  He discovers his voice, which is the brutally honest screenplay that we see play out in front of us.

And that brings me to my very own denouement, in my very own article.  How to wrap this all up in a meaningful way?  What impression do I want to leave you with?  How about this: I’ll tell you what I left with.  What I left with was a feeling of satisfaction.  I left feeling that Nicholas Cage’s performances were unexpectedly delightful.  I left feeling that Meryl Streep was her usual powerful self, and that Chris Cooper was impossible to look away from (he did win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, after all).  I left feeling that Adaptation. was smart, dramatic, funny, and unexpectedly full of heart.  But I also left feeling a renewed passion for finding my own voice.  Regardless of how “fantastic, fleeting, and out of reach” it may sometimes feel.  Yeah, I like that.  That feels conclusive.  That’s how I’ll end this article.  That’s what I’ll leave you with.