Charlie Kaufman is one of those people that come around once a century to express something truly unique through their art. With the technological advances we’ve made in film during the twenty-first century, we are lucky enough to see Kaufman at his full potential when expressing these messages. Throughout a very impressive career of deep and meaningful films, Kaufman has relayed ideas about identity, human connection and mortality in innovative ways no one has ever attempted before. Kaufman is lauded as one of the greatest screenwriters of our generation, and since his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, he’s proven to be as gifted in directing his vision as well as writing it. Many of his ideas deserve recognition, which we will look over and try to understand better here. A warning here feels appropriate, as this article will have many spoilers.
As mentioned before, identity is constantly present as a theme and as a problematic issue for every film and main character in Kaufman’s works. In Being John Malkovich, John Cusack’s character ‘Craig Schwartz’ is constantly misidentified and misunderstood, given different names and often failing to communicate with others due to their lack of empathy. Similarly in Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character ‘Caden Cotard’ suffers the same neglect and, beyond being misheard several times, is even mistaken to be a woman throughout the film. Kaufman’s interest in the lonely protagonist who is isolated among the fast-paced and callous world around them really stands out in most of his works. Taking into account the protagonists of Synecdoche, New York, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Anomalisa, we are always introduced to deeply unhappy human beings with partners who simply do not understand them. Kaufman exposes just how hard it is to truly communicate ourselves with the world, or even with the people we are closest to. It could be argued that each of the films listed is a new approach Kaufman takes to escape that deep unhappiness of being unheard and misunderstood. Cotard pursues recreating the world under his control so that he may feel closer to the people in it, while Schwartz finds that escaping his life altogether and inhabiting a life beloved by others is what helps (at least until his time runs out in Malkovich’s body).
Not only does Kaufman’s world of miscommunication complicate one’s expression of themselves, but it also depicts how relationships are not as simple as understanding one another, and that we may not even be able to fully reach an understanding in the first place. Synecdoche, New York specifically tackles the issue of trying to comprehend one’s significant other completely, where the more you learn about them, the more things you might find you’re not in love with. Cotard’s wife Adele (played by the amazing Catherine Keener) aptly puts it as: “Everyone is disappointing the more you know them.” Kaufman’s obsession with this understanding is what drives Adele away from Caden, and what leads Caden to another marriage that essentially fails. Working with Jon Brion again (who helped Kaufman in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the music played throughout Synecdoche was also devoted to pushing this message of the struggle between two human beings understanding each another. ‘Song for Caden’, a depressing assessment of human nature, contains the lyrics: “No one will ever love you for everything you are”; meanwhile ‘Little Person’, a more positive track in the film, reveals the singer’s wish to hear someone saying: “I know you, you’re the one I’ve waited for.” However, Kaufman is not usually so optimistic. In Eternal Sunshine, protagonist Joel Barish undergoes an operation to have his memory wiped of his last girlfriend, and only when these memories and facts about her disappear does he begin to fall in love with her again. By the time the process is done and he meets her again, Barish naively believes he can pursue a relationship with a person he asked to erase in his mind without the same outcome happening again. Perhaps at the heart of our failures in empathy and understanding, Kaufman’s fictional twin brother, played by Nicholas Cage, offers the most insightful solution. When ‘Charlie Kaufman’ (played by Cage as well), asks his brother why he was okay with his crush making fun of him behind his back, Donald answers: “I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.” Returning to identity, Kaufman seems to say that in a world where knowing others completely is impossible, the key to loving someone is to truly know yourself in the process of loving.
With so much concern over being heard and making connections, you can imagine how dying alone plays as a major theme in his films. So much so, that the protagonist ‘Michael Stone’ in Anomalisa stays in the ‘Fregoli’ hotel to further the fact that he believes everyone is the same person. Though Kaufman originally had doubts about transforming his “sound play” into a stop-motion film, the similarity of the puppets allowed for an innovative way of expressing his concerns with loneliness and trying to build connections. In Synecdoche, Eternal Sunshine and John Malkovich, all of the secondary characters are the same in the way they neglect and fail to understand the protagonist. Anomalisa differs by literally making every character besides the protagonists identical, with a special thanks to the efforts of Tom Noonan’s voice and Duke Johnson’s directing. As Kaufman ties all of his major films together, Stone is only able to find any sort of hope upon hearing the titular character’s voice. Because this is the first voice he hears that stands out from a bizarre world of Tom Noonans, Stone falls in love with Lisa because she is the first person he can truly know, the first person he meets in the film that doesn’t get lost in a sea of mundane regularity. However, Kaufman is always on the fence between portraying a total lack of faith in humanity and shedding some kind of positivity in his works. The peak of happiness never seems to last in his films: Michael falls in love with Lisa but it doesn’t stop her from becoming another Tom Noonan; Joel Barish reconciles his relationship but at the cost of having to unlearn his love for her; and Cotard finally figures out the key to finishing his play right before the figurative and literal voice guiding Caden commands him to “die”.
Fortunately for us, we are just spectators of so many of the tragedies Kaufman has concocted throughout the years. But as spectators, he has handed us quite a heavy role by having to contemplate his films and witness their unravelling. Ultimately, even with what seems to be negative opinions of it, Kaufman is celebrating relationships, as well as our ability to communicate when it is clearly no easy task. Charlie Kaufman pushes his audience to consider other people, and not just that, but to consider themselves and how they function in accordance with the world around them. Amidst all of these misfortunes, we are made to value the good things in them even more than in any film with a happy ending. Love, friendship and ourselves; these are the keys to finishing our final pieces.
By Thomas Rososchansky