[Article contains spoilers of some older Charlie Kaufman films]
Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant, Spike Jonze-directed film Adaptation followed a pair of twins (or are they two sides of the same person…named Charlie Kaufman?!) — one who was brilliant and less efficient than he should have been due to his self-loathing and snobbery, and another, named Donald, who’s a cuddly dolt who just wants to write a good action script. As he’s struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a film script, the more nebbishy Kaufman writes himself into it, and then ultimately enlists the cheap-thrills-loving Donald to help structure it. Thereby, suddenly, his own life becomes intermingled with that of Susan Orlean (who’d written herself into the real-life book that he’s adapting) and more and more thriller-esque and open to absurd plot-twists about, say, a revered nonfiction author colluding with an orchid thief in a sexually charged drug-smuggling scheme. This is likely, simply (okay, not simply at all), because his own life exists within the genre-switching script he happens to be writing, suddenly made exciting and marketable with the additions by his “brother” — or by an alternate, confident, pandering-happy side of himself.
Self-effacing personality traits, in Kaufman’s films, engender self-fulfilling prophecies that see the erasure of lives, loves, and artistic legacies. Some authors avoid writing about themselves. Charlie Kaufman seems to write alternate versions of himself into every movie he does — and writes that alternate self as being involved in an artistic endeavor that they’ve written themselves into, and are somehow sabotaging with their self-deprecation. You can analyze some artists’ work without analyzing the artist’s life. But Kaufman’s art might make you want to start, on the flip side, viewing Kaufman’s career as its own work of poetically layered Kaufmanism. Because after spending a lot of time with his work, you feel you’ve entered a porthole in which everyone is a differently-dressed Kaufman, repeating the words, “Kaufman Kaufman Kaufman Kaufman” with startling range:
And so, it’s hard not to apply a notion of the themes of his work to some recent Kaufman-related news: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is being remade for TV. Indeed, the lotto machine of TV remakes regurgitated a particularly big ball with this film— and the announcement bizarrely echoes the narratives of his own films (Literally in Adaptation, and less explicitly, as surrogate characters in his other films.) The film, which is a singular, unique collaboration between Kaufman and director Michel Gondry, is now in the midst of potentially becoming a TV series, with Universal Cable Productions attached, and True Detective executive producer Richard Brown likewise behind it. Kaufman himself will play no creative role.
Beyond worrying that this imitation will not capture (or recapture too well with too little to add) what was so great about the original, there’s another reason to be annoyed — but bitterly fascinated — at the announcement of this new project. If this were to actually go through, this remake of a Charlie Kaufman film would exist in a climate where Charlie Kaufman himself cannot get a new film/TV series made — for the very reason of studios (particularly film studios) favoring remakes, sequels, and reboots, and being increasingly risk-averse, and thus averse to mid-budget originality like that of Kaufman’s films.
Kaufman did a funny yet disheartening interview with Vulture in December, in which he’d discussed his failed TV projects. He’d written a pilot for an HBO show, which had Catherine Keener attached. It sounded enticing, and a bit like Lorrie Moore’s experimental novel, Anagrams, in that each episode was another wholly different version of one person’s life. “My idea was that you take this woman, she is this age on this day, that’s the only given, and then each episode is based on a different route. Maybe it broke off here and the difference is very small; maybe it broke off when she was a baby, in which case it’s a completely different life. In the course of the series, you start to recognize, first of all, there’s clues given as to what these things were that happened that changed the course of her life. But there are also similarities in all these different versions of herself — about who she is…You can watch this in any order, and it’s a different show.” In other words, it was a pretty damn cool concept for a series. But, he said:
I wrote a first episode, and then they wanted to see a second episode because they weren’t sure what it was going to be. So I wrote a second episode. And I decided to make the second episode very, very different, so that they could see how it could be very, very different. The response I got from them was, “Well, I don’t see how this could be the second episode. It’s so different.” And it’s like, “Well, no. I’m not saying it’s the second episode. I’m saying it’s another episode. This isn’t like the order that the show has to go in if we want to establish the premise.” It may not be the real reason they didn’t want to do it, but they could not remove that idea from their head.
A pilot for another series — How and Why, also starring Catherine Keener, as well as Sally Hawkins, John Hawkes, and Michael Cera — was made for FX, but the network ultimately didn’t go through with the project. Kaufman also had a movie project he was trying — and ultimately did not manage — to get funded; it would have been a musical called Frank and Francis, with actors like Jack Black, Elizabeth Banks, Adaptation star Nicholas Cage, Steve Carell, Kevin Kline, Keener, Paul Reubens, and Jacki Weaver all attached.
In yet another disheartening interview with Indiewire back in July, Kaufman pondered whether “it’s not cool or sexy to be in business with me,” following the financial disappointments of both his uncharacteristically high-budget meta-meditation-on-existence, Synecdoche, New York,and his critically acclaimed, far lower budget, puppet-malaise movie Anomalisa. Perhaps a bit over the top, the profile itself was titled, “Charlie Kaufman Reflects On His Career: ‘I Feel Like I F*cking Blew It.'” Both the interviewer and Kaufman had noted how frequently his name becomes an adjective — “Kaufman-esque” — because so many lesser films seem to be inspired by his sensibilities. “Why do they get to make Charlie Kaufman movies and I don’t? I think about that all the time,” he said.
At the time that article was published, Anomalisa — which was independently financed — had only made back 6 of the $8 million it took to make. “The only reason to speculate about bad box office is to decide that you don’t want to do something that you believe in next time in order to make more money — that’s not a choice I’m willing to make,” he said. This question pervades his work: Kaufman’s artistic output often centers around his own artistic integrity/stubbornness and whether it’s holding him back. Often present, also, is the fear that a sexier, more industry-satisfying version of himself will overtake him and his ideas (confirming his concerns about the futility of existence, and his concerns about the ineffectuality of authorship to imbue life with any meaning or permanence.)
In Being John Malkovich, a self-deprecating puppeteer with a buried God complex has a moment in the spotlight — from within the body of John Malkovich, who he’s puppeteering — before getting stuck, helplessly, with no control whatsoever, in another body. In Synecdoche, New York, a playwright (Caden Cotard — the name taken from the delusion in which one believes themselves to be already dead) begins turning his life into a play and building a whole endless world around it; he gets so caught up in writing his own life into existence that. he forgets to live it his and he gets so old that he has to recast the role of himself — hilariously with Diane Wiest. At this point, Wiest takes over as the authorial/directorial/godlike voice, speaking directions in his head until declaring the ultimate direction — “die.” Like the play within the film itself, the movie was so grandiose that it became too daunting to ever be particularly consumable as a work of art. (Though it also may be Kaufman’s best film.)
And then of course there’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind itself, in which Joel Barish, played by Jim Carrey, decides to get his memory of an entire relationship erased, only to find that his role in that relationship has been replaced by the man who’s helping to erase his memory; that man (played by Elijah Wood) is using diary entries detailing words spoken and memories created to supplant him — with a facsimile of his own memories. Anxieties of replacement and the devaluation of self course through his works.
It’s telling, then, that the one Kaufman project that we might see now is not even a Kaufman project at all, but rather someone else using Kaufman’s film as a vessel through which to get people interested through familiarity/nostalgia — and it all oddly speaks to the validities of the concerns about the industry, and artistry in general. It’s at once completely frustrating… yet speaks to the artistic value and weight and cyclical telepathy of his work. If you wanted proof of how prescient Charlie Kaufman’s films are, the potential of a TV-fied version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind being made — while the past decade of his new material goes largely ignored — would certainly fulfill concerns at the heart of so much of his output.
Kaufman doesn’t seem like he’ll disappear as an artistic presence — but he’s spoken about having to give into potentially not directing his own screenplays, and to potentially not always writing work that’s quite as original, if he wants to continue to make money in the industry. His next project — the only one listed on IMDB — is an adaptation of Chaos Walking, a young adult dystopian sci-fi novel, that’s being directed by action (Mr. And Mrs. Smith, the Bourne films, The Edge of Tomorrow) director Doug Liman. We’ll have to wait and see whether this project gets written by Charlie or Donald Kaufman.