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Why Charlie Kaufman Is Us

David L. Ulin is The Times' book editor and the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground."

It’s Charlie Kaufman’s world. We just live in it.

The day after I first saw Kaufman’s movie “Adaptation,” my wife and I took our daughter to a birthday party. It was mid-December, an afternoon of flat white sunlight, washed out in that Southern California winter way. At the door, a tangle of balloons announced the festivities in orange and blue and red. Inside, kids raced by in groups of twos and threes while parents clustered in the corners, trying not to spill their coffee, chatting stiffly among themselves. One of the very first things you learn about birthday parties is that no one over the age of 6 or 7 wants to be there, yet when your children are young, you have no choice but to stay. So you look for a place to install yourself, and try to appear engaged--no matter how uncomfortable you feel. It’s a curious disconnect between inner and outer reality, not unlike the existential tension of a Kaufman film. How did I get here? you keep asking. And more important: How do I get out?

That afternoon, the only way out was via the backyard, which flickered like an alternate reality through a pair of French doors. After a while, my wife and I drifted down the hall and onto a small patio, breathing relief in the tepid air. Although the day was mild, none of the kids had found their way here, and it was quiet, a patch of grass shaded by fruit trees. In the middle, a slim, dark-haired woman sat talking in a small group. Who is that? I wondered. Where do I know her from? And then, in a flash, I knew. There is a moment in “Adaptation” when the character of Kaufman (who has written himself into his own movie) calls home to check in with his twin brother Donald (whose existence is another invention of the script). Over the phone, he hears laughter and a woman’s voice. The woman is the actress Catherine Keener, who starred in Kaufman’s first film, “Being John Malkovich,” and, in this scene, plays Boggle with his brother, much to the writer’s dismay. “Catherine Keener?” he asks, his voice plaintive, tight. “Catherine Keener’s in my house?”

Just the night before, I’d laughed at the lunacy of the situation--a dramatized version of a screenwriter lamenting a real-life actress’ friendship with a brother who doesn’t exist. It was like a Mobius strip of the imagination, a double exposure of fact and fiction. Barely 15 hours later, here I was, watching Kaufman’s movie come to life. For who was the woman in the backyard? None other than Catherine Keener, whose own child was at the party. I stood there, briefly confused. Then my wife brushed up behind me and, with a quick elbow to make sure she had my attention, repeated in a quiet whisper the line of dialogue I was then recalling: Catherine Keener’s in my house?

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There are a couple of approaches you can take to this experience, a couple of lines of interpretation. Some might see it as just one more example of life in Los Angeles, where even in the most unexpected setting, we may come face to face with the reality--not the illusion--of Hollywood. I, however, choose to see it differently. It’s a perfect example of the connections we forge with the art that moves us, in which a particular piece of writing, of film, of music can take up residence not only in our heads but in our lives.

For me, “Adaptation” is precisely such a work, a strange and remarkable movie that offers the most accurate portrayal I’ve yet seen of what it’s like to be a writer. It’s also a compelling riff on narrative structure, on the intricacies of art and commerce, the difficulty of storytelling by committee and the universal human desire to be liked. Based on Susan Orlean’s 1998 nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief,” it is an investigation of obsession, of the elaborate, looping interplay of the author’s mind and his material and, indeed, himself. “Do I have an original thought in my head?” the film begins, as Kaufman--or Nicolas Cage, who plays both Kaufman and his brother--murmurs in a voice-over, while credits flash across the bottom of a black screen. A minute later, we’re on the set of “Being John Malkovich,” where Kaufman/Cage is waved off the soundstage after getting in the way of a shot. “What am I doing here?” he wonders. “Why did I bother to come here today? Nobody even seems to know my name. I’ve been on this planet for 40 years, and I’m no closer to understanding a single thing. Why am I here? How did I get here?”

This is, surely, a persona, a pose, a provocation, an oddly manufactured public face. In the introduction to his published script of “Being John Malkovich,” Kaufman reveals a similar point of view: “It’s 3 in the morning. I haven’t been able to sleep for several weeks now. Things are falling apart.” At the same time, it’s an overarching theme, not just in Kaufman’s writing, but in all of our lives. Like “Adaptation” (or “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” which Kaufman adapted from Chuck Barris’ autobiography), “The Orchid Thief” is a story of self-absorption, reinvention, personal mythology. Although much has been made of the differences between book and movie, both express the belief that to live fully, we must engage. “Passion itself is a unifying factor,” Orlean told me by phone from her Boston home on a Sunday afternoon in April. “For me, writing the book was a way to discover my own sense of passionate engagement, to learn why I do what I do.”

And yet here’s the paradox: Rather than find himself in the story, Kaufman found the story in himself. In order to connect to the material, he had to take it apart and remake it, literally in his own image. Not only does he write himself into the movie, he creates a through-the-looking-glass version of Orlean and her subject, the orchid-obsessed Florida hustler John Laroche, recasting them as co-conspirators in a plot to run exotic drugs. For Kaufman, it’s all fair game, this blurring of reality and invention, of ego and expression, until we’re no longer sure where either begins or ends. “I just thought this was crazy,” Orlean says of her initial reaction to Kaufman’s script. “I thought it was going to ruin my career.” Ultimately, however, she agreed. Why? The simple answer is that the producers were persuasive: “Do you want to see your book on-screen,” they asked, “under a different writer’s name?” But there is another answer too, one that has to do with a different kind of truth. “The adventure appealed to me,” Orlean admits--which is, of course, the whole point of “Adaptation.” Or as Kaufman points out early in the movie: “Writing is a journey into the unknown.”

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Charlie Kaufman is a great American writer. Let’s not equivocate or qualify this in any way. Yes, he writes for the movies; yes, his medium is the 100-plus-page script. But in all the ways that matter--his mastery of structure, his voice and vision, his recognition of the power of the word to remake the world--he stands with the finest writers of his generation, among them David Foster Wallace, Mona Simpson, Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Safran Foer. At times, he is even the best.

To experience Kaufman’s work is to follow an idiosyncratic throughline in which archetypal ideas and even images emerge again and again. Toward the end of “Being John Malkovich,” two characters chase one another across the landscape of John Malkovich’s subconscious. (Don’t ask.) One by one, they cycle through moments of half-remembered childhood--Malkovich as a boy walking in on his parents in bed; Malkovich being teased in a high school locker room; a twentysomething Malkovich trying to impress a date. The scenes cascade and tumble, as memories do, one leading to the next in an interior montage. In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Kaufman’s protagonist, Joel, tries to hide his girlfriend Clementine (or his mental projection of her) in a series of protean memories to prevent her from being erased. (Don’t ask.) “Hide me somewhere deeper? Somewhere really buried? Joel, hide me in your humiliation,” Clementine urges, as the walls of Joel’s memory crumble, as if his very identity is at risk. “Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves--that’s the truth,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1933. “We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives--experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.” Fitzgerald is another great American writer who knew his way around a movie set, but he never wrote anything like Kaufman has.

The notion that screenwriters are artistically legitimate is hardly a new one, although it’s been out of vogue for quite a while. “I think it used to be more true,” says novelist Steve Erickson, who edits the literary journal Black Clock and is the film critic for Los Angeles magazine. “People like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges were known for the films they wrote. In fact, they became directors to protect their screenplays.” Earlier this year, National Endowment for the Arts literature director David Kipen published a book titled “The Schreiber Theory,” which argues that movies should be categorized by writer, not director. “Imagine a library of novels alphabetized by editor,” he writes. To some extent, Kipen means to be provocative; the problem with looking at movies as writer-driven is that film is a profoundly collaborative art. “It’s a very interesting situation,” says Jonathan Lethem, whose novels, not unlike Kaufman’s screenplays, use dark humor, pop culture and a touch of homegrown surrealism to get at deeper fascinations of his own. “I can understand the impulse to consider screenwriters as writers, but at the same time, the whole nature of screenwriting is to relinquish control. Even from the perspective of the audience, movies are different. You don’t experience the story in the direct and intimate way a reader does on the page.”

Kaufman, though, is the great exception. He is incapable of relinquishing control. (Indeed, he’s credited as producer or executive producer on every one of his movies, with the exception of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” which is as close as Kaufman gets to work-for-hire.) When we think of his projects, we think of them as Charlie Kaufman movies, not as movies directed by Michael Gondry or Spike Jonze or George Clooney. The world is his. So is the vision: a longing for control even as control eludes him, a sense that if he could only peer deeply enough within himself the very core of things might be revealed. In one of the strangest sequences in his body of work, Kaufman addresses the existential musings at the start of “Adaptation” (Why am I here? How did I get here?) by taking us back to the beginning of time. “Hollywood, California,” a title reads, “Four billion and forty years earlier"--and then we’re in the planetary gene pool, watching as volcanoes yield to the emergence of life and the development of human beings and cities, all sped up and culminating in the birth of a baby, who, we are left to assume, is Kaufman himself. I can’t think of another screenwriter--hell, of another writer--who’d be willing to go there, to expose the naked, bawling ego at the center of his imagination, at the center of the universe.

The knock on Kaufman is that it’s all a gimmick, that this is not art but manipulation, an elaborate cerebral exercise. To be fair, there’s some truth to that; his most autobiographical effort, “Adaptation,” portrays him as neurotic, compulsively self-doubting, unable to function, all of which is clearly an exaggeration, because otherwise he could not possibly get his movies made. And yet what else is film or literature--or any art, for that matter--if not a way of sorting out the chaos to re-create our lives? “People talk about Charlie’s work as funny and crazy and goofy and weird,” says Orlean, “but there’s a poignancy to it also. At the heart of his writing is someone asking: Who are we? Why are we the way we are? What is the meaning of life?” For Lethem it’s a kind of calculated solipsism, in which the obsessive self-absorption of the protagonist (be it Kaufman or one of his fictional alter egos) leads to a more fundamental meditation on the self. When Kaufman invents an imaginary twin, what he’s really doing is deconstructing the puzzle of his own identity, splitting the atom of himself. The same is true of Joel, who rebels against the strip-mining of his memory by spiraling into the furthest reaches of his psyche. Nowhere is this more vivid than in “Being John Malkovich,” where Malkovich--who is, fittingly, played by Malkovich--goes through a portal into his own consciousness only to find himself in the bottomless pit of his imagination, where everyone looks just like him. “This is purely metaphoric writing,” Lethem suggests, “in the same way as Calvino, Cortazar, Borges or Pirandello. Very few writers have successfully imported that methodology. There ought to be a word for fiction that feels like allegory.”

Twenty-some years ago, in the introduction to “Slow Learner,” a collection of his early short stories, Thomas Pynchon (another American allegorist) reflected on what makes fiction resonate. “When we speak of ‘seriousness’ in fiction,” he wrote, “ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death--how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn’t so immediate.” It’s a good point, but it overlooks the corollary, which is that at the heart of our attitude toward death is our attitude toward life. For Kaufman, life is chaos, and we have no choice but to make sense of it as best we can. Sometimes that means looking for metaphors. Sometimes that means looking at yourself. And sometimes that means looking in the most unlikely places for inspiration. As Kaufman asks in “Adaptation”: “Why can’t there be a movie simply about flowers?”

A movie simply about flowers. This is a defining statement, a distillation of the very way of thinking that makes Kaufman’s work great. It describes an open-ended, process-oriented approach to writing, in which one poses questions as opposed to answers, which is, unfortunately, something too few movies do. Hollywood, after all, thrives on formula--now more than ever--and movies, even good ones, are made and sold as products rather than expressions of the self. This is partly the result of the collaborative nature of the medium, but even more it has to do with film as a business, as a mass-market juggernaut. “The question,” Erickson asks of Kaufman, “is how did he ever get this far? Was it just a matter of ‘Being John Malkovich’ getting into the right hands?” Certainly, Erickson continues, Spike Jonze (who directed “Being John Malkovich” and, later, “Adaptation”) was “a hot commodity,” but Kaufman is still the exception that proves the rule. He has far more in common with novelists than with screenwriters. “Writing a novel,” Erickson says, “is an obsessive pursuit. A novelist is essentially a control freak, trying to create the world.” Such a quality defines Erickson’s own work, with its relentless plumbing of the subconscious, its ability to encompass past and present and future all at once, as well as that of, say, Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace, both of whom spin intricate digressions from the simplest interactions, teasing out the complexities of even the most mundane event. Kaufman’s work, says Erickson, “is all about the obsessiveness of writing. You can see it in Nick Cage’s performance in ‘Adaptation,’ the way the writing eats him up.”

The object of Kaufman’s obsession is what we might call the intrinsic self, the elusive inner life. This is as true of his invented characters as it is of his autobiographical alter ego; it’s hard to imagine protagonists more obsessively self-reflective than Joel, or Craig Schwartz, the puppeteer protagonist of “Being John Malkovich,” whose interior reality is so pervasive that it takes over the narrative of the film. Again, this is more a literary construct than a cinematic one; the self is what contemporary literature is all about. From James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus (“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”) to Philip Roth’s Portnoy (“Look, am I exaggerating to think it’s practically miraculous that I’m ambulatory? The hysteria and the superstition! The watch-its and the be-carefuls! You mustn’t do this, you can’t do that--hold it! don’t! you’re breaking an important law!”), this is the modernist impulse, the solipsism Lethem cites. Yet Kaufman amps the whole thing up by fusing inner and outer: His characters aren’t just questioning the nature of identity but of reality itself. When, partway through “Being John Malkovich,” Craig wonders, “What happens when a man climbs through his own portal?,” this is no idle abstraction, but the essence of the film. When Joel fights back against the erasure of his memory, he’s really battling time, forgetting, the inevitable loss that is encoded into our existence, like dissociative DNA. Even Kaufman’s version of Chuck Barris touches on this in an opening monologue as concise and ruthless as anything in his oeuvre. “When you’re young,” Barris croaks, “your potential is infinite. You might do anything, really. You might be Einstein. You might be DiMaggio. Then you get to an age where what you might be gives way to what you have been. You weren’t Einstein. You weren’t anything. That’s a bad moment.”

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So where does this put Kaufman in relation to his contemporaries? In his appropriation of certain pop culture tropes--such as fantasy, or even science fiction--Kaufman is very much in line with Erickson and Lethem, or, for that matter, George Saunders and the woefully under-recognized Cynthia Kadohata, who, in her evocative 1992 novel “In the Heart of the Valley of Love,” imagines a 21st century Los Angeles to reflect back the dislocations of the present. There are traces of other writers too, older writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, whose fingerprints seem to be all over “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Vonnegut was misread when he was younger, labeled a science-fiction writer because his work took place in the future or involved speculative realities, when in fact this was just a strategy to address his themes. And then there’s Harvey Pekar, who not only invokes the strategies of popular culture but works from deep inside them, using the immediacy of comics in much the same way Kaufman uses the immediacy of film to ask those eternal questions: Why am I here? How did I get here?

None of this would resonate, of course, were it not for structure, which is Kaufman’s greatest strength. It’s a commonplace that the most effective structure is that of which the reader (or audience) is least aware. But in Kaufman’s work, the structure is the story, not only shaping it but informing it, giving it meaning. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” starts at the end and works backward not because it’s a neat device--although it is--but because it’s essential to the plot, which is about Joel’s slow reawakening to all that he soon learns he almost lost. How else could one tell this story? How else to depict the Gordian knot of love and loss? It’s an integrated sensibility, and without it, the movie’s metaphoric and emotional power would be lost.

The same is true of “Adaptation,” which ultimately becomes an action caper, albeit an action caper of a particularly postmodern sort. Here, Lethem argues, Kaufman may have “won the battle but lost the war"--a reference to the third act, which unravels what has been a story of a writer for a more metafictional inquiry into the nature of story and structure, as well as a commentary on Hollywood itself. Yet “Adaptation” is a film that deepens the more you interact with it, like (to push the metaphor) a much-loved book. The first time I saw it, I had a reaction similar to Lethem’s; “Worst third act in history,” I remember saying to a friend. But then I watched it again, and again, and I got what Kaufman was doing, recognized the structural integrity of the piece. The tip-off comes in the film’s first five minutes, during a meeting between Kaufman and a producer, played by Tilda Swinton, in which they discuss the form the movie ought to take. That’s a postmodernist turn right there, but Kaufman quickly pushes the construct even further. “I’d want to let the movie exist,” his character suggests, “rather than be artificially plot driven,” and when the producer asks him to elaborate, here is what he says:

Oh. I’m . . . I’m not sure I know what that means, either. Y’know, I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing. You know? Like an orchid heist movie or something, or, y’know, changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running, you know?

He continues:

. . . I’m saying, it’s, like, I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases. You know? Or characters learning profound life lessons. . . . Or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. You know? I mean, the book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that. It just isn’t.

(beat, weakly)

I feel very strongly about this.

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It’s a funny scene, and it’s played as comedy, with Nicolas Cage, hunched and haunted, literally wiping the sweat from his brow. Yet it’s also a template, not just for the ending of the movie (which follows Kaufman’s list of “don’t wants” almost to the letter) but for thinking about what stories tell us and how they get told. It frames the narrative and comments on it at once. And in terms of the relationship between structure and meaning, it’s as good as any piece of writing any writer, anywhere, in any form or genre, has ever done.

Here are some facts about Charlie Kaufman: He was born in 1958. He went to Boston University, then transferred to NYU, where he studied film. He wrote for the Chris Elliot sitcom “Get a Life” in 1990 and “The Dana Carvey Show” in 1996. Beginning in 1999, he wrote five movies in five years, including “Human Nature” (2001), which I’ve never seen. Last year his “sound play” “Hope Leaves the Theater” was performed for two nights at UCLA. At the moment he is at work on “a new project,” which is all anyone will say about it. He is very private about his personal life. He is very private about his public life, too, and I wasn’t surprised that he refused my requests for an interview. But really, that’s just as it should be. Everything we need to know about him is on the screen.

What’s important is that Kaufman takes risks, which is what all great writers aspire to do in their work. That’s the real message of “Adaptation,” which, Kaufman admits, was initially inspired by the apparent unsuitability of “The Orchid Thief” for the screen. “I liked it very much--I wanted to adapt it,” he said in an interview published with the screenplay. “It seemed not to be a movie, which intrigued me. I liked the book and it wasn’t the kind of thing that I was being sent--I was getting sent the weird stuff because I’m the weirdo. But, this was a straightforward book--very well written. I was learning things; it was about flowers--there was very little drama in it. It seemed, ‘Well, it’s interesting as a book, why can’t it be interesting as a movie?’ ”

The same could be said of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” which, in re-creating Barris’ story of his (purported) double life as game show host and CIA hit man, plays the gag so close to the line that we’re never quite sure what the filmmakers are thinking, whether they’re trying to be ironic or taking Barris at his word. In the end, this is the point entirely--that we’ll never know, that perhaps Barris himself doesn’t know. In that sense, Barris is a quintessential Kaufman character, less concerned with fitting into the world than in reconstructing it until it fits into him. It’s a running theme in Kaufman’s movies, the notion that we define our experience and not the other way around. In “Being John Malkovich,” Craig seeks to inhabit Malkovich because he thinks this will make him more like the actor--confident, desirable, cool. The joke’s on him, though, for the opposite happens: Malkovich becomes like Craig. In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Clementine urges Joel to hide her deeper, but given that the landscape of the movie is his memory, who can this Clementine be if not a projection of Joel himself? If you think about this too much, it makes your head hurt . . . or, perhaps I should say, if you think about it in the wrong way. But if you go with it a little, you end up in a whole new territory, where subjectivity becomes a kind of freedom. Here we have the great theme of both modernist and postmodernist writing, and it’s no stretch to argue that these are the traditions in which Kaufman belongs. That he’s working in film, rather than in literature, only offers more proof of his standing, because what else do such traditions tell us than that form and genre are irrelevant, that they are arbitrary constructs?

This is a subjective era, when every story is fluid, every truth--political, personal, cultural, historical--is up for grabs. We’re no longer certain even of the line between fact and fiction, actual and imaginary. For Kaufman, this is a defining issue. From John Malkovich to Susan Orlean to (yes) Charlie Kaufman, his films are full of real people in unreal situations, which raises fundamental questions about the nature of reality itself. Is it a lie to create a fictional twin and give him half a screenplay credit, as he did with Donald Kaufman, who is listed as co-author--and, indeed, was co-nominated for an Oscar--for his work on “Adaptation”? What about Kaufman’s rendering of Orlean, which, among other things, suggests she had an affair with a journalism subject, when in fact she did no such thing? “It’s interesting that he likes to interweave fact and fiction,” Orlean says, “but it’s also a very modern issue, since we live in a culture where we seem to have some confusion about what is truth and what is invention, where you can invent yourself in any number of ways.”

To some extent, it’s all an elaborate ruse, an expression of the postmodern sensibility, not to mention contemporary life. Still, deep within the loops of his ego and imagination, Kaufman is as serious as his subject. Why am I here? How did I get here? These are the questions to which we constantly return. Along, of course, with just one other:

Catherine Keener’s in my house?


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