The Work of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman

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Though Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are two different writer-directors, they both are frequent collaborators and their work often intersects thematically and visually. Having directed music videos for Kanye West, Sonic Youth, Björk, and Weezer, Jonze has an exceptional artistic range, even though he’s only made four movies. He possesses a distinctive taste for showcasing profoundly personal stories about love, loneliness, and the human condition. Similarly, Kaufman can transform ordinary stories into extraordinary ones, especially through his distinctive writing style, imaginative settings, contemplative characters, and introspective themes. His many acclaimed screenplays include one from my favorite film, Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. Whether together or separate, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are incredible, perceptive filmmakers with great attention to detail. I’m a huge fan of the two, so I decided to watch all of their films (three of which I had already seen) and here are my thoughts:

Being John Malkovich (1999, written by Kaufman, directed by Jonze)

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For Jonze’s directorial debut and Kaufman’s screenwriting debut, Being John Malkovich is an impressive feat. And considering that it was released in 1999 — “the year that changed filmmaking” — Being John Malkovich seemed like it came around the right time, even though its subject matter and trippy execution are light years ahead of modern filmmaking. Watching Being John Malkovich was a transfixing experience, one that I still have trouble wrapping my head around. The film works as both a psychological tragicomedy and celebrity satire, delving into many layers of the psyche literally and figuratively. It’s about Craig Schwartz, a lonely, washed-up guy (John Cusack), whose ambition to be the world’s greatest puppeteer becomes a reality once he discovers a portal leading into the mind of theater/movie actor John Malkovich (played by the Malkovich man himself). Craig can only see through Malkovich’s eyes for 15 minutes, until he’s dumped from the sky onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Fascinated by this and what it could do for his puppeteering career, he shares this information both with his homely wife Lotte (an almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz) and his office crush Maxine (a devilish Catherine Keener). The two women become obsessed with this idea of being in someone else’s skin, especially that of a notable celebrity. Once Lotte decides to partake in this experiment, she discovers a new side to her sexuality, especially after she has a sexual encounter with Maxine while inside Malkovich’s body. Hilarious and devastating hijinks ensue and a subplot regarding the origin/truth behind the Malkovich portal further shows how Jonze’s meticulous direction and Kaufman’s loopy script work so well together. There are certain parts of the story that are so mind-blowing that they’re almost terrifying in how they impact the characters. John Malkovich eventually goes into the portal himself and finds that he’s placed in a nightmarish world where everyone looks like him and the only word that can be uttered is “Malkovich.” Maxine, the film’s most indecisive yet engaging character, becomes fixated on Malkovich, leading Craig to hijack the portal in order to woo Maxine. Told through a fantastic mockumentary-style montage, we see Maxine and Craig (as Malkovich) become engaged, Maxine become pregnant, and Craig live out his fantasy of being a puppeteer by capitalizing on Malkovich’s notoriety. But as expected, Maxine threatens to go back to Lotte, as the two share a true romantic connection, leaving Craig helpless. He ultimately leaves the portal and Malkovich regains sole consciousness for a second until he loses control completely, once a group of elderly immortals enter in the portal at the same time. Doesn’t that sound horrifying yet fascinating? Being John Malkovich is a strange and great movie, not just because it touches on themes of identity, fantasy, virtual reality, and sexuality, but also because it was entertaining to watch a story unfold in the most unexpected ways. It reminded me a lot of 1998’s fantastic “The Truman Show” and last year’s “Anomalisa,” which Kaufman also wrote and directed. This was definitely an impressive first feature for both Jonze and Kaufman and I will most likely watch Being John Malkovich again.

Grade: A-

Adaptation. (2002, written by Kaufman, directed by Jonze)

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I was fairly disappointed with Jonze and Kaufman’s second film, the zany meta-satire Adaptation. Like Being John MalkovichAdaptation made a lot of unexpected twists and turns in its plot. The film is about an exaggerated version of Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), who encounters writer’s block when writing a movie adaptation of Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief. This was allegedly based on a real experience, in which Kaufman could not figure out how to make The Orchid Thief into a film without sensationalizing it into a big-budgeted Hollywood flick. Adaptation displays Kaufman’s frustration through Cage’s surprisingly excellent and honest portrayal of the writer/director. But watching the film is almost as much of a frustrating experience as Kaufman’s attempt to adapt The Orchid Thief, in that the film bounces around tonally and thematically. In addition to constantly feeling under pressure from a studio exec (a vanilla Tilda Swinton), the neurotic, socially inept Kaufman/Cage seethes with jealousy at his much more extroverted, easy-going twin Donald (made up by Kaufman), who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie can’t interact with anyone without feeling anxious and doubtful of his abilities, despite everyone praising his work. My main problem with this was not just that Charlie was overusing self-deprecating humor and material to poke fun at his real-life experience, but that the script digs such a deep, narrative hole that it often gets lost in itself. The other subplot in Adaptation deals with Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) experience writing her novel, interviewing her titular protagonist John LaRoshe (Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar for this role) over the course of two years and eventually falling for him. Like Charlie, Susan constantly deals with self-doubt and anxiety over her writing abilities, yet she is much less socially awkward and more driven to succeed. The two main stories, Orlean’s writing of the novel and Charlie’s trouble adapting it, ignite a lot of friction when juxtaposed together and they eventually intersect into a bizarre, mesmerizing final sequence. Despite my issues with Adaptation, I did love Cage, Streep, and Cooper’s central performances, some of Kaufman’s funny quips, and Jonze’s crazy direction. The final shot of the whole film also was a great scene, a time-lapse of blooming flowers set to The Turtles’ “So Happy Together,” simply because it smartly references two scenes in the movie. The blooming flowers points to a part where Charlie talks about how to show the true beauty of flowers in a genuine and profound way in his adaptation, which the last scene does. Donald sings “So Happy Together” to Charlie during one conversation, much to Charlie’s dismay, but the song sounds like something of a triumphant anthem. Even with the film’s flaws, the final scene represents the culmination of Adaptation‘s disarming plot, merging fiction into reality with one perfect sequence. I’ll try to watch Adaptation again, but I was not as won over with it as much as Being John Malkovich.

Grade: B

Synecdoche, New York (2008, written and directed by Kaufman)

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Like with many other films, I repeatedly watched the trailer for Kaufman’s hyper-realist directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, before I finally watched the film itself. During the time of its release, Synecdoche, NY received polarizing reviews, with some like Roger Ebert praising it for its originality and narrative scope, while others thinking it was depressing, pretentious, and incomprehensible. Luckily, I found myself siding more with Ebert. Even though parts of it are hard-to-watch visually and aurally, Synecdoche, NY is a haunting tragedy about a dying man’s journey to create something big only to discover that it was all meaningless. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the dying man, Caden Cotard, and gives an intense performance that would have been deserving of an Oscar. In addition to suffering from various physical and mental ailments (seizures, boils, restless leg syndrome, hair loss) Caden is a theater director who decides to build the world’s largest and longest play in an abandoned warehouse in Schenectady, in order to win back his bored artist wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener). Without warning, Adele moves to Berlin with their daughter Olive and Adele’s BFF Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to pursue her art career, which does she successfully. Meanwhile, Caden continues to struggle with achieving his vision for a play, leading him to create a play within a play, choosing actors to portray him and other people in his life while the real play itself is going on. The film touches on multiple themes and ideas, primarily ambition and death, and uses several overt and subliminal motifs. Fortunately, it still delivers by offering a poignant, mesmerizing story. For example, Cotard’s assistant/crush Hazel (Samantha Morton) buys a house that is constantly burning, knowing that she can be killed at any moment by fire or the heavily polluted air, but nevertheless decides to invest in it. It’s a weird but clever metaphor for how we all have the ability to make choices, even when we know the ultimate consequences of those choices. That’s what makes us human, which is a key thematic template in Kaufman’s movies. There are even split-second still scenes of clock drawings spread throughout the movie, reinforcing the film’s idea that our time on Earth is limited. Suffering also seems to be a large component in this film, as Cotard is chronically ill, yet everyone around him seems to die before him. He falls in love with almost every woman he encounters — Adele, Hazel, his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams), Hazel’s stand-in Tammy (Emily Watson) — but he can’t make enough of an effort to act on anything mostly due to his illness. The large cast of talented women is especially great, considering that they are very strong female characters instead of mere caricatures. And in addition to being very dramatic, it’s also very darkly funny. An interesting thing about Kaufman movies/scripts is when there’s miscommunication between characters, mostly through mishearing what one person said to another (this is evident in some Synecdoche scenes and in several Being John Malkovich scenes). Jon Brion (love this guy!) provides a stellar soundtrack/score to Synecdoche, NY. His lovely piano-assisted ballad “Little Person,” which plays in one scene and in the end credits, and the final scene’s string-oriented “Ok” are particular standouts. Despite the complicated narrative structure, Synecdoche, New York really does have a heart built into its core and what the story accomplishes — and the questions that are ultimately asked — make it a truly astounding piece of work.

Grade: A-

Where the Wild Things Are (2009, written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, directed by Jonze)

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Taking a break from Kaufman, Spike Jonze’s third film, Where the Wild Things Are, not only channels an adventurous, much darker take on the 1960s children’s picture book by Maurice Sendak, but also paves a road for Jonze’s own experimentation with screenwriting and storytelling. Co-writing the script with author/novelist Dave Eggers, Jonze pictures the world of Where the Wild Things Are as an unflinching, tender depiction of childhood angst and innocence. I figure many know what the story is, but for those who don’t: Max (Max Records) is the protagonist, a restless pre-adolescent with animalistic tendencies and a gooey heart. After he has a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener, ftw!), Max runs away crying and finds a boat that sails him to a mysterious island whose inhabitants include grotesque-looking quasi-animal creatures. I’d seen the film twice before, but I figured I would see it again, just to see if I noticed anything different, which I did. A huge underlying theme in the film is imagination, but there’s also a subtle father/son dynamic between Max and his creature friend Carol (James Gandolfini, also a great late actor). Forgive me if I’ve read too much into this, but perhaps Carol resembles Max’s father, who is not pictured in the film nor the book, but has some presence within Max’s subconscious. Considering that Where the Wild Things Are exhibits a child’s imagination, it can be argued that Carol is a representation of Max’s father: fun to play with, full of adventure, yet dealing with an impulsive, reckless behavior. This idea is further reinforced because of Carol’s relationship with another creature K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), who also resembles somewhat of Max’s mother. Carol and K.W. have a romantic connection, but the two constantly argue due to their differing worldviews. K.W. has a motherly appearance and mannerism, and she inhabits a type of motherly instinct for Max. The scene where Max runs away from a blindly angry Carol and hides inside K.W. for protection is especially evident of this family dynamic, primarily because Max can be figuratively seen as inside K.W.’s womb (forgive me if that’s also taking it too far in terms of interpretation, but I figure I’d give it a shot). The point here is the characters and their relationships in this story are not only potent and strong, but also impeccably told and crafted, especially for a kid’s movie. The rest of the voice cast is also incredible; it includes Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Chris Cooper. Hell, even Mark Ruffalo makes a cameo as Max’s mother’s new boyfriend (his only line: “He shouldn’t treat you like that!” Wonder how much he made off of just saying that). Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs compiles an aptly raucous soundtrack and composer Carter Burwell (frequent collaborator of Jonze and Kaufman) fills the score with warm percussive sounds and strings. By ending the film on a light, happy note, Where the Wild Things Are remains a beautifully shot and emotionally stirring tale of childhood.

Grade: B+

Her (2013, written and directed by Jonze)

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There are so many great things to say about Jonze’s fourth film, Her, that it’s hard to jot down all in one blog post. But I’ll try to articulate it in the best way I can. Originally conceived in the early 2000s, Her is a wonderful film with a romantic story that possesses the emotional honesty and gravitas uncommon in many movies. It can be perceived as an anti-technology allegory, but I beg to differ; it’s way, way more about how love transcends everything, the giddy excitement of being in love, and coming to terms with the harsh reality when a relationship doesn’t work out the way you want it to. The film’s lonely protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is also the film’s flawed hero. He calls up a late-night sex hotline, looks at scandalous pictures of a nude celeb, and makes disarmingly personal comments. But at heart, Theodore has a sensitive, perceptive soul, even when he struggles to recognize the dissipation of his marriage with his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). That is, until he installs an artificially intelligent operating system that evolves in real time; his OS is named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I kind of hate how people say this movie is really just a guy falling in love with Siri. Yes, a human male falls in love with a disembodied voice, but honestly, who cares? Pretty much every element of Her works well: Jonze’s sensitive direction, his amazing, Kaufman-esque screenplay — which rightfully won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2014 — the incredible acting (Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson’s voice, yeet!), Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett’s numbingly beautiful score (probably the best of the last few years), and the exquisite cinematography (great close-ups and panoramic shots of Los Angeles and Shanghai). The production design also deserves recognition, from the costuming to the lovely, colorful visual palette (everything looks so bright and pretty in future L.A.! There’s even a light-rail system!). Her can also be an uncomfortable film to watch, and even after seeing three times, I still get slightly irked when Theodore essentially has extremely graphic verbal sex with Samantha. But once the storm quiets down, Her remains an artful, post-modern masterpiece that continuing to prove the underrated skill and originality of Spike Jonze’s work. Her also has a very balanced mix of comedy and drama, the best scenes being the funniest and saddest. Her is arguably Jonze’s best film and there’s no doubt he will continue to make great films.

Grade: A

Anomalisa (2015, written and directed by Kaufman)

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Last year, Kaufman returned to directing with a much less polarized sophomore effort, the stop-motion adult drama Anomalisa. The movie was adapted from a stage play Kaufman wrote in 2005 and took almost 3 years to make as a film, but all the work seems to pay off. The animation looks gorgeous and works very well with the story and its themes. Like many of Kaufman’s works, Anomalisa has a lonely male protagonist, this being unhappily married customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who seeks an answer to all the nonsense in the world and something to calm his anxiety. In particular, Michael can’t seem to shake the feeling that every person he sees has the same blank expression and talks in a drab, monotonous voice (voiced by Tom Noonan). He is what psychologists would describe as having Fregoli syndrome, which funny enough is the name of the Cincinnati hotel he’s staying at for a conference (“The Fregoli”). Even with each scene being filled with mundane acts like ordering room service, taking a too hot/too cold shower, and smoking a cigarette, Anomalisa is nevertheless compelling to look at. Even though Michael is supposed to be the film’s protagonist/hero, he comes off a bit like an asshole; he’s angry, misanthropic, impatient, indecisive, and slightly oblivious (he mistakes a toy store for a sex shop). But who should blame him? After re-reading a 10-year letter from his ex-girlfriend, he decides to call her up and ask her for a drink. The conversation obviously doesn’t go well, his ex berating him for his selfishness and Michael wallowing in his doubt. Michael is hopeless and fearful, until he hears a voice from another room that isn’t monotonous. He rushes to find the voice and its owner, who happens to be the film’s protagonist Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an insecure customer service operator from Akron who’s attending the conference Michael’s speaking at. He’s immediately enamored by her and every one of her aspects, both physical and personal. They get a drink, with her friend tagging along, and eventually he asks her to come to his room for a nightcap, much to Lisa’s surprise. Some might pose this as creepy, but consider this: Lisa and Michael are two extremely lonely, self-conscious human beings, who both are attracted to one another and should allow themselves one moment of happiness, even if it’s just for a night. Lisa discusses her life and sings a devastating English and Italian cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” all the while Michael admires everything she says and does, hence he nicknames her “Anomalisa,” a portmanteau that even Lisa acknowledges as clever. Their much-talked-about sex scene is actually quite realistic and honest, even though it’s essentially two puppets that are being moved one frame at a time to fuck. Regardless, it’s still a stirring, eye-opening scene that takes cinematic intimacy to a whole other level. The rest of Anomalisa continues to be fascinating and strange, with Michael having a nightmarish dream where everyone wants to be with him and not with Lisa. In a moment of true artistry and peculiarity, the bottom half of Michael’s face falls off while he runs in desperation to escape the hellhole of his mind. He delves into frustrated angst and loses his faith in humanity once again, delivering a cynical speech at the conference. He returns home, seeing and hearing everything in monotone. But what amazed me about Anomalisa was how not Michael but Lisa became the true hero of the story. In the last scene, she writes a letter to Michael optimistically as she drives home with her friend, who we see as looking normal compared to Michael’s version of what perceived. Echoing some of Michael’s words from his speech, “Find what is unique about every individual. Everybody has a soul, everyone has aches.” As a writer and director, Kaufman knows that each person is innately similar yet distinctive in their own. This kind of philosophical paradox is one of the many reasons why, unlike many filmmakers, Kaufman has a deep sense and uncommonly perceptive outlook on life, which makes Anomalisa all the more rewarding in the end.

Grade: A

 

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