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I’m Thinking of Charlie Kaufman Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is now streaming on Netflix. Wait, was I supposed to save that until the end?

Let me start over.

It’s not every day that you see one of the most important films you’ll ever see. For me, this happened on a cold evening in late October, 2008. Chicago’s infamously frigid disposition had already fired a few seasonal warning shots in the form of early snow and flurries, a portend of the blizzards to come. I took refuge from this urban tundra in one of the best places I knew how: a cinema. Specifically, a largely independent cinema, screening largely independent films on the top floor of an otherwise abandoned-looking shopping center.

Tonight, they were screening a film I’d been looking forward to all year. The great Charlie Kaufman, writer of oddball gems like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was finally directing his first feature. Not only that, he was collaborating with the also great, not-yet-late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was and still is one of the best actors of his generation. Reviews from Cannes earlier that year had been mixed, but promising, teasing an ambitious scope and a profound sense of experimentalism. Filled with hope and excited to escape reality for a few short hours, I sat down with my popcorn and allowed Synecdoche, New York to wash over me.

There’s a muffin sitting on my desk, taunting me. I placed it there as a form of motivation while I write. Finish the article, reward myself with the muffin. But what if the muffin actually helps me think? Forget it for now; I’ve got to keep going.

Though Kaufman himself has already dismissed the timing as pure coincidence, it is still refreshing to have so much cause to discuss the acclaimed writer/director in 2020. Not only have we received the debut of his first novel over the summer (a 700-page monolith known as Antkind, which as of this writing I have yet to finish, though not for lack of trying), but we are also graced with his first feature in five years, and his first live-action directorial effort since Synecdoche 12 years ago.

The film in question is I’m Thinking of Ending Things, an adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel of the same name. It follows a young woman played by relative newcomer Jessie Buckley, and her increasingly surreal journey to meet her boyfriend’s parents for the first time at their isolated farmhouse. The wintery conditions that continue to escalate as the film progresses almost seem to mirror the conditions in which I saw his previous live-action feature, although I’m sure that’s also a coincidence. In any case, the woman’s boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) tells her not to worry about driving in the snow. He has chains.

In this Oct. 15, 2008 file photo, writer- director Charlie Kaufman attends a Cinema Society hosted screening of “Synecdoche New York” in New York. (AP)

I first discovered Kaufman’s writing the way I imagine many people did: through Eternal Sunshine, which from a critical and commercial standpoint may well be his most popular film. Though many of the more philosophical and cerebral aspects of the film probably went over my head, I was still mesmerized by the sheer creativity on display, in both concept and execution. The dreamy yet grounded depictions of Jim Carrey’s subconscious felt like visions from a story I’d always known but never heard. There was something universal in the film’s sense of melancholy, a sort of weaponized ennui designed to use this specific relationship and the specific details within it to allow its audience to reflect on their own relationships, and even their own memories. What they choose to hold on to, and how far or close that actually is from the truth.

These themes of existential dissection, especially as they relate to couples, are writ even larger in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The film is still new, so I won’t spoil anything for people who would like to experience it themselves (which is something I recommend everyone reading this do immediately). But suffice it to say that the film almost feels like a cinematic black hole nested in the center of a simple relationship. Standard activities like taking a road trip and visiting your partner’s childhood home are extrapolated across time and space, and we simultaneously bear witness to the past, present, and future of everyone involved. Who they are, who they might be, who they might have been, who they might become. We see it all, often contradicting itself within the same scene. 

But all of that is there for the audience to decipher, and I have no doubt that this film will lend itself to a wild variety of theories and interpretations. The beauty of it is that all of these or none of these may be equally correct. It really preys upon what you bring with you when you sit down to watch it, and more so than any Kaufman film since Synecdoche, it refuses to hold your hand once the weirdness kicks in, which is early and often. Rather than descend into a sort of David Lynchian fever dream of scattered imagery and oppressive atmosphere (though it certainly contains plenty of both) the film establishes its central conflict, teases at a number of questions it will explore, and then slowly uncoils itself before the audience, who can either reject the illogical events that transpire or embrace them as a sort of metaphorical Rubik’s Cube that is to be both puzzled over and surrendered to.

My stomach is starting to rumble. Maybe now I should eat that muffin. It might give me the energy to power through the rest of this. Or will it make me lazy and slow me down. There’s only one way to find out, and whichever course I choose, I’m forever locked in. The path that eating or not eating the muffin may have presented will be closed to me after I select its opposite number. Or maybe it will have no impact. Perhaps any effect the muffin grants beyond being a momentary distraction and a tasty treat are entirely my own projection. Whether my writing process improves or declines as a result of this simple baked good may have nothing to do with the muffin itself and everything to do with me. 

Maybe I’m overthinking things.

The narrative device of the muffin, incidentally, comes from Adaptation., Kaufman’s second collaboration with director Spike Jonze. I would argue it’s one of his most personal films, and not just because he writes himself and his own fictional twin brother into the lead roles. In trying and failing to properly adapt Susan Orlean’s largely formless and prosaic novel The Orchid Thief, Kaufman decided to instead adapt the process of adaptation itself, both in the specifics of writing a decent screenplay based on a book, and in the more abstract notions of life on earth, with everything from the evolution of plant-life to the significance of artistic expression up for exploration. In its own roundabout way, it’s actually very faithful to the spirit of Orlean’s book, even as it takes gargantuan liberties with its real-life subjects.

What kind of muffin is it? I didn’t check when I took it out of the box. I could really go for blueberry, but it looks more like apple cinnamon. I can’t quite be sure.

Does anyone remember how Kaufman’s breakout film, Being John Malkovich, was one of the first relatively mainstream movies to explore concepts of gender dysphoria? Cameron Diaz’s character has a whole subplot where the experience of being John Malkovich calls her own gender identity into question and her new sense of self-discovery fuels many of her actions for the rest of the movie. The issue is handled about as tactfully as 1999 would allow, but considering how few mainstream movies will engage with the subject even now, it’s something that stuck out to me upon a recent rewatch. Kaufman would explore these themes even further with Hoffman’s character in Synecdoche, New York, as his character slowly becomes subsumed by that of a female cleaning lady who may be real, but may also be an abstraction of his own as his attempts to dramatize the relationships he shares with the various women in his life turn increasingly literal. Or maybe that’s just my interpretation.

This essay has been written in such a way as to roughly approximate the feeling of watching and living in a Charlie Kaufman film. I wonder if I should have mentioned that up top? Maybe people will get it anyway.

As a 19-year-old film student still learning all about the storytelling possibilities my chosen medium offered, I was absolutely floored by the sheer bravado of Synecdoche. There were the baser pleasures throughout, like the immaculate ensemble cast working at the top of their game, the sorrowful score by Kaufman regular Jon Brion, the sense that I had no way of predicting where the story would go next. But beyond that, there was a sense of discovery. The story goes that Spike Jonze was set to direct this film before the opportunity to make Where the Wild Things Are came up to demand his attention. It was apparently he who suggested to Kaufman that he direct his own screenplay. We’ll never know what Jonze’s version might have looked like, but with all due respect to the man and his own impressive filmography, there’s something so captivating about the work Kaufman does as a first-time director that I feel more than comfortable with the version we got.

Despite the fact that film sometimes feels as though it’s making itself up as it goes along, there’s actually a shocking amount of pre-determination happening throughout. Every cutaway, every out-of-focus background character, every visual gag is part of a carefully layered storytelling strategy that continues to unfold and surprise no matter how many times I see it. The sheer command of his craft Kaufman displays in his freshman directing gig is nothing short of masterful, and as a naïve young film buff, I sat through the whole film slack-jawed, convinced I was seeing the birth of one of the most important and soon-to-be prolific filmmakers of his time or any time.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way. As mentioned before, the film was largely divisive with both critics and audiences, with some rushing to defend it and others dismissing it as intellectual tripe. I am in good company, at least, as none other than Roger Ebert declared it the best film of the 2000s prior to his death. Despite its ardent support from a select few, the film failed to bring in enough profit relative to its rather hefty budget and Kaufman’s prior success was no longer enough to catapult him to the kind of directorial stardom that I had hoped for him.

For several years after Synecdoche, he toiled away attempting to produce a musical showbiz satire called Frank or Francis. The film was to be every bit as ambitious as its predecessor, skewering the Hollywood elite through song, dance, and Kaufman’s patented brand of introspection. It was set to star such big names as Steve Carrell, Jack Black, Elizabeth Banks, Catherine Keener, Kevin Kline and Nicolas Cage. Maybe it was the merciless nature of its parody that scared Hollywood off or perhaps it was just Synecdoche’s lack of commercial success, but Kaufman was unable to get the necessary funding to make the film happen and eventually it fell to the wayside. A draft of the screenplay that appears legitimate is available for free on the Being Charlie Kaufman fan website. Reading it is an entertaining yet cruel reminder of what could have been.

Alas, as the 2000s rolled into the 2010s, Kaufman’s unique style failed to attract the kind of studio attention it once received. As emphasis was placed more firmly on sequels, reboots, superhero adaptations, and anything else that could be considered low-risk, Kaufman’s spiritual musings were no longer considered a viable investment. Eventually, Kaufman was able to get his second directorial effort, the stop-motion dramedy Anomalisa (co-directed with Duke Johnson), produced with the help of an extensive Kickstarter campaign. Though the critical reception was considerably warmer than his previous film, and it was even nominated at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature, the film’s financial returns were again not significant enough to guarantee its creator any additional work.

Five years later, this brings us to today. Kaufman’s first book and new film have debuted within a few months of each other and the response to both has been about as mixed as should be expected. For some, his latest output is more of the same, further examples of intellectual showmanship with little substance underneath. For others, they are a delighting return to form from a beloved creator whose offerings have become distressingly thin. I can’t speak for Antkind, because again, I haven’t finished it (though again, not for lack of trying), but as for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it is a bold and stylish continuation of the many themes Kaufman loves to explore, and even if it only finds cult success similar to that of his last few films, it is every bit as artistically significant as the best of his oeuvre.

Maybe Netflix, in 2020 no less, is the best home for Kaufman right now. As every major studio is pivoting to streaming as the inevitable future of entertainment, Netflix has been doing this dance long enough and is in a comfortable enough position where it can afford to give decent mid-sized budgets to creators with a distinct voice, if for no other reason than to bolster their library of exclusives. Not only that, but the streaming service is an ideal platform for an audience member to experience his new film, which doesn’t so much encourage repeat viewings as it demands them. While cinematic, the film isn’t on such a scale that it demands to be experienced on the big screen, and having the opportunity to rewatch it at the viewer’s convenience can serve as a great way for fans old and new to continue dissecting his latest masterwork.

Who knows what the future will hold for Charlie Kaufman? It’s been a long time since he won the Oscar for writing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and outside of Anomalisa, his works have failed to garner much awards attention, regardless of their artistic merit. Not that one expects awards to be a primary or even tertiary concern of this particular artist, who has gone on record saying that while he will still take on the odd writing project, he is also at peace with the idea that I’m Thinking of Ending Things could be the last film he directs. I hope it isn’t true and I’m sure I’m not alone. Maybe if the response to the film is strong enough, Netflix will want to secure their relationship by finally enabling him to make Frank or Francis or indeed any other project he wishes to pursue. As it is, we’ll just have to make do with what we’ve got. And I still need to finish reading Antkind.

I finally take a bite from my muffin. Banana nut. Not what I was expecting, but certainly enjoyable all the same. Perhaps it was unfair of me to place so much significance and weight on the experience of eating this muffin. Perhaps the muffin was never real in the first place, merely a framing device for an essay that’s gone increasingly off the rails. Who is to say what the muffin represents, if it does exist (it doesn’t)? As with the films of Charlie Kaufman, the muffin is only a reflection of whatever significance we choose to bestow upon it. Its existence is no more the point than is its use as a framing device. The muffin is us. We are the muffin. Anything can be everything and everything can be anything. Or something like that.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is now streaming on Netflix.

Comments

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  1. Okay, you got me with the muffin bits. That’s really clever and makes me wonder why all I’m Thinking of Ending Things reviews aren’t written like this. We are the muffin, indeed.

    For some reason, I have only recently come to terms with the interpretation that the film’s showing us a stream of consciousness where anything that pops into “someone’s” head is suddenly going to appear in the movie, so reading a review that’s constantly interrupted by a muffin is exactly the content I’m looking for.

    • Thank you kindly! As a writer, I’ve always felt very seen by the monologues of indecision Nic Cage expresses in Adaptation, so getting the chance to use a similar technique in my own writing was a lot of fun. Glad you enjoyed!

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Written by Myles Hughes

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