Shining a light on love

Charlie Kaufman screen story photo Pexels
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Filmmaker Charlie Kaufman is blending film genres and turning rom-com stereotypes on its head, writes Alyce McVicar

By Alyce McVicar

Is Charlie Kaufman the Sartre of modern cinema? The mastermind behind such curiously poignant and far-out features as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Anomalisa, is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive creative voices Hollywood has had the good fortune to hear. His screenplays emanate the type of originality and eloquence that stays with the viewer long after they’ve left the cinema. Well acquainted with the concept of generic experimentation, Kaufman marches to the beat of his own drum in realising his creative vision on screen.

While definitely not a new approach to filmmaking, genre hybridity can effectively facilitate subversions of specific generic codes, conventions and viewer expectations. To quote Steve Neale,  “Genres do not consist only of films: they consist also, and equally, of specific systems of expectation and hypothesis that spectators bring with them to the cinema and that interact with films themselves during the course of the viewing process.’”

In other words, categorised texts are not all that genres constitute. Of equal value to its understanding is the concept of viewer generic anticipation. One of the defining features of Kaufman’s work is the incorporation of various generic elements to inform his texts.

As a surprisingly compatible fusion of drama, science fiction, satire, romance, fantasy and even animation, his narratives not only abandon regimes of generic verisimilitude but challenges love as it is conventionally portrayed in the Hollywood mainstream. Merging the romance element with various surrealistic concepts stemming from fantasy and science fiction (e.g. memory manipulation in Eternal Sunshine, the portal to another’s consciousness in Being John Malkovich and the Fregoli delusion in Anomalisa) shines a light on the fundamentally egotistical nature of love at its very core.

Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman (2nd and 3rd from left) in an interview for Kaufman's film Anomalisa. Wikipedia
Charlie Kaufman (third from left)
at a Q & A for Anomalisa. Wikimedia Commons

Kaufman offers a philosophical take on what it means to love and be loved in contrast to its typical idealist perceptions. With the introduction of such an angle, we arrive at a new definition of it – through a Kaufman crafted existential lens. Rather than depicting it in its conventional ‘rom-com’ form, as an act of inhibition-releasing self-sacrifice, he illustrates love as either a means of self-detachment or self-understanding. For his protagonists, love is not a destiny but rather, a diversion – it is a means of escapism, so to speak, to vicariously assume the identity of another (for Craig Schwarz – BJM  and Michael Stone – Anomalisa) or to learn more about one’s self (Joel Barish – Eternal Sunshine).

The male leads in Kaufman’s films are vastly different to the archetypal rom-com protagonists – they are not typically attractive males, rather dishevelled in appearance, most likely due to their incredibly low self-esteem and sense of self-worth. They struggle with attaining their own ideals of success and achieving any sort of goals. They are pessimistic, apathetic and unbearably depressed. Basically, they are everything that Ryan Gosling in The Notebook is not.

For example, Craig Schwarz, the puppeteer protagonist in Being John Malkovich is an individual whose infatuation with puppetry speaks volumes about the magnitude of his own self-loathing. He would rather reject his own reality to indulge in his fantasy of trading places with another, even with those who are inanimate. There is one scene where Schwarz confides in his wife’s pet chimp, “You don’t know how lucky you are being a monkey. Because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer.”

His self-contempt inspires his initial attraction to Maxine, a stoic, ice queen who exudes such a palpable sense of self-confidence it demands Craig’s attention. An attraction, I’m convinced, is more of a 7th grader, “I wish I was you”, girl crush under the guise of lust to somewhat reassure his male ego. The entire narrative revolves around the primary theme of an identity crisis and interchanging consciousness so it would only make sense that Craig falls in love with Maxine not because of who she is but what she represents to him. He doesn’t want her; he wants to actually be her. Almost as if she’s mocking him just by being in the same room as him- this could be you but it probably won’t ever be. Love in Being John Malkovich is not a matter of the heart and soul but a matter of ego.

In comparison, Eternal Sunshine echoes slightly different sentiments as a narrative. Joel Barish has just found out his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski, has recently undergone a procedure to have her memories of him completely erased. As a kneejerk response, baffled and distraught, Joel decides to undergo the procedure too and in the process, realises that he is still in love with her.

Addressing such themes as loss and memory, Eternal Sunshine is a strangely tender psychoanalytic approach to understanding the significance of an emotional connection with another. For Joel, holding onto Clementine is to hold onto the parts of himself that would otherwise evaporate along with her memory. The more he can remember of her and the more he can be with her, the more he is able to piece together his identity and gain a true understanding of who he is as a person.

In this sense, Clementine literally completes Joel. There is no doubt that Joel does share something truly unique and special with her and does love her but possibly for the reasons that one would not be prepared to admit. Joel, by nature, is as insecure as he is socially inept, a memorable line of his that clearly conveys this is, “why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?”

 Eternal Sunshine shows the selfish side of love in a way that oddly, still makes the idea of ringing a past flame seem like not such a bad idea after all.

Michael Stone is the final male lead to discuss and funnily enough, is quite possibly, the dullest yet the most intriguing of them all– not only due to his incredibly realistic appearance as an animated character. Stone is a man whose disgust of the drudgery of life can only be matched by that he has for himself. He is a motivational speaker who ironically has no clue how to connect with anyone, not his child, his wife, not even the women he’s seen in between. These people and every other in his world are voiced by the same actor, adding to the tedium of his fictional reality. Everything seemingly turns peachy for Michael, however, when he comes across the incredibly shy, extremely self-conscious Lisa, whose voice is quite literally music to Michael’s ears. Eventually, he sleeps with her and comes to find out that he’s treated her the same way as everyone else he knows – like strangers.

In Anomalisa, love doesn’t exist and the next best thing that does in Stone’s world, is the feigning of physical intimacy. A part of me would have liked to believe that Michael knew or at least wanted Lisa to be the one but something about him told me that he couldn’t convince himself either.

In Kaufman’s version of love, walls don’t disappear and insecurities don’t dissipate and they don’t ever do – if anything, they are strengthened as long as they ‘love’ a female. The closer they get with her, the more they realise how much they detest themselves.

Not only does Kaufman’s work challenge genres as we know them but also the concept of film ideology. Quite commonly, people associate romantic films or ‘rom-coms’ with gaggles of Kleenex-clutching, blubbering middle-aged women leaving cinemas in an absolute state. Since genre mix and matching however, romantic films aren’t necessarily just for the female target audience. In fact, Kaufman does the impossible, by focusing the such a narrative on the male’s perspective. If anything, a male could probably relate more to the concepts of his films as it highlights the intricacies of the male ego rather than indulging the female ego much like the idealist perspective of love would. Typically, the male protagonist would go on an entire emotional journey for the duration of the film only to come to the realisation that the female lead is everything he’s ever wanted.

In contrast, Kaufman highlights the aftermath of this initial ‘epiphany’, instead of focusing on the end result of falling in love, it’s rather on how its sustained as a functional and fulfilling relationship. Whether they satiate one another’s extremely desperate need for approval, or the almost primal desire to be desired. Kaufman injects this notion of love with such hard-hitting realism and exposes for what it arguably, more accurately is – it’s a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance rather than the discovery or acceptance of another.

The concept of the cross-genre film is essential for paving the way for a new wave of modern cinema. Generic codes and conventions in 21st century films only serve as effective tools when somehow broken or inverted purposefully, as it provides a fresh alternative to a traditional genre film and its narrative structure. Rules are meant to be broken, after all.