KAUFMAN, CHARLIE – ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
TAKING THE ‘HACK’ OUT OF SCREENWRITER
Hollywood likes to call writers ‘hacks’ and gives them little respect, but screenwriter Charlie Kaufman - Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and his latest work, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – is taking control and credit, argues Justin Clark.*
Leaving aside a few rare moments – like former New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s assertion that Citizen Kane owed far less to Orson Welles than to screenwriter Herman Mankiwiecz, and Gore Vidal’s savaging of the French worship of the director-auteur – the screenwriter has had it pretty tough in Hollywood. The money is good, of course, but one can’t buy respect. Since the days when the ilk of Fitzgerald and Faulkner sold their souls in Tinseltown, movies have belonged, in the public’s mind, to their directors, even if so many of the latter have been, as Vidal contemptuously put it, “bright technicians.”
A trend toward adapting scripts from literary works, and the rise of the director-screenwriter (a term that reinforces the view, inherently biased toward the director, that a film is ultimately the product of a single individual’s vision) has further eroded the glory of the screenwriter. We know our Stones and
Scorseses and Tarantinos, but struggle to name more than a film or two written by the Schraders and Mankiwieczs.
One of the few exceptions is Charlie Kaufman, the only screenwriter in recent memory to have his credit attached to a major studio production. At least half the credit for his latest effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has gone to him, the other half to his collaborator, director Michel Gondry, with whom Kaufman worked on Human Nature and Adaptation.
It is not merely the success of both of those films, and Kaufman’s collaboration with Spike Jonze on Being John Malkovich, that has helped propel Kaufman from television hack to the rare position of publicly-acclaimed screenwriter. It is their content, which draws attention to the nature of film-making. Adaptation literally featured Kaufman as the protagonist of his own script; in so doing it dramatized the difficulty of screenwriting, but it also made fun of it, and that, paradoxically, was how Kaufman as screenwriter triumphed over Kaufman as character. By reducing its titular character to a concept, Being John Malkovich pulled off a similar trick. In both projects, Kaufman wrote films that upstaged their own principals long enough to let their hack, a real cut-up, come out and do a soft-shoe.
Sunshine and Human Behavior lack the literal self-referentiality of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, or the allegorical equivalent found in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Sunshine has the same zany, nauseated feel as Kaufman’s previous films, nevertheless. It is the script that defines the feel of the work, normally the provenance of the director. That director Michel Gondry would consent to use the same tossing, stoned camerawork that Spike Jonze relied on in Being John Malkovich says much about the respect given to Kaufman’s first success. The stylistic unity with Kaufman’s previous films, which have had three different directors, is a coup for the screenwriter.
The final scene in Confessions, wherein self-proclaimed CIA agent and Gong Show creator Chuck Barris fantasizes about murdering his audience for loving his miserable creation, might express the self-loathing many successful screenwriters must have today. The specific nature of Kaufman’s success makes it unlikely that other screenwriters will be able to pull off the trick, either. Few will be able to assert the degree of artistic control Kaufman possesses – at least not without becoming directors themselves.
Even if Kaufman’s name is associated with an inventive, unique kind of film-making, even if his scripts’ visions trump those of the directors he works with, we aren’t likely to see his name appear by itself on a marquee anytime soon. Kaufman’s goal is to poke fun at Hollywood and its myth of authorship, not write a new one. But if the word hack is used a little less often, screenwriters everywhere will have Kaufman to thank.
Published April 15, 2004
*Justin Clark is literary editor for InTheFray.com, and lives in New York City.
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ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH