Culture Crash 20-35: Exploring the Works of Charlie Kaufman


Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture. What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

On September 4, Netflix is set to release I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a thriller based on the novel of the same name by Iain Reid, which was adapted for the screen by writer & director Charlie Kaufman.

With more Kaufman on the way, it’s a perfect time to re-visit the previous work of Kaufman, who is truly one of the most original and inventive screenwriters I’ve ever come across. Kaufman’s work burst onto the scene in 1999 with the release of Being John Malkovich, a deeply strange, surreal story about a puppeteer who discovers a secret tunnel that can transport people into the mind of famed actor John Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time. Enthralled by his discovery, the puppeteer and his colleague begin selling admission into Malkovich’s mind, and, well, things only get stranger from there.

In 2002, another of Kaufman’s scripts, Adaptation, was released as a film starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. That film saw Kaufman writer a version of himself into the movie, which is about himself trying to adapt a book into a movie. It’s very meta, and if meta is your thing, then Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut,  Synecdoche, New York, may be the perfect movie for you. Synecdoche, New York, is about a theater director who makes a play, which ends up being the focus of his play, and the entire operation becomes a funhouse mirror of actors and directors all acting and directing each other’s actions. It’s confusing and existential and a bit mind-bending, which is true of all of Kaufman’s work.

Still, my favorite movie written by Kaufman is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was released in 2004 and tells the story of a man, played by Jim Carrey, seeking to have his longtime girlfriend, played by Kate Winslet, removed from his memories. Like all of his movies, Eternal Sunshine is a deeply moving story that uses surreal elements, dark comedy and some thriller-like sequences to disorient and engage with its audience.

There’s no real use in trying to explain a Kaufman movie,  because they really demand to be experienced, and, in most cases, re-watched for things to really all click into place. Charlie Kaufman’s films manage to be their own thing entirely and, at a time when a lot of people are lamenting the lack of creativity in modern filmmaking, his movies are a real breath of fresh air.

Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are now streaming on Netflix. I’m Thinking of Ending Things premieres on Netflix on September 4. Kaufman’s other films are available to rent.

I’m Evan Rook.

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