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The women of Charlie Kaufman
In I'm Thinking of Ending Things, the new film by acclaimed writer-director Charlie Kaufman, a young woman (played by Jessie Buckley) joins her boyfriend on a road trip to his family's farm, despite her growing misgivings about their relationship. After a brutal storm leaves them all snowed in together, tensions grow more awkward and she cannot shake the feeling that something is deeply and profoundly wrong.
As is befitting of a Charlie Kaufman movie, things get very very weird. At the heart of the movie is Jessie Buckley as the protagonist (nameless in the book, Lucy in the film — though pay attention there), a troubled woman whose life is perpetually adrift, like debris in a gentle breeze. She joins a unique pantheon in modern film as one of the beguiling, frustrating, and wholly unique women of the works of Kaufman.
Kaufman got his start writing on TV series like The Dana Carvey Show and Ned and Stacey before making the jump to film with a bang in the form of Being John Malkovich. Directed by Spike Jonze, then known mostly as a skateboarder who made music videos for Daft Punk and The Beastie Boys, the fantasy-comedy is a singular vision with the kind of set-up — a puppeteer finds a portal in his office building that leads into the mind of distinguished character actor John Malkovich for 15 minutes before extinguishing the intruder onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike — that practically goads the audience into going along with it. What followed was a series of screenplays, some directed by Kaufman himself, that explored ideas of neurosis, surrealism, mortality, and identity through unexpected and frequently unnerving ways. With only eight film screenplays to his name, Kaufman has easily staked his claim to being one of the industry's great writers.
Much has been written about Kaufman over the years. His work easily invites painstakingly detailed dissections and the most outlandish of fan theories (for nothing could be as ludicrous as Kaufman's own ideas). What's given less attention, however, are his heroines. For a writer whose work is heavily defined by his deeply neurotic and often highly unpleasant male protagonists, it's through his female characters where his true intentions shine through.
In Being John Malkovich, John Cusack plays one of the great sleazy sad sacks of '90s cinema, a man with dreams of becoming a revolutionary puppeteer — which is a hilariously pathetic punchline in and of itself — whose discovery of the Malkovich portal sends him on a power-hungry trail with ridiculously low personal stakes and a high human cost. There are two women in Cusack's life: his trodden-down and pet-obsessed wife Lotte (played by Cameron Diaz under a bird's nest of hair), and his chilly femme colleague Maxine, who he has a crush on, even as she seems to have active disdain for him.
As everyone and their mother jumps into the bewildered Malkovich's head for their 15 minutes of fame, a love square forms between Cusack, Malkovich, and the two women, the latter of whom end up together and free of Cusack's inept control (at one point, he locks his wife in a cage with a monkey to keep her in her place). As fascinatingly twisty as Lotte and Maxine are in their relationship and the ways they get one over Cusack, the film's gender politics are difficult to interpret through a 2020 lens. This is a film where, after Lotte has her first trip into Malkovich's mind, she starts asking her allergist for advice on gender-affirmation surgery.
With 2002's Adaptation, Kaufman took real life and flushed it down the toilet. He was famously hired to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief into a serious drama but found himself unable to do so and ended up making a meta-comedy about his own writer's block. Orlean is a real person but Meryl Streep's performance of her is all Kaufman's creation. Streep is a Hollywood icon and The Greatest Actress Of All Time, but seeing her snort drugs and yell at Nick Cage and completely fall apart feels oddly rejuvenating. In a movie where everyone seems to be falling apart, Orlean is the one who is doing so in the most spectacular manner. She offers a fascinating flip side to other Kaufman women, who are obsessed over by men as unknowable creatures whose very essence may offer them salvation. Instead, she desperately clings to Chris Cooper's John Laroche, the orchid thief in question, in the hopes that his obsession with these valuable flowers will rub off on her and revive something dead inside her. She projects so much onto him despite plenty of evidence that he's not some misunderstood profound genius but just another crank.
Perhaps the most notable heroine of Kaufman's work is Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As played by Kate Winslet in a variety of different hair colors, each looking as though she hurriedly did the job over her bathroom sink, Clementine is a free spirit who men eagerly latch onto as a sort of fantasy figure to enhance their lives. She's brash and funny and ultimately a real person, not a fix-all to their problems. For Joel, played by Jim Carrey, she's perfect, right until she isn't, and when they acrimoniously split, they both make a very sensible decision: They choose to entirely erase one another from their respective memories.
The logic behind the work of Lacuna Inc., which specializes in memory erasure, is that one shouldn't have to suffer with the pain, discomfort, or trauma of their own life. Besides, what better way is there to stick it to your ex than to pretend they never existed? To Joel, in the heat of their break-up, Clementine was a mistake, a broken promise who didn't improve his life as he had so dearly hoped for. Clementine is often written off by willfully blind viewers as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a quirky love interest whose esoteric ways bring life to her shy boyfriend's ways. Really, however, she's the truth behind that delusion, a fully rounded and often difficult woman who men project their obsessions onto time and time again. Even Patrick, the Lacuna technician who helps to erase her from Joel's memories, is so taken by the lie that he tries to win her over by imitating her ex. Clementine says it best: "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a f**ked-up girl who's looking for my own peace of mind. Don't assign me yours."
Ultimately, Joel is forced to accept that his past, present, and future are indelibly tied to the times he shared with Clementine, good or bad. Without them, he is not himself. Wiping out huge chunks of your mind doesn't get rid of pain; it just leaves you without growth. Clementine is so inextricably bound to Joel that, after she has been erased, so have most of his emotions and words. He finds himself unable to describe her as being anything but "nice" because even his basic vocabulary is influenced by those memories.
Where Clementine and Joel's story ends with hope, there is no such salvation for Eternal Sunshine's other main female character, Mary (Kirsten Dunst.) As the receptionist at Lacuna and girlfriend of the technician Stan, she is privy to the unique goings-on of memory erasure. She is a perfectly pleasant young woman who nurses a schoolgirl-like crush on her older boss, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, one that seems innocent enough, potential workplace violations aside. It is revealed, however, that not only is she an employee of Lacuna, she's also a patient, having agreed to have her memory erased following an affair with Howard that his wife discovered. Mary only discovers this after trying to kiss Howard once more and reveals her still-lingering feelings. In the script, Mary and Howard's relationship resulted in an unplanned pregnancy, leading to Howard pressuring Mary into an abortion, which was also erased from her mind. The amoral nature of this procedure and the humiliation it inflicts upon Mary are palpable. If Clementine was the magical girl who wouldn't be pliant enough for the men in her life, Mary is the discarded doll, just another woman to throw onto the pile of men's past mistakes. It's chilling, to say the least.
Kaufman's directorial masterpiece is 2008's Synecdoche, New York, an impossible-to-categorize film that blurs the lines between fiction and reality to the point where such boundaries no longer exist. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theatre director whose life falls apart when his wife leaves him and he finds himself suffering from a series of unknown ailments. With his newly rewarded MacArthur Genius Grant, he decides to pursue the ultimate dramatic project by gathering a group of actors inside an enormous warehouse and directing them to live out fully-realized lives 24/7. As the years pass, the project grows in scale and detail, eventually becoming populated with actors hired to play the real people in Hoffman's life. Actors are even "cast" to play actors who play real people.
Kaufman's interest in identity and the oft-thwarted expectations of human emotion have never been on rawer display than there are in Synecdoche, New York. There are so many doppelgängers walking around, imitating one another, that the mere concept of reality becomes pointless. This is exemplified through the women of the story, who Hoffman marries, divorces, reunites with, casts, recasts, and seems to forget these women even exist. The impact on the viewer is dizzying. You're numbed by the sheer assembly line of faces who all look eerily like one another and seem destined to play the same role in Hoffman's life. In the end, however, they all still leave him. His muses are still human. Not even the director gets final say over life itself.
It's rare for Kaufman's men to find peace. They're often too scrambled by their privilege and neuroses to figure out the best route towards such a concept. What he keenly exposes throughout his work, however, is a startling self-awareness over how women are so frequently reduced to near-inhuman male fantasies, and how that process never ends well. Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl can be messed up too. Your muse will make her own art. The women you put on pedestals at the expense of those closest to you will not take kindly to your petulance. After all, that's not how life works, and Kaufman will happily mock you guys for thinking that it does.