Want to be knowledgable about our filmmaker of the month without committing yourself to an entire filmography? Then you need the Hell Is For Hyphenates Cheat Sheet: a recommended double that will make you an insta-expert in the director we’re about to discuss…
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999) and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)
Okay, given our cheat sheets usually comprise of two films, two substitutions and a hidden gem, it kind of limits our options here. But even if Kaufman had made a hundred films, we’d still have no choice but to recommend these two. Being John Malkovich is still the first film most people think of when you mention Kaufman: the high-concept meta comedy/drama/fantasy/everything did not for a second rest on the laurels of an albeit compelling hook. When a puppeteer discovers a secret portal that allows him to possess the body of character actor John Malkovich (playing himself), he becomes enamoured by all the possibilities this offers. Kaufman explores every single facet of this idea, anticipating every question you could possible have when coming out of the theatre – “What happens if two people through the portal at once?” “What happens if Malkovich himself goes through the portal?” “What would happen if he was friends with Charlie Sheen?” – and sees them through in a way that is both inevitable and completely unexpected. It’s a hell of a debut. You’ll want to pair that double with Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut. This is a film way, way ahead of its time, exploring questions of existentialism in a way that would make Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Satre bury their faces in the popcorn. When a theatre director is given a fellowship to pursue any artistic endeavour he chooses, he collects a group of actors to live out their lives within a warehouse, gradually and increasingly building a scale model of the city that lies outside the warehouse doors. And that doesn’t begin to scrape the surface of what this film is. Spend an evening watching these films back-to-back, and you’ll be able to talk Charlie Kaufman with the best of them.
Substitutions: If you can’t get or are already familiar with Being John Malkovich, check out the equally-meta Adaptation (2002) which actually begins with Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) on the set of his first film, Being John Malkovich. If you can’t get Synecdoche, New York, seek out Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), the stunning, pitch-perfect film about how we deal with love and pain and memory.
The Hidden Gem: Want to seek out something from off the beaten track? Well, with Kaufman, everything is off the beaten track. But the least-known of all of his films is certainly Human Nature, the 2001 film that marked the first collaboration between Kaufman and his future Eternal Sunshine director Michael Gondry. It’s not really as beloved as it should be, due to all of Kaufman’s other films being hailed as all-time cinematic classics. But remove the burden of that benchmark and you’ll find a damn funny film that’s well worth the time.
The next episode of Hell Is For Hyphenates, featuring Desiree Akhavan talking Charlie Kaufman, will be released on the morning of February 28 (AEST).