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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Manipulating Storytellers: von Trier and Kaufman (Pt. 2)

(Forewarning: spoilers for just about all of Kaufman’s movies follow, except Synecdoche.)

As I hinted at the end of the last post, the reason Kaufman’s movies appeals to me more than von Trier’s is their openness to both the fact that we manipulate the things about which we tell stories and the fact that we are in turn manipulated by them. von Trier focuses on the human relationship of manipulator and manipulated, and though he is obviously concerned with the repercussions (Dogville) or lack thereof (Dancer), he is only secondarily concerned with how that relationship originated or its reflexive properties. Hence, Grace simply moves from persecuted to persecutor like a chess piece moving spaces, a feat that succeeds due to the overtly allegorical tone of the film, with its historical names, bare set, and chapter titles.

Looking back, the theme of reflexive manipulation becomes apparent in nascent form through most of Kaufman’s movies. There’s the tragic version in Being John Malkovich, when Craig ends up trapped in his wife’s child after attempting to reenter Malkovich, and the comic version in Eternal Sunshine, when Joel and Clementine decide to pursue their relationship despite the knowledge that it hurt them both tremendously the first time around— an ending still potentially tragic, or at best bitter-sweetly comic. (Interestingly, neither were the original endings in the draft scripts, which Kaufman rewrote at the director’s request. The original script for Malkovich goes crazy in the end, revealing that Lester, through a pact with Satan, becomes the literal puppet overlord of the world by controlling Malkovich [and I do mean literally: the final shot pans up the filaments attached to Craig’s arms as he tricks Lotte out of her Eden-like safe-haven from Lester’s control]; Eternal Sunshine ended with Clementine returning as an old women to Merzwiak’s clinic, oblivious that this is her fifth erasure of Joel, an ending still hinted at in the loop over which the credits roll.)

In Adaptation, this theme gets its first full treatment, though it is still subordinate to Kaufman’s most prominent theme of the inextricability of reality and fiction from each other. Charlie is attempting to faithfully adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but he is paralyzingly afraid of cliché and generic tropes. Talking to the agent who has enlisted him to adapt the book, he says he doesn’t want to ‘cram in’ “sex, or car chases, or guns.” He’d “rather let the movie exist than be artificially plot driven.” On the other hand, his out of work brother, Donald, decides to give screenwriting a shot, using what amounts to the cut and paste method of making a psychological thriller, hobbling together every cliché in the genre. His screenplay is the definition of the artificiality Charlie rails against. Early on, when Donald first tells Charlie that he’s going to write a screenplay about a serial killer, cop, and victim who are all really the same person with multiple personality disorder, Charlie berates him, saying that the only cliché more overused than serial killers is multiple personalities, and “on top of that you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.” Just before this, Charlie has told us his what a real writer does: “A writer should always have that goal [to do something new]. Writing is a journey into the unknown.”

As the movie progresses, we begin to see that this preconception of what ‘writing is’ has locked Charlie into writer’s block. In order to justify the conception of the story which he wants to present— that is, a story which isn’t ‘artificial’ and which just ‘exists’— he has to return to the beginning of the universe and work his way forward to himself, whom he inserts into the script, thereby shoehorning originality— the banal originality of himself and everything— into it. If there is a solipsistic narcissism in Kaufman’s movies, as the friend I mentioned in the previous post argued Caden exhibits, it is thoroughly lampooned here. Charlie the character is initially blind to his own egotism. But the title and theme of the movie begin their surreptitious movement to the foreground once Charlie hits rock bottom. At one point, Laroche and Orlean discuss evolution and adaptation:

Laroche: Adaptation’s a profound process. It means you figure out how to thrive in the world
Orlean: Yeah, but it’s easy for plants… they have no memory… they just move on to the next thing. For a person… it’s almost shameful.

And it is, both necessary to thrive and shameful. Charlie first, at his brother’s suggestion, begrudgingly goes to the screen-writing seminar which his brother attended, then, at his agent’s suggestion, calls on his brother to help him finish the script. Instantly (and hilariously), the script as we are seeing it presented in movie form is inundated with sex, guns, drugs, and car chases. Underlying this shift is Charlie’s freedom from his egotistic obsession with originality and honesty. Charlie’s own freedom from writer’s block and his ability to finish the script come with the release of his own idea of what he ‘knows’ about writing, thus allowing, paradoxically, his own ‘journey into the unknown’ via the generic and clichéd. Consequently, we as audience implicitly acknowledge that we enjoy being manipulated by such a ridiculously ‘generic’ action story as the last half of the movie becomes. If the movie lampoons writerly solipsism, it equally and preemptively lampoons those critics and viewers who will mock the last half of the movie for being ‘too clever’ or ‘too generic.’ Like Dancer in the Dark, the viewer must implicitly play along with the story’s author or remain outside to judge it as sexist and exploitative or overly clever and clichéd, a position where one is prey to the deeper criticisms both scripts level at themselves.

Adaptation comically examines the relationship between fiction and reality, be it as mundane as the effect sexual fantasies have on our encounter with those people about whom we fantasize or, to grander effect, the fact that Donald Kaufman is the only fictional person to ever get an Oscar nomination. But, like Dogville, Synecdoche forces this recognition on some explicitly conscious level. One cannot ‘just enjoy it’ as one does Adaptation, with only implicit complicity. To ‘enjoy’ it in that sense, to see the comedy in the solipsistic tragedy of an aging and ill artist pursuing his inevitable doom, one must explicitly engage it as fiction. One must manipulate it and be willingly manipulated by it, and recognize that doing such is both necessary and shameful for innumerable reasons.

Part 3, chock full of spoilers for Synecdoche, should be coming up quickly. See it if you haven’t and can.

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Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche, von Trier

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