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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche, von Trier

Manipulating Storytellers: von Trier and Kaufman (Pt. 1)

Caden Cotard unintentionally upsets his daughter, while “just trying to explain plumbing,” when he says that it’s nothing to be afraid of, that’s it’s everywhere. She responds with a shocked, “Every single where?!” It’s a fear that seems to prevail in Synecdoche, NY, both in its main character, forever expanding his project, and its viewers, trying to keep track of everything. The movie is indeed monstrous in its scope. It takes you over. One friend commented that it’s one of the only movies he’s seen that puts you in the mood to watch it, whereas most movies you’re “in the mood for” before you decide to watch them. Another friend reacted negatively to such extreme manipulation, essentially criticizing it as not playing fair— it forces you to have an empathetic reaction to a character he felt to be so blind to his own absurdity and selfishness that he doesn’t merit empathy. Another thought it interesting but severely bloated, that Kaufman didn’t have a handle on what he was trying to do and so had to continually introduce new characters and subplots just to keep it afloat. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche, von Trier

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