Jim Carrey wrestles with his inner child—this time with feeling.

Being Charlie Kaufman

Eternal Sunshine makes the case
for screenwriter as auteur.

by Coury Turczyn

Charlie Kaufman is an auteur. There, I said it.

Normally I wouldn’t dare buck 50-odd years of critical indoctrination that only directors can be considered the "authors" of their films, but Mr. Kaufman presents us with a few problems. First, he’s not a director. He’s actually a screenwriter–the lowest rung on the Hollywood evolutionary ladder. As everyone knows, writers are interchangeable (and often disposable) worker drones whose dialogue can be changed on the spot by petulant actors or coke-addicted directors. Second, and most importantly, his screenplays are uniquely his own. No matter who directs his scripts–be it Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry or George Clooney–there is no mistaking the fact that the resulting movies are Charlie Kaufman movies. These are his plots, his characters, his story structures–because no one else could possibly have devised them.

Look at the evidence: His first produced film, Being John Malkovich (1999), pondered the consequences of being able to control the body of actor John Malkovich. (I’ve often wondered how the pitch session for that movie went over at various studios. Kaufman: "It will be an offbeat examination of personal identity when our main character, an underachieving puppeteer, discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich." Studio executive: "Couldn’t it be Bruce Willis? And couldn’t he be the President? And instead of a puppeteer, how about an ingenious Arab terrorist?") Then there’s the nearly unseen Human Nature (2001), a nature vs. nurture comedy that involves an hirsute love triangle; Adaptation (2002), about how screenwriter Charlie Kaufman can’t figure out how to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief (so what is truth, anyway?); and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), a, yes, adaptation of Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ crazed autobiography. (Disowned by Kaufman, who accused Clooney of rewriting his script, Mind nevertheless still exudes Kaufman-ness.)

With his latest produced script, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (henceforth to be referred to as ESOTSM), Kaufman seals the deal on his auteur status. It has all the Kaufman hallmarks, including an unshaven schlep as the main protagonist, a non-linear narrative, a Twilight Zone-like plot hook, and bemused contemplation of un-amusing things like the impermanence of love. Yes, it’s quintessentially quirky–but with a depth that most quirky movies never even approach.

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet co-star as a couple whose breakup results in an unusual conflict. Clementine (Winslet) is so annoyed by Joel’s (Carrey) presence in her life that she opts to have all memories of him deleted from her brain. When Joel discovers this, he becomes so incensed that he, too, chooses to have Clementine literally erased from his life. As he undergoes the procedure, however, he finds that not all his memories are bad ones… but can he stop the induced brain damage before it’s too late?

Several critics have charged that ESOTSM is a movie "you admire more than love"–as if every film about love must be lovable itself. The strictures of Hollywood romantic comedies have conditioned us to believe that movie couples must be attractive, sweet natured, and undoubtedly meant for each other. We must fall in love with their love. Kaufman’s characters, on the other hand, are troubled, flawed, insecure, and possibly not good for each other–you know, just like real people. Joel is creative yet uncommunicative, introspective to the point of wimpiness. Clementine is flamboyant and not entirely in control of herself, taking her self-possession past other people’s limits. You have to wonder: Are these two really meant for each other? But how many couples do you personally know who complement each other perfectly?

Love, as viewed by Kaufman, involves more than walks along scenic beaches. (In fact, the beaches in ESOTSM are typically barren and cold.) Romantic relationships are imperfect social pacts that can be upturned over petty details like hairy soap bars or over slow agonies like silent restaurant dinners together. Love means having to accept hurtful incompatibilities as well as delirious harmonies. (When Elijah Wood’s lab assistant tries to woo Clementine by using only Joel’s good experiences, he fails miserably.)

But Kaufman is posing an even bigger question here: If we were able to erase the pain from our lives, would we really be better off? (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions–movies sometimes allow you to do that, and ESOTSM is one of them.)

ESOTSM is smoothly put together by French music-video director Michel Gondry (Human Nature), who manages to keep the script’s discombobulated chronology trackable. And rather than packing the screen with digital effects, Gondry admirably stays mostly low-tech in conceptualizing what amounts to a science fiction movie. (You can imagine the glee he must have felt to throw Carrey into a giant kitchen sink to be bathed as if a baby.) But if Kaufman is ESOTSM’s true auteur as the screenwriter, then cinematographer Ellen Kuras is its translator into film. By simply employing depth of field and shadow, Kuras envisions Joel’s fading memories as ghostly images being chased into oblivion by a glaring strobe of light. It’s dizzying and unsettling.

So, no: ESOTSM is not a movie that’ll make you feel comfortable, warm, or fuzzy. And it is a film you can admire as you think about the issues it raises in its own distinctly entertaining way. The fact that Charlie Kaufman has forged a career creating such movies is remarkable. Can he keep writing distinctive scripts without rendering his hallmarks into Kaufman clichés? I’ll bet he’s worrying about it already, if not written about it.

 

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