Sunday, May 13, 2012

It Sure Do Bother Me to See My Loved Ones Turning Into Puppets

In the satirical interview with director Spike Jonze conducted by Perkus Tooth (it's safe to assume this is actually Jonathan Lethem, "Perkus Tooth" being the name of a character from Lethem's novel Chronic City) printed in the booklet for the upcoming Criterion release of Jonze's Being John Malkovich, Tooth, or "Tooth," gets going early on the joke with this:

[A]t 4:15 John Cusack sits on his couch beside Elijah the chimpanzee, desultorily paging through the New York Post, an edition celebrating New York Yankees pitcher David Cone's July 18, 1999, perfect game. The front-page headline reads, "Awesome!" while the rear sports page indulges the woeful pun "Conegrats!" "Awesome" and "Conegrats" together can be anagrammatized to "Get across name woe," "Came onstage worse," while "Conegrats" by itself translates to "Angst core" -- perhaps a tad unsubtle here? David Cone's special rooting section was known as the Coneheads -- derived, of course, from the Dan Aykroyd-Jane Curtin franchise Saturday Night Live sketch -- and they often wore the plastic head costumes, thereby in totality conveying the rebus: alien visitor (alienation) plus head plus cone (or funnel, or tunnel) plus Post (delivery, i.e., birth canal). For the more alert viewer, you barely needed carry on with the film beyond that point, its payload had been so satisfactorily conveyed.

Pretty funny, and also not an altogether bad idea. Being John Malkovich is of course the well-known brain-teaser from 1999, directed by Jonze and written by the then mostly unknown Charlie Kaufman, in which a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich is discovered behind a filing cabinet by Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), in his exceptionally low-ceilinged workplace one night while working late and pining over the sexy but cold-hearted Maxine (Catherine Keener) and basically acting outside of his home as though his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) doesn't exist, or only barely exists. Cusack is a file clerk by trade for a company called LesterCorp, headed by the obliviously eccentric Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), but a puppeteer at heart, of the not very common deep art/street performer variety, and in the scene directly preceding the one where Craig finds the Malkovich portal, Craig explains to Maxine that puppetry is a way to live inside someone else's body and see through someone else's eyes. Then a minute or so later, boom, Malkovich portal. Rarely have I seen a metaphor or theme stated so baldly, and then so rapidly and shamelessly manifested as plot. This is the sort of thing that, 999 times out of 1,000, will get any other film crucified, but in 1999 Being John Malkovich found that post-modern, mind-game sweet spot that apparently everybody, or enough people, hadn't realized they'd been longing for, and as a result the film very routinely finds itself on lists of the best films of the 1990s. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman got careers out of it, with Kaufman being one of the few screenwriters to be noticed as a human being with a name, and his particular brand of smirking unusualness knocked more than a few people for a loop.
Myself, I've never trusted the guy -- I say this even though one of Kaufman's early credits is as a writer on my beloved Get A Life. But I very quickly became sick -- this happened as I was first watching Being John Malkovich in the theaters, in fact -- of Kaufman, for instance, stripping very old science fiction concepts of their SF accoutrements and riding that disguised genre into the open arms of people who think they don't like genre material and therefore don't read/watch it, and therefore marvel at the very idea that anybody, say Charlie Kaufman or whoever, could ever come up with stuff this original and smart, never mind that Kaufman and Jonze have already treated you as so thunderously stupid that you needed to be explicitly told what the film was about right before being shown what it was about. Show, don't tell, but if at all possible do both very loudly. So Kaufman would do this sort of thing, or he would take a genuinely good idea, an actually new approach to post-modernism, and then panic when things started getting too sincere. I'm talking about Adaptation here, a film about the act of literary-to-cinematic adaptation, and about what's lost and what's compromised, and about writer's block, and about Charlie Kaufman, and about commercialism and art, and reality, all that. But more than anything, Adaptation is a film about becoming a joke, and making everything that had come before the joke a joke, too, and it's about people deciding proudly that the only way to not like the joke is to not get the joke, and come on, you like jokes, don't you? Quentin Tarantino said of Adaptation something to the effect of (paraphrased) "Never before have I been so invested in a movie only to be completely thrown out of it by the end." I know how he feels.

Being John Malkovich has its moments. My favorite performance in the film is by, no, not Cameron Diaz, silly, but rather Orson Bean, who is never less than funny as the bizarre company head who it is later revealed to have a somewhat wearisome connection to the Malkovich portal, and I'm grateful to at least Jonze for introducing me, as far as I can remember, to Catherine Keener. And by far the most interesting thing about the film is where it's willing to leave John Malkovich himself. Malkovich is also extremely good in what in concept must seem like an entirely bizarre role, but which he quite effortlessly racks it up as another in a long line of calmly, smartly and articulately intense performances. But anyway, the film leaves Malkovich as Malkovich in a place that is fairly ballsy -- people who play themselves in movies are not often made to portray themselves being so thoroughly destroyed, as Malkovich is here. But of course, the film sort of carves itself out a door, there, by naming Malkovich John Horatio Malkovich, not the real Malkovich's real full name. It's unclear to me why Jonze and/or Kaufman (or Malkovich?) would consider it necessary to hedge their bets in this way, but it of course has the effect of slightly undermining whatever effect Malkovich's fate had achieved. But then again, this is one of those movies That Says A Lot About Identity, so maybe this is just part of that. Except, however discerning my taste for post-modernism, I always liked the whole Malkovich angle here, and would have vastly preferred it if Kaufman and Jonze had not fucking winked their way through that, something that is already one massive wink, as well. In any event, just as a by the way on the topic of celebrity, Being John Malkovich extends its approach to the subject beyond Malkovich himself (or, you know, "himself"; rarely has a film been more filled with quotation marks) to include a few other celebrity cameos -- for jokes! -- and while I'm not against this very popular custom in theory, I'm beginning to think I am in practice, because never before has it left me with such a sense of spiritual deflation as when Charlie Sheen and Sean Penn suddenly show up here.
I lay most of the blame for all this, needless, probably, to say, on Kaufman, Jonze seeming to me to be a quite good director who has grown past his knock-off Coen brothers ambitions in Being John Malkovich to the much more interesting and individual (for all its already noted faults) Adaptation, and on to the, to me, legitimately brilliant Where The Wild Things Are. I'm sure Kaufman thrust his scripts upon an unwilling Jonze. So I've been mostly down on Kaufman, is my point, for years, with the maybe glancing exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which struck me as quite possibly a good film, and one that I might consider watching again someday. I'm afraid that's as much as I'm prepared to offer on that one. Just to square the ledger, I'll note that I've seen Kaufman and director Michel Gondry's Human Nature, and it functions for me as perhaps the inverse of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that it struck me as an exceptionally bad film I hope to never have to even think about again; and also the Kaufman-scripted Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a movie I actually kind of like, but which Kaufman has disowned. So make of that what you will.
Oh, but we're not done yet, and who looks stupid now? Having put it off for years, I finally settled down last night to watch Kaufman's directorial debut, the divisive Synecdoche, New York, and I came damn close to loving it from beginning to end. The richest film, by far, of anything Kaufman's had anything to do with up to now, Synecdoche, New York picks up on several of his pet themes, such as death and aging, art and failure, sex and gender confusion (what was little more than a gag in Being John Malkovich becomes here a real, but not overblown, aspect of the personality of Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as the concept of a meta commentary on all the things being commented on, and the mode of comment, and the medium, and whatever the fuck else, it's all here in Synecdoche, New York. The film is unquestionably in keeping with Kaufman's shtick, but with the film, at the same time, Kaufman seems to be saying, among lots else, "Sorry for being such a dick before." Though tough and even a little cruel at times, Synecdoche, New York is more than anything (well, maybe not more than anything) a very kind film, and generous, in a lot of different ways.

To try to summarize Synecdoche, New York, while maybe not a fool's game, it's at least a considerably more reductive one than summarization normally, by definition, already is. But anyway, Caden Cotard is a theater director who, at the beginning of the film, is staging a production of Death of a Salesman with an all-young cast. He is married to Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter of very small pictures, and has a daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein). At his theater, he has a flirting relationship with Hazel, the girl who runs the box office (Samantha Morton), and is possibly worshiped by his lead actress Claire (Michelle Williams). As Caden finds himself crumbling in the face of Hazel's considerable charms, his marriage is slowly coming undone, helped along in part by Caden's exhausting hypochondria, and also by a revelation from Adele at their couples' therapy that she'd fantasized that Caden was dead and she was free to start over, and also by Adele's dismissal of his production of Death of a Salesman, which in fairness is pretty ridiculous, as just a waste of time he could be spending on creating something new and vital and his own.
The film proceeds from there to show Caden taking this last bit rather too much to heart. Awarded a Macarthur Genius grant, Caden moves to a new theater -- a massive one -- and brings together an enormous cast and crew to stage what will eventually turn out to be Caden's own life, every part of it, parts being rehearsed (which is the other thing, the play is in a perpetual state of rehearsal) the day after the real events happened. But of course Synecdoche, New York is miles stranger than that. It's a film that includes things like one character, Hazel, purchasing a house that is always at least a little bit on fire (not my favorite bit of the film); or, after Adele has taken Olive to live in Germany without Caden, Caden finding his four-year-old daughter's diary, which at first is filled with adorable four-year-old girl things, but continues on, as the film does, through the years to contain all of Olive's experiences as she grows older (this was one of my favorite bits, clever and sad and endlessly rewarding); or Caden turning his stage into basically an exact copy of the city where he lives, with full buildings and streets, and nothing open to the audience (non-existent anyway) because to have buildings with open walls would be fake. And this last is really, finally, what the film is, structurally, or what it will ultimately become, as Caden's rigorous pursuit of the "real" and the "tough" results in various Cadens (one most prominently played by Tom Noonan) and Hazels (another played by Emily Watson) and maybe two Claires, as Caden must not only portray, say, a domestic scene, but now he must portray his attempt to portray that domestic scene. And all of this proceeding at the same pace as life, rehearsing on into old age.

What Kaufman is himself doing with Caden is taking an artistic archetype that is often romanticized -- the shy hypochondriac who is struggling to create his masterpiece -- and depicting him as essentially useless. Not worthless, which is pretty key, but useless in the sense that such a temperament will result in nothing more than an endless loop of a grind of a miserable self-hating chamber of anxiety and dread. So don't do that! Well, Kaufman isn't trying to solve anyone's problems, but he is looking into the soul of such an artist, or just anybody like that, and finding it wanting. Of course, Kaufman does still have a bit of that "Let me tell you what I mean" business going on, but here, late in the film when Dianne Wiest rather too clearly explains Caden's character to him -- meaning Caden in the play, but also, we know, Caden himself, because, well... -- Kaufman cuts this with a joke, a not unusual occurrence in his work, but, crucially, a much better joke than I'd heretofore been used to from him.
I said earlier that Synecdoche, New York is in some ways a cruel film, and I just a second ago said that Kaufman looks into Caden's soul and finds him wanting, but Kaufman does not do that thing that artists for some reason are not supposed to do, by which I mean, he doesn't hate his characters. Even though he invites us to laugh at Caden (he may be a hypochondriac, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have a lot wrong with him, and when he has a seizure at one point and manages to punch out a call to 911 and croak out "I'm sick!" to the operator, the operator's response of "Ma'am?" made me laugh really hard) it's only because Kaufman knows full well that none of us is any better or different or more, or less, worthy. That a film can be a great deal more soul-crushing as well as much funnier than the more easily slotted black comedy Being John Malkovich without being any one particular thing -- not even, somehow, particularly soul-crushing, finally, when you think about it, I think -- is a very hopeful clue that maybe Kaufman has shed the smart-ass side of himself. Or tempered it. Synecdoche, New York does still have a lot of smart-ass in it.


Noumenon said...

Well done with this. I think I saw SyNY about the same time I stopped writing reviews very regularly - not for that reason, but I recall quite clearly that I gave it 5 yellow question marks instead of stars on my Film list.

So, very interesting, Bill. Easy to read too.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Nou. Five yellow question marks doesn't strike me as an inaccurate assessment of SYNECDOCHE, NY, but I enjoyed being perplexed by it. Besides, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in case ou weren't aware, can act his ass off.

Stacia said...

Just yesterday I was asking myself my daily "Why haven't I seen this yet?" question, and SyNY was the top of my list. I adore Charlie Kaufman, because I'm so very fond of nearly-psychotically flawed people I assume, but I'm not entirely certain. What I enjoyed about Adaptation is what you hated, I think -- the end which was such an enormous emotional let-down, where everything just deflates and becomes ridiculous. It mirrors life in a way I recognize. Life as a series of intense emotional moments where things seem predestined, every action full of magical coincidence, otherworldly connections and Zen-like intuition but which in the bleak light of day become silly and whatever the opposite of magical is.

And may the gods bless you for spelling "shtick" correctly, bill. Go forth and teach others, my friend.

Bob Turnbull said...

"quite possibly a good film, and one that I might consider watching again someday."

What the...?! How can you...?! Don't you...?! (splutter, splutter, splutter). MIGHT???!!!

Heh, sorry Bill, I had to come on all angry like - you may have previously guessed that ESOTSM is my favourite film of this century and easily in my all-time top 10. I can't help but view it as one of the best love stories I've seen realized. It avoids the trappings of "destiny" type romances or "soul mate" stories by having those shreds of memory be to blame for their continued attraction. I love all the practical effects, Kate Winslet, a surprisingly good Carrey, etc., but Kaufman's script is the underpining of it all. I also find a whole lot more to savour in Being John Malkovich, but I really just wanted to stop by and provide my mock contempt at your lack of love for ESOTSM. B-)

Oh, and also to say that I've been spelling shtick wrong all these years. Dammit. I'll stop that now.

bill r. said...

Stacia - Well, what can I say. In my opinion, ADAPTATION just farts itself towards the end credits for about the last half hour.

And I just taught Bob how to spell "shtick."

Bob - I said I'd probably watch it again! Isn't that enough? Anyway, shortly before posting this, my wife picked it up at a yard sale, so it's in the collection now. I hope you're satisfied, for Chrissake.