The Austin Chronicle

A Master of Melancholy

By Kimberley Jones, October 14, 2008, 5:42pm, Picture in Picture

I know you're fond of sweeping declarations, ergo: Charlie Kaufman is the greatest screenwriter of the 21st century.

I'm not saying his every film is perfect – I know you're just champing at the bit to get at Human Nature, and, for me, Being John Malkovich (which was '99, actually) is the one that's most distancing. But when you line them all up in a row, it's an astonishingly good and still getting better body of work: ever-inventive, challenging, heady, but also – and here's where I think you'll balk – heartfelt.

Because he has such a distinctive voice, and because he wrote "himself" into a script (Adaptation), I think it's considered cool to kiss off Charlie Kaufman – as a nut, a neurotic, a scattershot talent who's all smoke and mirrors. Bah. Those "pyrotechnics" – a word he's used himself, and not necessarily as a pat on his own back – are a fundamental part of what makes a Charlie Kaufman script so very Charlie Kaufman. But the existence of pyrotechnics doesn't equal an absence of heart. At worst, those plot acrobatics are a distraction; at best, a brand-new way of seeing the world.

Maybe I don't mean heart – I mean humanism. Kaufman's movies – which are Big Idea kind of movies – are all about what it means to be human, and to be human is to be self-absorbed and cowardly, to be loved not enough or not at all, to be a disappointment to yourself and to others. Not a pretty picture.

But I don't find Kaufman's films to be dispiriting in the least. Take Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – a film whose very thesis is that, when given the choice, we will choose again and again to love and be loved painfully and imperfectly... because what the hell else is there, really? It's just about the most romantic movie of the last decade – not a cookie-cutter kind of romance, but an absolutely clear-eyed one.

Maybe it just comes down to how you read the world. Indulge me with two examples.

I went to see Eternal Sunshine for the first time with my best friend. When we walked out of the theater, I said that the film made me really want to fall in love again. She said it made her never want to fall in love ever again. We watched – and both loved – the same movie, but it inspired radically different responses.

And then last Friday we saw Kaufman's new film, his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. You said you never wanted to see the movie again. I said I wanted to go right back into the theater and watch it again straight away. Granted, a second viewing is mandatory in part because of Kaufman's "so-called narrative incomprehensibility" – Synecdoche, New York is a masterful mind fuck of a film. But mostly I wanted to slide back into the mood, his particular rendering of the muckity-muck that makes up being a human. It's depressing as all get-out, but also deeply moving.

My heart's big enough for both Kaufmans, Charlie and George S. – and You Can't Take It With You was a real charmer, wasn't it? But if I have to choose, then, yes, it comes down to the way I read the world, which lines right up with the way I imagine Charlie Kaufman does, too.

In short: Charlie Kaufman sings in the key of melancholy, and he is absolutely singing my song.

[Fair warning -- the below clip is the last two minutes of the movie, so, you know, um, spoiler alert.]

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