Friday, October 09, 2015

FADE OUT: On Hollywood's Visionaries

There are certain things you try to find comfort in on this hideous world, one of which is that once in a while a unique vision shines through the sludge of sameness and finds a niche in the entertainment world. It gives you a ray of hope, that maybe the Orwellian nightmare we are living in might one day relent.

The modest yet remarkable success of a unique voice like Charlie Kaufman was one of those anomalies for me. Kaufman to me is like a synthesis of vintage Woody Allen and Philip K. Dick, a blending that seems so completely unlikely until you see it and realize it makes perfect sense. 

Longtime readers know of my admiration for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the tour de force Kaufman created with French hotfoot Michel Gondry. Sunshine was that rare opportunity of harmonization of opposites, when a fizzy extrovert like Gondry syncs up with a dour pessimist like Kaufman. 

But there's also the achingly beautiful soundtrack of Jon Brion and the natural charisma of the film's all-star cast. Moments like that are rare in any medium and seem to be receding beyond the horizon in movies.

The PKD influence is startlingly obvious in Sunshine, since you clearly see that the film is an inverse pastiche of Total Recall, which boasted to create memories instead of erase them. It probably was birthed the day Kaufman saw that film and wished there were a company that would do the very opposite of the one in the movie, probably around the time of a painful breakup.

But Kaufman's most remarkable PKD tribute has to be Adaptation, which wears its VALIS colors on its sleeve.

As in VALIS, Kaufman creates a rather unflattering caricature of himself in Adaptation and splits himself off into a cheery alter ego --in this case a twin brother who is burdened by none of the self-loathing and nagging doubts that plague the Charlie character (Kaufman went so far to credit the fictional brother with co-writing the script). As in VALIS  there is a metanarrative, another film existing within the film. 

As in VALIS  Kaufman wildly fictionalizes- if not scandalizes- real people (VALIS creates insane alter egos of David Bowie and Brian Eno, whose work Dick was entranced by, particularly the former's Man Who Fell to Earth). As in VALIS  the only escape from an ugly, meaningless world is visionary experience.

The first Kaufman fim I saw was Being John Malkovich, starring onetime Secret Sun resonator John Cusack. At the time it just seemed like another 90s indie novelty, but one that stuck in my own head for some time. It seems slight in comparison to Kaufman's later work but still head and shoulders above most of its class.

None of Kaufman's films are blockbusters. They're too cerebral and downbeat. But they are the kind of prestige projects that major stars fight to work on, in between the parade of generic bilge that pays the poolboy. Or rather were

Out of curiosity- and in the middle of a furious search for the Synedoche, New York DVD that seems to have vanished from my wife's studio- I checked out Kaufman's wiki page to see what he was up to. I felt a wave of depression hit me.

Kaufman was slated to write and direct a film with the working title Frank or Francis. Few details have been confirmed about the plot except that it is a musical comedy about internet anger culture.[18] In July 2012, Jack Black, who was to star in the film, revealed in an interview that funding for the project had fallen through, as the studio was unsure about its chances for success after the financial failure of Kaufman's last directorial effort. The future of the project is uncertain. 
Dino Stamatopoulos, a former colleague of Kaufman's from The Dana Carvey Show, became interested in adapting Kaufman's Anomalisa play script into a stop motion animated film. With Kaufman's permission, Stamatopoulos turned to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter in order to fund the film. The Kickstarter page for the film was set up in August 2012 and by the time funding had ended $406,237 was pledged.[19] It is premiering at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2015. 
Trying to make a return to television, Kaufman directed and wrote a pilot for FX titled How and Why in 2014. The plot was described as being about a "man who can explain how and why a nuclear reactor works but is clueless about life". FX decided to not pick up the pilot, but it has been shopped to other outlets.[20]

Now, I haven't seen any of these projects. Maybe he's hit a dry spell and isn't producing the kind of work he once did. But the reviews for Anomalisa have been pretty stellar, so I doubt that. What's changed is the business around him.

What we are seeing is the end of an age when studios would finance a Charlie Kaufman project, not for the wild profits but for the prestige. But knowing the kind of mercenary attitudes that rule corporate America these days it seems there's no margin in prestige anymore.

But when I see the dreck that fills the local Redbox I wonder how did this get financed? Who thought this direct-to-video disaster would ever turn a profit? Was it produced simply for the writeoff?

I'm glad Twin Peaks is being revived and I'm glad David Lynch is involved. But the last we heard from him he was out of the picture business. In a better world, making The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr would earn him some kind of emeritus status, and the same would go to Charlie Kaufman. 

I'm very happy Anomalisa got financing through Kickstarter but it should never have had to, in my estimation. A civilized society would recognize its gifts- in this case, its geniuses- and nurture them, not send them off begging for donations (for a crummy half million dollars, no less). 

What have we become?

Despite all of the lurid and deliberately misleading headlines you see these days I'm not worried about actual robots running around. What I am worried about is the robotization of human thinking, the radical reduction of human creativity. 

That worries me very much.


  1. Yeah, it's amazing that actors like Robert Duvall had to finance his own film The Apostle. From what I understand studio executives said it had too much dialogue. It's an interesting balance is it not? I guess the whole suffering for one's art can truly be a satisfying experience in the end, but more support would be nice. On another note, that's really cool to know PKD was into Bowie and Eno. Not only was he a great writer, but he had a great taste in music as well.

  2. I had hoped that Charlie Kaufman had retired and ‘got out of the game’ while he was on top. The reality is depressing, yet dare I say it, Kaufmanesque. I know Synedoche, New York did not do much business but it was a thousand times better than what passes for adult entertainment nowadays. I guess this is some kind of barometer as to where our culture is at if such a talent is so easily marginalized?

    Your statement about the robotization of human thinking struck a nerve. I’m fascinated with the idea that the fear of the rise of the machines is part of some kind of projection and that flesh and blood people are turning to machine-like thought processes to keep any sort of individuation at bay—something possibly connected with the ongoing twilight of our industrialized civilization.

    “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.” C.G. Jung

    Charlie Kaufman’s work showed that he was definitely not afraid to look within. Maybe the Hollywood machine will toss him a Lego movie or something …

    1. Turning into machine thought process's would be lessened by putting that insane detractor, smart phones, in the trash compactor. It is only the Trick of the tail! Respectfully, Dennis

  3. I'm a big Kaufman fan too, Chris. Great movies are still being made outside of the Hollywood machine but in terms of big studio movies I find myself more frequently revisiting favourites from my childhood and youth. Being a visionary is lonely and not much fun, I'd wager.

  4. Thank you for the tip, anyway. It looks like it may be a great film. I can't wait to see it. I'd say the prestige'd be all Kaufman's this time around, but it appears there's a distributor who taking a piece of the icing. (Couldn't you just imagine a "Best Distributor" speech?)

    Your Allen-PKD take is spot on. I never thought of that. Nice. And Tim Horan is on to something with his description of the state of things: very few are worthy of the esque suffix; Kaufman is one of them. In spite of what some may think about his stylistic repetition, he was building a body of work worthy of a viable genre.

    In spite of the historically rigorous hands-on approach by the studios, they used to manage to get good stuff made. People of creative vision at least had the ear of the bean counters.

    I feel like deep state has more control of production today than ever. If it's not Nolan's soft-propaganda or the worse abuse of DC Marvel archives, or Bigelowesque straight forward hammer over the head on "the complex debate" surrounding empire policy, what's left? Bad comedies?

    Interesting you mention Lynch, who like you said looked to have abandoned it all together, but only after swearing off film forever in favor of video, which it appeared he was sold enough on that he'd continue in that vein. It reminded me at the time of Alex Cox' coined "microfeature".

    Cox has recently gone to indigogo for funding for his idea of a Kurasawa-esque multiple perspective, retelling of the OK Coral tale. Not many takers.

  5. I found Synecdoche New York to be disturbing, depressing and creepy. While I wasn't satisfied with the whole thing structurally, I have to say that if a film disturbs me (like Eraserhead) then it's working well on one level at least.

  6. just what i needed to hear. i feel like a lot of this also applies alternately to Terry Gilliam, Sacha Baron Cohen and/or Uwe Boll. especially the mob tax loophole production agenda, there's probably a really good word for that but im not thinking of it.