Charlie Kaufman Peaked in 2004. It’s Been Downhill Ever Since.
Eternal Sunshine is bittersweet. The movies he went on to make are just bitter.
The idea for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which turns 19 years old on March 19, reportedly came from director Michel Gondry and his friend Pierre Bismuth. The two suspected a story about people erasing exes from their memories would go down well in Hollywood, and they were right. Smelling potential, studio execs wrestled one another over the pitch.
This both excited and frightened Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind the critically acclaimed Being John Malkovich, whom Gondry had approached to turn said pitch into a screenplay. During the development process, Kaufman resisted pressure to concentrate on the film’s technology aspect and turn Eternal Sunshine from the deeply personal love story he envisioned into a mass-marketable sci-fi thriller.
“You don’t see movies that show a lot of the stress of the relationship,” he later remarked. “I am always sort of trying to fight that kind of thing in my work because I feel that there’s a fantasy world that’s presented to people when they go to the movies. Speaking for myself, I’ve been very frustrated trying to find in my life what I see in movies, in terms of relationships or anything. Life is not like that, and so I sort of set out in my screenplays to try and write something that seems real to me, or true.”
This wasn’t the first time that Kaufman discussed his dissatisfaction with the film industry, by the way, nor would it be the last. “We are trained to believe that what we do is secondary to what they do,” he told the Writers Guild Awards earlier this month. “They tricked us into thinking we can’t do it without them. The truth is they can’t do anything of value without us.”
Kaufman’s insistence on brutal honesty – an honesty he does not see in modern-day blockbusters – is an important but often overlooked aspect of his work. It’s also been crucial to his success as a filmmaker, even if it hasn’t always led to the same result. In the case of Eternal Sunshine, his willingness to question whether love exists translated into something bittersweet. The movies he went on to make, by contrast, are just bitter.
The Verge once described Kaufman’s oeuvre as “an imaginative inspection of what’s actually happening beneath the surface of what we perceive to be reality.” In his earlier work – Eternal Sunshine included – what’s actually happening is mostly left up to interpretation. His later work is a bit more explicit. Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut about a theater director afraid of dying, concludes with the following dialogue delivered in voice-over:
“As the people who adore you stop adoring you... as they move on, as you shed them, as you shed your beauty, your youth, as the world forgets you, as you recognize your transience, as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one, as you learn there is no one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving. Not coming from any place, not arriving any place, just driving, counting off time. Now, you are here. It’s 7:43. Now, you are here. It’s 7:44. Now, you are… gone.”
I had the misfortune of watching Synecdoche for the first time as a freshman in college – a time when I suffered from depression and anxiety without knowing it. The film, whose bleak outlook on life seemed to confirm my own, got so under my skin that its soundtrack would play in my head whenever I failed a test, got stood up on a date, or saw fit to turn any other negative experience into a full-blown existential crisis.
I used to consider Synecdoche to be the best movie I ever saw, and while I still can’t deny it’s great at what it does – convincing you life is cruel and, ultimately, not worth living – I no longer recommend it to people because, well, it tries to convince you life is cruel and not worth living. The same, to a lesser extent, goes for Anomalisa, a beautifully made but harrowingly told stop-motion fable about a depressed customer sales agent named Michael). Then, there’s his most recent film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things; the title pretty much tells you everything you need to know.
It isn’t Kaufman’s goal to make people feel like crap. Quite the opposite, actually. “Say who you are,” he advised young writers in a BAFTA talk 6 years ago. “Really say it, in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there — someone who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be. But if you’re honest, you will help that person be less lonely in their world.” While I agree with this in theory, in practice most of Kaufman’s films don’t make me feel any less lonely. I’d go as far as saying they have not only accompanied my darkest moments but prolonged them by giving me a perverse excuse to revel in them for longer than I should have.
Eternal Sunshine, which I used to rank below Synecdoche, offers no such excuse. Interestingly, some Kaufman purists dismiss the film as a copout – the result of producers diluting his honesty with a hint of Nicholas Sparks-style romance to make it more palatable. I still regard Eternal Sunshine as authentically Kaufmanesque; it just belongs to a period when his creative output hadn’t yet been consumed by an uncompromising sense of melancholy. It’s a sad film, to be sure, more so than it is a happy one. However, there are instances where sadness is offset by levity and humor, by the ingenious plot developments that betray Kaufman’s unmistakable passion for the craft of screenwriting, and – most importantly – by the genuine connection between protagonists Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski.
When Joel (played by Jim Carrey) learns that Clementine (Kate Winslet), his ex-girlfriend, hired a company to erase him from her memory, he agrees to do the same. However, as he relives the good and the bad of their relationship, he realizes he would rather keep his recollections of the past regardless of the pain they cause him in the present. A desperate Joel tries to hide Clementine inside his unconscious mind but fails. She disappears, and he wakes up.
At the end of the film, through a series of coincidences, Joel and Clementine reunite. Though neither can remember the other, they make a conscious decision to fall in love all over again despite the fact that they are destined to break up.
To me, this is the film saying life is worth living despite our inevitable mortality. It’s a message films can communicate better than any other art form, and one every serious director should strive to deliver. Sadly, for some reason, it’s absent from every story Kaufman has been involved with since.
You might argue Kaufman’s filmography has become more depressing as time went on because he started directing his own scripts. Eternal Sunshine was directed by Gondry and Being John Malkovich and Adaptation by Spike Jonze, both of whom would have been able to inject the screenwriter’s trademark morbidity with love and laughter. Synecdoche, Anomalisa and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, on the other hand, are all pure Kaufman. It’s a convincing hypothesis, and I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Still, part of me wants to believe that the Kaufman who produced the darkness and despair we see in Synecdoche was also the one responsible for creating the life-affirming wonder of Eternal Sunshine. If not for his sake, then for my own.