The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman

The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman

EDITED BY David LaRocca
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 312
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    The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman
    Book Description:

    From the Academy Award--winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Academy Award--nominated Adaptation (2002) to the cult classic Being John Malkovich (1999), writer Charlie Kaufman is widely admired for his innovative, philosophically resonant films. Although he only recently made his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York (2008), most fans and critics refer to "Kaufman films" the way they would otherwise discuss works by directors Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, or the Coen brothers. Not only has Kaufman transformed our sense of what can take place in a film, but he also has made a significant impact on our understanding of the role of the screenwriter.

    The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, edited by David LaRocca, is the first collection of essays devoted to a rigorous philosophical exploration of Kaufman's work by a team of capable and critical scholars from a wide range of disciplines. From political theorists to philosophers, classicists to theologians, professors of literature to filmmakers, the contributing authors delve into the heart of Kaufman's innovative screenplays, offering not only original philosophical analyses but also extended reflections on the nature of film and film criticism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3392-8
    Subjects: Film Studies, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Charlie Kaufman and Philosophy’s Questions
    (pp. 1-20)
    David LaRocca

    When I asked a leading philosopher—one of the most influential and celebrated of the last half-century—if he would contribute to this volume on the work of Charlie Kaufman he politely replied: “Dear David, I have to be honest—I don’t know who Charlie Kaufman is, or what he has done, or why I should have views about him. I’m really sorry.” It’s easy enough to chalk up the scholar’s kind rebuke and gentle rejection to his own lapse: perhaps he is not a moviegoer; perhaps he has seen Kaufman’s films but did not recall the name; and so...

  5. Part 1. On Being and Not Being One’s Self
    • Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter
      (pp. 23-45)
      K. L. Evans

      Does the filmAdaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman and featuring a protagonist named Charlie Kaufman, chronicle Charlie Kaufman’s actual experience? Is it memoir? Undoubtedly the predicament that so overtaxes the character Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), his great effort to fashion meditative journalism into a feature film, is analogous to the difficult, unpleasant, and embarrassing situation the real Charlie Kaufman finds himself in. Before it becomes the stuff of his fiction, Kaufman has in fact been hired to adapt for the screen Susan Orlean’sThe Orchid Thief, and in his imaginative rendering of this event a writer’s false starts, his confusion...

    • On Being John Malkovich and Not Being Yourself
      (pp. 46-65)
      Christopher Falzon

      InBeing John Malkovich, the first of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays to be made into a feature film, the protagonist, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), finds a portal into the body of actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich), allowing him to inhabit it for fifteen minutes. Craig describes the experience to his sexy and condescending coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener), whom he lusts after: “It raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, you know . . . about the nature of self, about the existence of a soul. You know, am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? I had a piece of wood in my hand,...

    • The Divided Self: Kaufman, Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Human Nature
      (pp. 66-88)
      Mario von der Ruhr

      When Charlie Kaufman’sHuman Naturewas released in 2001, it met with a mixed response, not only from those who had previously applaudedBeing John Malkovichand were curious about Kaufman’s next project, but also from professional film critics, whom the movie connoisseur rightly expects to contribute more than a shrug of the shoulder, or observations too cursory or incidental to deepen their (critical) appreciation of it—unless, of course, it is the kind of movie that invites comparison to a cheap, off-the-peg suit: just about adequate for an evening’s entertainment in town, but otherwise unremarkable and not worth talking...

    • Unauthorized Autobiography: Truth and Fact in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
      (pp. 89-108)
      David LaRocca

      Chuck Barris says he was a hit man for the Central Intelligence Agency. Meanwhile, everyone else knows him as the iconic host of the 1970s game showThe Gong Showand creator ofThe Dating GameandThe Newlywed Game. Was the “godfather of reality TV” a secret agent for the United States government with thirty-three kills?¹ Is Barris telling the truth or is he lying? What if the answer to these questions is “It doesn’t matter”? Or, rather, that the “drive to truth,” as Nietzsche calls it, obscures what is most important and most interesting in Barris’s case: how...

  6. Part 2. Being, or Trying to Be, with Others
    • Me and You: Identity, Love, and Friendship in the Films of Charlie Kaufman
      (pp. 111-131)
      Douglas J. Den Uyl

      The films of Charlie Kaufman are masterpieces of humor and insight. They also collectively represent a significant study of what it means to try and sustain a relationship with another person. At one level the films might be said to be generally concerned more with the problem of personal identity than with relationships. This problem of identity is reflected in various forms of self-doubt, as in Kaufman’s representation of himself inAdaptation, or appears as an issue of how to organize one’s own mental furniture, as inEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, and especiallySynecdoche, New...

    • I Don’t Know, Just Wait: Remembering Remarriage in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
      (pp. 132-154)
      William Day

      “Meet me in Montauk.” This line near the end ofEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindpresents a problem for Charlie Kaufman’s film and for his viewer. The problem for Kaufman’s film (as distinct from the finished film as seen) is that he didn’t write the line—in any event, it doesn’t appear in his shooting script—and it undermines various of Kaufman’s remarks about what he takes to be important and exciting about his screenplays. For the viewer, the problem is that Kate Winslet’s whispery, echoey “Meet me in Montauk” is felt at the moment of its utterance to...

    • Charlie Kaufman, Philosophy, and the Small Screen
      (pp. 155-168)
      Samuel A. Chambers

      It goes almost without saying that Charlie Kaufman is best known for his work on the big screen. In 1999 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his first screenplay, the breakthroughBeing John Malkovich, and then in 2004 he went on to win the Academy Award forEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Of his six films to date, he has also produced five of them, and in his most recent,Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman made his directorial debut. It therefore seems both utterly unsurprising and completely appropriate that the contributions to this volume on Kaufman’s philosophy devote...

    • The Instructive Impossibility of Being John Malkovich
      (pp. 169-190)
      Garry L. Hagberg

      In reflecting about what it means to understand another person we can easily think in terms of a continuum stretching from complete knowledge to complete ignorance. On the one extreme, we would have no insight into, no sense of, and no conception whatsoever of what the other person’s experience might be like. On the other end, we would have total and complete knowledge, the epistemic end point of other-knowledge. At this extreme—a point of other-understanding often thought to be impossible, but still the ideal toward which we aspire or against which we measure our degree of knowledge of another’s...

  7. Part 3. Being in the World, Partially
    • Living a Part: Synecdoche, New York, Metaphor, and the Problem of Skepticism
      (pp. 193-207)
      Richard Deming

      There is an old bit by absurdist comic Steven Wright in which he tells the audience, employing his characteristic deadpan monotone, that he has a map of the United States, actual size. “It says, ‘scale: one mile equals one mile.’ I spent last summer folding it. I also have a full-size map of the world. I hardly ever unroll it.”¹ If Jorge Luis Borges were a stand-up comedian, he might have written these very lines. Indeed, as funny as Wright’s bit is, there is something more telling beneath it, some kind of thought experiment put into play here about scale...

    • “There’s No More Watching”: Artifice and Meaning in Synecdoche, New York and Adaptation
      (pp. 208-223)
      Derek Hill

      If writing is a “journey into the unknown,” as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) tells his aspiring screenwriting brother Donald (also played by Nicolas Cage) inAdaptation(2002), it is also a painful one.

      The character Charlie Kaufman inAdaptationwants nothing more than to remain true to what he perceives as the best way to adapt Susan Orlean’s best-selling nonfiction bookThe Orchid Thiefinto a film. But when he attempts to write, hunched over his makeshift desk—a chair with his electric typewriter placed on the seat—the camera focuses on the blank page before him, a taunt...

    • Human Nature and Freedom in Adaptation
      (pp. 224-238)
      Gregory E. Ganssle

      Charlie Kaufman’s filmAdaptationis the story of the struggle of Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) to adapt Susan Orlean’s bookThe Orchid Thiefinto a screenplay.¹ Susan Orlean’s book weaves accounts of the history of Florida and of the orchid trade with the story of the arrest and trial of John Laroche (Chris Cooper) for illegally harvesting orchids from a state preserve. Charlie is anxious to preserve the original texture of the book, and he strongly resists the pull to turn the script into a typical Hollywood action film.

      As Charlie struggles with his project, his brother, Donald (Nicholas Cage),...

    • Synecdoche, in Part
      (pp. 239-253)
      David L. Smith

      It is strange that while we are alive, we so often feel that we are not really living. Although we are born into a world—by most accounts, an endless web of interrelation—something seems to separate us from things, from others, and from ourselves. Nature is elusive; relationships are hard; it is even a struggle to be who we are. And so we set to work, devising schemes to overcome the gap, whatever it is. Maybe we think we need more of something, or less; to get closer, or farther away; to find ourselves, or to forget ourselves. But...

    • Nietzschean Themes in the Films of Charlie Kaufman
      (pp. 254-268)
      Daniel Shaw

      There are a number of filmmakers whose work has obviously been influenced by one or more philosophers. Some make explicit reference to such figures (as Woody Allen does in several of his films, for example, inAnother Womanto Martin Heidegger); others reflect their director’s familiarity with philosophical ideas without referring to them directly; and still others parallel philosophical theories without intending to do so. The half-dozen major films written (and, in the most recent case, directed) by Charlie Kaufman are some of the most inventive and thought provoking in the history of Hollywood, but his intellectual influences are somewhat...

    • Inconclusive Unscientific Postscript: Late Remarks on Kierkegaard and Kaufman
      (pp. 269-294)
      David LaRocca

      Charlie Kaufman is said to be an anxious man.¹ Or perhaps that is a confused judgment based on speculation over the characters he creates—characters who appear to suffer from anxiety. Or perhaps it is the viewers themselves who experience anxiety in watching Kaufman’s films. Still, the anxiety that Kaufman has, reflects, or engenders is not the kind of anxiety we think it is. Kaufman’s characters embody a kind of anxiety that bears a closer resemblance to the anxiety Søren Kierkegaard theorized in the 1840s. In what follows, I articulate some points of relation between their work, in particular how...

  8. Filmography
    (pp. 295-296)
  9. List of Contributors
    (pp. 297-302)
  10. Index
    (pp. 303-310)