The Truth About Charlie

Do we need to worry about him?, said my husband two-thirds of the way through Charlie Kaufman’s new Netflix film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. 

It’s not that there is anything specific in Kaufman’s surreal descent into some kind of madness that you’re not totally sure about that is worrisome.  In fact, he has covered these themes before in, well, most of his films.

See above

But seldom has he ever got so mired in his clever muddle that you actually begin to question his wellness as an artist.   Or just his wellness.

An original and bold thinker/writer/director, much of Kaufman’s work has always grappled with the internal craziness adrift in contemporary life.

In fact, his voice has often been a welcome respite for those of us who have grown so overtired at the escapism, gauzy coddling or sheer nihilism offered by most American movies these days.

Nothing says “impending doom” like a house that is constantly on fire #synecdoche

Yet for decades, it has been apparent that in all of his major works – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Synecdoche and Anomalisa – Kaufman has ultimately been firmly and indisputably in control of the narrative.

The issue with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, an often confounding marvel of fascinating film scenes, shots and sequences, is that Kaufman has gone so deep into the rabbit hole of self-reflection and insanity that he literally loses his perspective and takes us down along with him.

It’s like somehow you got a bum tour guide to an unearthly land but only realize it when you’re 3250 miles from the nearest phone, cell tower or landmark of anything resembling civilization.

One might say “a whole mood”

One could argue that after pushing the narrative screenwriting boundaries just about as far as they could go this is the logical and appropriate spot for Kaufman to be in.

Certainly we’ve all been having a mass nervous breakdown the last few years, questioning anyone and everything while wondering if any of it ever even existed the way we thought it did.

And you thought we weren’t going to be political.

Well, yes and no, at least not outwardly.

Because when my husband turned to me on the couch and wondered aloud whether we should be worried about Charlie I was truly at a loss about what to say.  It definitely wasn’t a firm ‘no,’ nor was it a confident ‘yes.’

This feels like the right response

Rather it was a maybe/I don’t know how I feel or how to answer this question.  Or, more simply, the same answer I’ve seemingly been giving everyone the last three and a half years.

The difference is, of course, Kaufman’s new story is nothing as simple as the survival of a two and a half century old democracy.  Instead, it’s essentially about a couple complexly yet forthrightly played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons (Note:  One feels that casting two actors named Jessie/Jesse is another post modern Kaufman strategy to f-ck with our minds) driving back and forth in a car on a road trip during a snowstorm, with a middle section where they visit the male Jesse’s parents.

It’s not too far of a leap to state that it’s Kaufman’s belief that we’re all caught in our own perennial snowstorms, living life on a perilous road where an accident, or series of them, could happen at any moment.

A running theme in Kaufman’s work

All this, of course, takes place against an endless inner dialogue of our own insecurities and of our own making, played out through the words of the female Jessie, which we are loath to share with anyone lest they judge IT as crazy.

To end the monologue would mean to have to engage with a distasteful world that we know in our heart of hearts is indeed loony tunes, or at the very least unfair.  So we (and she) continue with an inner dialogue that is sure to drive us (and anyone who would happened to listen – nee, the audience) totally and 100% certifiably insane.

What are you trying to say Chairy? #IsMyMonologueTooLong

This is the ultimate conundrum this latest iteration of Kaufman presents to us.  That is, amid references to everything from John Cassavettes, A Woman Under the Influence and Pauline Kael, to soft serve ice cream, the musical Oklahoma!, life in high school and the English poet William Wordsworth.

Granted, it’s not for everyone, nor, like any of his other films, does it seem he intends it to be.  That is what makes Kaufman the single most original and iconoclastic and recognizable screenwriting voice in the industry today.

It’s not that he doesn’t want us to see his movies, as evidenced by his availability for all kinds of media interviews.  It’s that as a creative artist he is uniquely on his own road, letting his feelings and thoughts hang out in a very particularly way that first and foremost appeals to him.  In short, in I’m Thinking of Ending Things Kaufman more than ever before doesn’t appear concerned what WE think or even whether WE can easily follow what he’s offering.

Would you even take a peek into his mind?

He’s simply serving up his inner mind and demons as they are in a three-act dramatic structure of his own design.  And, like the dinner with the parents set piece of this new work, it’s for us to decide whether we want to devour it whole and get drunk on the menu or turn our nose up at what’s being offered and starve because we fear our stomachs will be upset, or our sensory responses will get forever messed up, by the conflicting smells emanating from the table if we sit there too long and indulge.

Not unlike the feelings you get when you open a newspaper (Note: Either physically or virtually) or turn into cable news these days.  Do you stay or do you go?  And if you do stay, for how long and how deeply and to what effect or end?

For example… will I watch this?

In this meta way Kaufman seems to be on to something as the sole writer-director this time out.  As is often the case with his artistry, it’s not so much about the plot but the existential questions being raised about life at this period of time as filtered through a particular world view – HIS world view.

That’s an area very few known filmmakers and/or artists are interested in or able to challenge us with right now and, as one great writer from the previous century so aptly put it, attention must be paid.    

I cannot NOT look! #help

Or, well, at least it should be.

(Note: Okay, that writer was Arthur Miller re Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. And yeah, even using that type of theatrical metaphor is insidiously Kaufmanesque.  One more piece of evidence of what will happen if YOU try too hard to attach your own significance to anything having to do with a creation of his).

So let’s not ponder anything more of I’m Thinking of Ending Things.  It will ruin the delightful torture of going a little deeper into your psyche than usual to figure out what the hell is truly going on in the latest story you are unwittingly being dragged into.

And if that’s not an exercise worth sitting through in the FALL of 2020 then, well, I don’t know what is.

Patrick Vaill – “Lonely Room” (from Oklahoma Broadway 2019)

Virtually Everything

As I sat working from my bed this week in my sweatpants, because why bother to get dressed or sit at a desk at this point, I vaguely remembered a movie character called the laziest woman in the world.

This woman was sort of blathering, complacent and yet somehow smart and all knowing because she managed to figure out an entire life where she never had to leave her bed.

.. and it’s Swoosie Kurtz!

Pretty sweet deal, I recall thinking, probably because I was young, tired and had too many other options.

Well, be careful of what I wish for.  All of you.

As it turns out this character was actually called The Lazy Woman and she was one of many strange people populating the 1986 movie True Stories, directed by former Talking Heads front man David Byrne.

Of course it was the eighties and of course it was David Byrne.

You know… the guy with the suit #slimming

Where else and by whom else could time be elevated, while laziness and selfish inertia was viewed as among the most coveted of commodities in the world?

Or perhaps Mr. Byrne and the eighties were just playing with us and giving us their own post-modern take on self-indulgence. Propping up an unenviable situation to enviable in order to comment on the ridiculousness of our human situations.

Well, right now it doesn’t matter, does it?

Time is meaningless

This is because in many American cities these days there is real reason to stay inside and not intermingle with the world.  It’s taken almost 40 years but when The Talking Heads first admonished us to Stop Making Sense, well, who knew they were correct and this would be where we’d eventually wind up?

Still, staying inside these days does not necessarily mean we don’t intermingle.  What we’re all discovering, well those of us in the majority of American cities where it’s advised you don’t freely run out into the streets without a mask or perhaps a Haz-Mat suit, is there are quite a lot of ways to interact with each other without actually moving more than a few feet from your literal comfort zone.

Thanks, Silicon Valley.

And congratulations for knowing in advance a way to give us the tools to do what we’d so desperately need while making your selves even filthier rich at the same time.

Ruh Roh!

I do have to hand it to technology, though.  Just when you write it off forever is when you realize its immense advantages in the real world.

This week I attended a virtual college graduation of students I’ve taught over the last few years and rather than it being the intensely — let’s all face it – droningly DULL affair it can so often be (Note: Unless you snag the likes of Michelle and/or Barack Obama as keynote speakers) it was instead fun, familial, touching and, yes, meaningful.

Much better than this would have been

That was because in forcing us to do everything trapped in our homes, where each graduate was seen onscreen for 10 seconds holding up their diplomas or making a virtual toast to the rest of us with their beverage of choice, we actually got to see them INSIDE their homes.

And yes, some of them were even in their beds.

This is not to imply any of this was done in a lurid way.  Instead, it was open season to take the 10 seconds and do EXACTLY what you, the graduate, wanted to and with whom you wanted to when your cue came up.

Pretty much like this for 2 hours

You had no script, nothing was rehearsed and all the heavy lifting was done.  Instead, it was each graduate’s choice to interact with us and each other in that moment.

What wound up happening was each virtual moment was about as more alive and real than any graduation I, or you, have likely ever attended.

I will never forget the young woman holding her pet guinea pig on her shoulder while it lovingly snuggled against her, nor the myriad of pet cats and dogs doing the same.

Woof!

Equally memorable were the parents, many of them my age, enthusiastically jumping up and down and throwing confetti on or near their graduate in sheer and utter joy, usually cracking up their child into laughter (and probably for the first time in years).

There were also the virtual toasts with champagne, beer, wine and assorted other beverages because hey, everyone’s home and, even if they weren’t, what the heck do you think college students REALLY DO to celebrate even the removal of a hangnail?

This is just a gross stereotype, right?

That said, someone even reached for a dope pipe, though he quickly and aptly had his time shortened. (Note: Yeah, some things never change).

There were simple hand salutes, the traditional moving of the tassel from right to left and even one very inventive young man who, outside his picturesque house, nodded thanks to the screen and then proceeded to cinematically walk towards the lake into the distance under the setting sun.

I mean, you couldn’t do anywhere near that well were this live on some academic quad or inside one of those many overly hallowed campus halls.

I DID IT!

Sure, there were some inspiring Zoom speeches from the elders, particularly from a host of WORKING alums from all over the country providing words of encouragement and promises of survival to the class of 2020  (Note: Hey, imagine YOU are the one virtually graduating this year during a global pandemic and all the promise that would hold for your young twenty something self).

Not to mention a short virtual video each graduate would later see from none other than pandemic expert and current pop culture icon himself, Dr. Anthony Fauci, made specifically for the health science graduates of our school.  In it he urged them all to please hang in there because we need your talent, your energy, your resolve and your character to get through this difficult time.

Suddenly they, and by extension us, were personally being invited to join Team Fauci!  It might have been virtual and could seem canned in the writing, but in this particular reality it actually felt more real than the liveliest of live rallies.  Not to mention, A LOT safer.

In fact, as I think about every virtual image I saw on my laptop sitting on my bed that day it occurred to me that laziness is not about where you are at any given time but what you choose to do with whatever time you’re allotted.

Imagine how ingenious we could all get simply staying at home if we put our collective minds to it.  It’d be the exact opposite of lazy.

Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime”