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)

2019, Take a Seat

I’m thinking of 2019 as the year of the bad breakup.  It was miserable, endless and painful and yet it had a few high points where you got some revenge and even won several arguments.

No, that’s not a particularly healthy way to think.  But it is satisfying and harmless if you only indulge at the end of the year.  Like a pizza dinner with fries on the side and a chocolate anything for dessert.  Or sex with the wrong person.

Yeah, I said it.

No one really wants to look back on a year such as this one but as 2019 comes to a close a handful of moments might be worth remembering.  That is aside from teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg taking every one of us over forty out to the virtual woodshed for destroying the planet over the last 30 years.

Some moments are in a class by themselves and have far more meaning than the off year in which they occurred.

And with that:

THE CHAIR’S BEST OF LIST:

The Finger Point Seen Round the World

On point

Say what you will about Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi but her total domination of the Electoral College POTUS who thinks He’s King in 2019 was one dependable, if sporadic, joy to behold.  This was typified by that October still photo Trump tweeted of her dressing down the sort of prez over his Syrian policy with her words AND her finger with the attempted shaming caption, Nervous Nancy’s Unhinged Meltdown!

Only he could never imagine she would embrace an image where she was confronting a table full of clueless straight white men who could barely look her in the face, make it her Twitter cover photo and in turn have it embraced as THE symbol of female empowerment and popular resistance to the patriarchy heard round the world.

AND you thought she couldn’t top last year’s meme of her leaving the White House in that red coat and oversized sunglasses…

The Strangest and Best TV Special that Shouldn’t Exist but Does

How did this get made?

Netflix’s John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is exhibit A in defense of Netflix because it’s hard to imagine it would get green lit by or as widely seen on any other platform in the world.

But how to describe it?

Well, see, there’s this smart comic named John Mulaney (Note: Co-creator of SNL’s Stefon) who had an Emmy winning Netflix special last year and thought for his fellow-up he’d mix it up with a group of musical theatre pre-teens he gets to sing, dance and emote with in a post-modern remix version of the eighties kids shows Electric Company and Zoom!

This, of course, sells everything about the program way, way, waaaaay short.

Intrigued, confused, weirded out? All of the above.

Suffice it to say any show that features The Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Broadway’s Andrew De Shields and moviedom’s star Jake Gyllenhaal singing along to Mulaney-penned or approved original material with youngsters who have much better voices than they do is worth seeing.

If that doesn’t grab you how about a young guy warbling Sascha’s Dad Does Drag, another singing, Grandma’s Got A Boyfriend or a young woman getting to wear David Byrne’s iconic big suit while dueting Pay Attention with him?

No?

What about Jake in a colorful xylophone jacket having a sweaty nervous breakdown as he desperately and unsuccessfully tries to convince us of the places where he is sure music sprang from.

Are you sure I’m not on drugs?

Be honest.  You like to watch….don’t you?

The Unforgettable Performance

Clang, clang, clang goes the Oscar?

Judy Garland is likely the most imitated performer in the history of show business.  Or at least in every gay bar across the world, which is, let’s face it, where all of show business sprang from.

That is why Renee Zellweger’s incredible performance in title role of Judy, a film that chronicles Garland’s final musical comeback towards the end of her life, is such an achievement (see my post about that here).

It’s not so much that she delivers a carbon copy imitation.  It’s more that she manages to evoke the very tremulous essence of the vulnerable performer and turn her into a recognizable brew of strengths and weaknesses that each of us can relate to.

… and she did indeed #tehehe

On paper this might have seemed like a disaster, especially since there is nowhere to hide when half the film is shot in close-ups and two-shots of you either alone or pulling focus from others by just being you (nee Her).  That Zellweger manages to pull this off (and then some) in a film that will likely win her the competitive best actress Oscar that eluded the real Judy is sweet.  Even sweeter for her is the fact that it has vaulted her right back on top of contemporary Hollywood after the tongue waggers-that-be delighted some years ago in categorizing her as already past her prime before she even turned 50.

Tee-hee.  Hee.

Best Shirtless Brad Pitt Moment

You’re Welcome

He’s 56 years old and it was in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.  Without CGI.  That is all.

Priceless Mean Girls Moment

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French president Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson huddled together at this year’s NATO summit dishing Electoral POTUS Donald Trump and it made us ALL feel better about being human.

Oh, OF COURSE NO ONE IS CONDONING GOSSIP OR BITCHY BEHAVIOR!!

Still, Mean Girls was a best-selling book, a hit movie, and a Broadway musical that ran for almost two years and will likely be playing at a city near you in 2020 so there must be something to it.

We all know Regina George would make Electoral POTUS cry.

Sure, the best strategy with a know-nothing bully is not stooping to their level.  But we all need to blow off steam, and preferably where they are in close enough proximity to know that you HATE them!!!!

Not to mention, the message must have gotten through.  Trump promptly left the summit early just a day later in a huff, knowing he was not wanted.

Wait….you feel bad?  Really???????

Because his latest revenge against Trudeau, hot off the presses:  Trump and his son, Donald Trump, Jr., tweeting that it was the Canadian Prime Minister who was responsible for Sr’s cameo in Home Alone: 2 (1992) getting cut from Canadian television over this year’s Christmas holidays.

As if!!!

Best Joyous Hate Watching

Will you ever forget…the very first moment in 2019….that you saw…….the trailer to……the movie version of………CATS????

The fake fur, the pointy ears, the strange facial expressions and inhuman semi-sexual gyrations.  It delivered everything and more…or less.  Universal recently took the historic step of actually announcing that after a week in release it was redoing some of the special effects and issuing new versions of the print to the thousands of theatres it was playing.

Our response to that is:  PLEASE DON’T.

Nailed it!

Don’t change a frame for those of us who are waiting to stream it…along with a side of magic mushr—well, something.

And this just in from the gift that keeps on giving:  Dame Judy Dench was only just a handful of days ago quoted as saying her cat, Old Deuteronomy, is…transgender!

Please don’t make it stop.  Now OR forever.

And finally – THE Prophetic Musical Moment

Taylor Swift was much more than a regrettable 2019 supporting turn in Cats.  Sure, her You Need To Calm Down record and video is a song about LGBTQ equality and acceptance.  On the surface.  But in a sense, isn’t it also the overriding message to all of us when we reflect on the entire year and strategize for what’s inevitably to come in 2020??

Taylor Swift – “You Need to Calm Down”

Want more Chair 2019 takes? Dip into our archive and find gems like: The Chair Sees Hadestown with Hillary Clinton (plus Woke-lahoma review), Farewell Dear Rhoda, Paul Rudd Refuses to Age, Prince George Can Dance If He Wants To!, and lots of love for When They See Us, Fosse/Verdon, USand more.