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)

Bully Beware

You’re the meanest, most horrible, most disrespectful…..

Jees, what exactly did I say on the playground to that sixth grade schoolgirl back in the 1960s that her insults still ring in my ears to this day?

We didn’t have political correctness back then so it might’ve been awful.  Likely, she made a remark about something I did or said that insulted my masculinity or smarts or ability to succeed at something and I couldn’t take the criticism.

Oh no she didn’t!

Likely it was all three, but if you put a gun to my head it’d go with masculinity. For pre-pubescent boys,  it’s ALWAYS about masculinity.

Well, that’s the way it was back in Queens when I was 11 years old.  You say this, I say that, the insults escalate and suddenly one kid is called the meanest, the most horrible and the most disrespectful simply for fighting back.

Don’t mess with grandma

This is the world I grew up in and, even though he’s more than a decade older than me, that’s the world our American POTUS Donald Trump grew up in.

So when he said those very school girlish words about Sen. Kamala Harris the very day she was named by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to be his running mate for vice-president each immediately tugged at my memory.

The meanest, most horrible, most disrespectful.

Grade school, playground, bully, man, camera, Queens.

Check, check, check, check, check  and…checkmate!

I think she can handle it

Full disclosure:  If I’m being totally honest I won’t swear that  the above-mentioned 11-year-old girl actually said those words to me.  More likely they were said to some jerky guy saying something awful and likely sexist to her and I simply stood by and let him.

Picture 11-year-old pre-pubescent Donnie Trump brazenly spewing insults through the space between the swings and in front of all the younger kids, loud enough for all the teachers to hear, and you might begin to understand why that little girl had nothing left to do but to call him the meanest, most horrible and most disrespectful.

Then understand this —  that little girl is HIM.

Yeah, he wishes he was as good as me

You know… that senior citizen and just-filed-an-absentee-mail-in-ballot POTUS Trump. He actually opened his latest fundraising letter to potential Republican donors with it.

Yeah.

The first few lines literally read:

It’s soooooo 1956-1966.

Forget politics, forget red state vs. blue state and forget conservative vs. liberal. Instead, whenever you think of Trump from now through Election Day remember that desperate little girl on the playground.

Because if you get into the intellectual or political weeds trying to prove that to anyone on the other side that former California Attorney General Kamala Harris is NOT as liberal of a senator than, say, BERNIE SANDERS, you’re playing at the wrong game.

LOL

See, the real game is:  I’m rubber, You’re glue, whatever bounces off me sticks to you.

Or:  I know you are, but what am I….

There is no reasoning with a playground bully appropriating the words of the bullied 11 year-old girl who was bullied by him.  Or his merry gang of bully supporters.  Sure, you can try to tell the teacher or someone else in a position of authority but if your school was anything like mine, they were nowhere to be found at times like these.

Just like the Congress. (Note:  Well, at least the Senate).

The Senate’s Summer 2020 plans revealed

So it’s up to us to do the policing and not be side tracked by bully-speak.  Even though it’s tempting.  Very tempting.  So much so that whenever the insults get the best of me I picture 11-year-old Donnie in pigtails and a dress, carrying a giant swirly sucker (nee lollipop), as they did back in his day, and all quickly becomes well with the world.

Sure, we’ve all got Kamala’s back even though I suspect (note: know FOR SURE) that she can take care of herself.

Maya will help too! #moreofthisplease

But we need to worry more about our absconded mailboxes, walking our mail-in ballots to our local Board of Elections office, donating money, and talking up the Biden-Harris ticket to anyone who will listen through our MASKS.

MSNBC’S Rachel Maddow, my personal oracle, wisely tells us almost daily to: Watch what they do, not what they say. 

I would only add to that: VOTE – and make sure you do it in or deliver it to the place where it is most likely to be counted.

Shirley Temple – “On the Good Ship Lollipop”