"As a person of privilege and a male who has been correctly chastised and silenced by the emergent culture, I recognize I have no right to feel bad for myself and certainly no right to publicly bemoan my circumstances. [...] But the truth is, I do feel invisible. And on those rare occasions when I am seen, I feel judged most harshly."
— Charlie Kaufman, Antkind
The pop reflexivity of Charlie Kaufman's oeuvre presumes truth's impossibility. It declares that there are no windows, only funhouse mirrors. In this tortuous carnival, the Kaufman man—white and stubbornly straight, plain and dim-witted—has no choice but to look at himself, and he never likes what he sees. To borrow the unsparing words Orson Welles reserved for Woody Allen, the Kaufman man contains a "particular combination of arrogance and timidity [that] sets my teeth on edge." Because all meaning is relative on this solipsistic planet, he can only gesture at intellectual skepticism through the introspective sinkhole of self-hatred, the only conviction of which he can be sure.
At the conclusion of F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, the pretentious and pouty young Amory Blaine loses everything but what little remains of his ego. Amory stretches his arms out towards the sky and cries out, "I know myself, but that is all." He must now admit that he is desperate for something more than Amory Blaine. The inverse occurs in Spike Jonze's Adaptation. (2002): A snivelling Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), pacing around his room, whines into a tape recorder, "Charlie Kaufman, fat, old, bald." He plays the audio back, and writes the line into his screenplay. The knowledge of his lack only cycles back to itself, again and again. (Spoilers ahead for Kaufman's latest film, I'm Thinking of Ending Things.)
The final part of Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things (based on the novel by Iain Reid) reveals that the preceding scenes of Jake (Jesse Plemons) and Lucy (Jessie Buckley) belong to the mind of a suicidal janitor (Guy Boyd). In a move that recalls a joke from Adaptation. ("The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality"), the janitor chases the couple in a fantastic dance sequence, then kills both Jake and himself. The cross-cutting between Jake and the janitor throughout the film distinguishes the dream (of loving parents, of the perfect woman, of great success and accomplishments) from the dreamer, whose snobbery isolates him even further from the approval that he so craves. The cheap visual shorthand of this treatise on lonely men's pathological projections demands the audience's cruel projection upon lonely men.
Slow zooms follow the creepy janitor across empty classrooms, intercut with the repulsed stares of students. The man typifies what Scott Tobias classifies as "the Charlie Kaufman type: pasty and disheveled, with bad hair and lumpen bodies and a thin film of flopsweat on the face." Only in the safety of the janitor's delusions will a witty young woman (whether Lucy, Lucia, Louisa, Amy, or whichever of the many names he's chosen for her) listen to him (as his persona Jake, an idealized younger self) as he muses about William Wordworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" and the musical Oklahoma!. The film opens in the middle of a daydream. The woman waits for Jake to arrive with the car, as her voiceover grumbles: "I'm thinking of ending things." But despite her misgivings, she joins Jake to visit his parents through ice and snow. She acknowledges that he's certainly nice and educated. During their trip through artifacts of the janitor's brain, and to the imagined ghosts of his late parents, Kaufman cuts back to scenes of the janitor at school, cleaning the desks and mopping the floor. Even the bullied students avoid him, and certainly no one cares that he has eclectic taste in art.
The essentialist allegory of I'm Thinking of Ending Things posits that men flaunt their literacy and artistic knowledge to exert authority over women. In a very superficial way, the stereotype of a leering and voyeuristic janitor brings to life the exterior of the gross pervert who believes himself to be a nice guy on the inside. After killing the fictional Jake in an act of sabotage, distraught in the presence of the man he cannot be and the girlfriend he cannot have, the janitor strips naked and falls into a hallucinatory state. A pig's rotting corpse appears. The janitor exclaims, "We're the same!" Their flesh both saturated the same shade of pale peach and pink, the naked pair walks down a hall, one trailing the other. Kaufman's coupling of punitive disgust with pity invites us to feel for the man in his nakedness—his stomach, his behind. But central to this is an exclusionary humanism, in which losers are conduits for the gratuitous enlightenment of winners. Through the janitor's debasement, Kaufman bestows upon his audience the gift of miraculous sympathy.
The extremely grotesque offers an easy shortcut to substance that allows Kaufman to pile on information without the establishment of a style, only the assembly of storefront details. One is reminded of what Manny Farber in 1959 called “a precise, currently popular photography, in which details protrude with an icy, magic realist clarity that once ruined most surrealist painting." At Jake's parents' home, the woman is greeted by the ominous sight of blood in the barn, and scratches on the basement door; the wind shrieks and hisses, the floors creak. Once seated for dinner, the four figures discuss Jake and the woman's relationship, but the facts flit about: Once a poet, the woman becomes a physicist, a painter, a student of gerontology. Her clothes abruptly change from red to orange to blue. His parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), appear to be older, then younger, then dead. And repeatedly, each person turns to Jake for the confirmation of their identity. Tempers fluctuate across terse dialogue to communicate that nothing is as it seems. But despite the heavy-handed suggestion of disarray, when taken in as a whole, Kaufman's sequences follow a monotonous typewriter's pace of staccato shot/counter-shots (from Jake to Lucy to Mother to Father, then a wide of all four), bookended by back-and-forth pans (sliding from Jake to Lucy to Mother to Father).
For comparison, each puzzle piece of Guido's (Marcello Mastroiani) dreamscape in Federico Fellini's 8½ (1963) comes together with rousing rhythm, freed by a flying camera: the fast zooms into the dance of Saraghina mimic brute boyish curiosity, the swinging ceiling light casts stark shadows across the harem to impose a manual fade-to-black across each woman's face as she ages rapidly in the callous eyes of the playboy director. Each enriches the dimensions and complicates our understanding of Guido's egotism. That Kaufman places his most surreal motifs or, as The Ringer puts it, "very random shit" and "straight-WTF" set pieces (like a hallway ballet or a Nobel peace prize ceremony where all attendees applaud for the janitor-as-Jake) in the janitor's hallucinations is not a statement on how mundane daydreams placate more unhinged thoughts, but an overexerted strain towards a denouement that would retroactively imbue all preceding scenes with significance.
In Kaufman's debut novel Antkind (2020), reality's obsolescence traps the reader in the confines of a punishing 700-page monologue by an unloved film critic named B. Rosenberger Rosenberg. B.'s narcissism is matched by an obsessive hypersensitivity regarding his sociopolitical privileges as a straight, white man. He wants everyone to know that he's dating an African-American woman (she insists that he use the word Black, but he refuses), he's adopted the alias B. Ruby Rosenberg (in tribute to feminist critic B. Ruby Rich), and he derives sexual pleasure from being ignored by callous, bossy women. With his need to self-flagellate comes an incredible sense of entitlement.
After watching a three-month-long animated film by an elderly Black man named Ingo that then burns in a fire, B. embarks on a centuries-long journey to bring the film to the world. He does not recognize his own lecherous motive to take credit for the discovery. Instead, he undergoes hypnotherapy to retrieve his memory, hoping to recreate the film frame by frame. However, even this procedure is part of Ingo's film, which eventually builds up to multidimensional warfare. The world collapses into a single "time wrinkle" nearby Plato's cave (an actual cave with an "anus-like entranceway") and a bloody battle begins. Nevertheless, B.'s incessant rants on art and culture continue. He abhors Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson (who he nicknames "Panderson"), but what B. hates most of all is comedy, a vendetta held for a supposedly upright reason: "We do need to laugh, as long as nothing is the object of that laughter, as long as nobody is hurt."
Despite his pseudo-progressive commitment to political correctness, B.'s career requires him to be an authority figure among the public, a power he happily wields. Kaufman dares us to laugh at the irony, but rather than single anyone out, he intends for the object of our laughter to be legion. From all across a spectrum of identities, Antkind introduces several characters that share B.'s insufferable combination of self-absorption and self-righteousness. This includes Donald Trump, whose body B. occupies while Trump has intimate and tender sex with a robot clone (a shallow, tedious metaphor that, at worst, treats homosexual desire as a perverse form of narcissism). His lesbian feminist filmmaker daughter, Grace, decries her film critic father as an abusive mansplainer whose career is predicated upon the "very male [notion] of ranking." She, too, hates comedy, because it makes fun of "those less fortunate." Through the juxtaposition of these many puppets, Kaufman sets up the punchline to his long-winded joke—a sameness that negates all ideological difference between man and woman (and, as B. would be keen to mention, non-binary people), left-wing and right-wing pundit, Black and white person, so on and so forth.
Amidst the flames of an apocalyptic culture war between clones, doppelgängers, and puppets led by a cacophony of causes, Antkind shrinks a love for art into a more passive appreciation. The novel concludes as Ingo's film ends. The film instills so much hope and awe in B. that he forsakes his former ways as a critic and vows to "submit to great art. It will do with me as it sees fit. [...] I will never again attempt to own anything: no film, no person, no idea." In response, Kaufman's Antkind then throws the critic into a manhole to put his convictions to the test in the grand finale to B.'s holy grail. That the critic has finally committed to acquiesce to the author hints at a change of heart. But according to the novel, the only substantial goal of such a submission is that of paying respect to the creator, a position that undermines interpretation as a crucial act of ownership in every encounter with art.
Before Jake and the woman finally encounter the janitor in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, they briefly debate John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence (1974). The woman recites Pauline Kael's review of the film, which deems Gena Rowland's Mabel a "frantic, wilted heroine" to which Jake tearfully responds, shaken by the acidity of her words: "I was just taken in by the sympathy that Cassavetes showed for her. Our society lacks a certain kindness, a certain willingness to take in the struggles of others." His defensiveness adopts the sheen of sentimentality once he must confront that a movie he likes is not loved by others for the same reasons. Jake's heartfelt admiration for the film stands as perhaps the only true expression of how he feels, a genuine demand that this feeling be understood by the inner critic who repeats the criticisms of the outside world against him.
Kaufman's bone to pick with the film critic is that the critic reveals that something outside of your mind exists, whether you like it or not. When Jake in I'm Thinking of Ending Things says it's good to "remind yourself the world's larger than your own head," what he does not want is for someone else to issue that reminder against his will. At best, the critic maintains integrity by upholding the truth that (to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1997 essay on Histoire(s) du Cinema) "cinema is concerned with the world, not with an alternative to it, and that cinema belongs to the world, including us." In his novel and even this small reference to Kael in the film, Kaufman pushes against this globally-minded initiative with the accusation that any one person talking over anyone else is an act of vanity. Perhaps this is a fair assertion to make against certain strains of criticism, in so far as it invokes what Armond White argued when Vertigo (1958) took Citizen Kane's (1941) #1 spot on the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll—that cinephilia has deteriorated "from idealizing cinema that spoke to and edified the general public to solipsistic criticism that coddles a nihilistic, class-based coterie."
But though Kaufman protects Jake from the offscreen figure of the critic, he does levy against Jake a critique of taste as a means of unfair judgment levied against others. What we find in I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a conflation of two forms of taste: critical taste and fanatical taste, colloquially known as fanboyism. A definition of the former is found in Rosenbaum's case for Alain Resnais: Though he was "never a critic," Resnais' studious appreciation of filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch allowed for sophisticated emulation (through which he could surpass even the masters) rather than pastiche. Critical taste enables further questioning of the world with the history of art as the motor. Fanatical taste, by contrast, burrows behind a wall of art reduced to décor. In this context, Kaufman's film denies the existence of critical taste in its open suspicion towards taste itself (and we can also deduce this because, formally, I'm Thinking of Ending Things makes few critical strides in the name of cinema, only in the name of Charlie Kaufman and Iain Reid).
Beneath its appearance of mysticism, Kaufman's pop reflexivity neatly compartmentalizes men's psyche into symbols. For instance, the 3D-printed puppets with identical faces and voices in his film Anomalisa (2015) point to Michael's (David Thewlis) plain misanthropy. This approach limits spectatorship to the collection of clues and authorship to the delivery, not discovery, of variations on a theme—not truth, because here, truth does not exist. Unlike the other puppets, Lisa has an anomalous face and voice; therefore she is "Anomalisa." Soon she, too, will begin to look and sound like everyone else, presenting a different visualization of alienation but not a distinct insight.
The New Republic's review of Antkind points out that the character of B. Rosenberger Rosenberg shares an obviously homonymous name with critic Richard Brody of the New Yorker. Both Brody and Rosenberg pan Anomalisa for its condescending tone, and through Rosenberg's first-person perspective Kaufman frames that position as little more than the expression of a slanderous grudge based on nothing. (Rosenberg proclaims that Charlie Kaufman is "a monster, plain and simple [...] unaware of his staggering ineptitude," a "puffed-up self promoter," and a "tiny pathetic Jewish bug of a screenwriter.") A more polemical critique of Brody (if indeed he's the intended target) can be found in Bill Krohn's review of Brody's biography Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. Appropriating Philip Roth's definition of cultural journalism as "ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism," Krohn likens Brody to a cultural journalist (or ceejay), who projects "the mechanisms of today's celebrity culture" onto the past like a Hollywood biopic. Like Krohn, what Kaufman seemingly resents most in Rosenberg (and possibly Brody) is the brazen, overreaching familiarity with which the critic demeans artists. And yet in his films, Kaufman's inconsistent identification with his male leads, which wavers between curiosity and contempt, peppered with bits of self-insertion, encourages the audience to adopt the ceejay's guessing game of autobiography. At the end of each Easter egg hunt, the conclusion easily arises that this or that man is Charlie Kaufman's avatar, that Charlie Kaufman hates Charlie Kaufman more than you.
This argument requires no proof because, as is typical of cultural journalism, it feeds off of the projection of contextless celebrity facts (Kaufman's public statements on writer's block or his nihilist tendencies) onto the textual material, the art itself. In the last few weeks, after the releases of a new novel and a new film, even this assessment of Kaufman's artistic merit has been repeatedly misdirected by the impossible and totally unrewarding task of getting to know the artist better as a person. But while the Kaufman man spins about his never-ending carousel, maybe switching from one seat to another, the design of the ride never changes. Meanwhile the world around him, that sees right through him despite his attempt to hide, accelerates day by day, and with both Antkind and I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman has sheepishly admitted that he can no longer keep up.