In Kaufman’s first few feature films, motifs surrounding originality, identity, and meta-narratives were glaring. Being John Malkovich, Kaufman’s first feature film as a screenwriter, went beyond breaking the fourth wall to examine cinema – it invited viewers straight into the inner workings of a character’s mind. Being John Malkovich was Kaufman’s opportunity to prod at Hollywood’s image using the rigid archetypes provided by the media that taunt those who follow.
Aside from the thick layer of satire pervading the film, Kaufman creates stark parallels between the protagonist, Craig, and John Malkovich. Both are subjected to neurotic behavior, but they handle themselves differently. Craig hoists his self-absorbed attitude about his work into his love interest, whose lack of interest only renders him more obsessive. Malkovich, on the other hand, loses his identity to his work, constantly mistaken for other actors. The only praise he feels is received through vague recognition. When the protagonist (a struggling puppeteer) finds success through a portal into the Malkovich’s mind, the film becomes entrenched in a Shakespearean struggle about the futility of identity.
Being John Malkovich‘s sister film, Adaptation, carries many of the aforementioned motifs, as John Malkovich and Catherine Keener reprise their roles. Kaufman finds a way to turn a movie about a book (a staple in film) into a movie about a book turning into a screenplay. Using Nicholas Cage to play both Kaufman and his fictional brother and co-writer, much of the film feels like a conversation between a neurotic and reclusive screenwriter, and a charismatic and gregarious Nicholas Cage attempting to be a screenwriter. In many ways, this film stands out as a vindication of the cliché. The fictitious Kaufman sets out to make a completely original script only to find originality to be an inscrutable essence, rather than a contrived attempt at it. The film slowly turns from a movie about an original screenplay into a film that uses all the structures and ideas Kaufman attempted to avoid in order to create a compelling narrative.
Kaufman’s other screenplays went on to receive praise and veneration, including Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and the celebrated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But he’s also made a seminal impact as a director. Filled with pathos and allusions to mental illness, Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa delve into the neurosis that comes with the idea of success and personal struggle. In both movies, places and characters are named after specific mental illnesses. These tropes aren’t only reflected in the subjective experiences of the protagonists, but they also signify themes about film itself.
Charlie Kaufman offers rich references to Shakespeare, Baudrillard, and Diderot in films that explore consciousness as much as the inner workings of the entertainment industry.