Charlie Kaufman Movies Have Gotten Really Bleak

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter behind Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is one of the smartest and most original writers in Hollywood. Humor writer Tom Gerencer remembers being very impressed with Kaufman’s 1999 debut film Being John Malkovich.

“I remember being completely blown away by it and absolutely loving it,” Gerencer says in Episode 549 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s absolutely my style of humor. I love this weird, off-the-wall, surrealist, really funny and really tied-to-real-life stuff.”

Kaufman’s recent projects have not been as popular with audiences as his early work. TV writer Andrea Kail thinks that Kaufman’s increasingly bleak outlook, epitomized by films such as I’m Thinking of Ending Things, may be alienating some viewers. “What is missing from this movie, and this section of his creative life, is the humor that is in Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” she says. “Those are funny movies. There is nothing funny about this. It’s like a mirror into his middle-aged depression, and it’s painful to watch.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley sees similarities between Charlie Kaufman and George Lucas, who both seem to have benefited from constraints on their creativity. “[Kaufman] is someone who’s a visionary, and his early work took that vision and filtered it through collaborators who were more normal and could make it something the audience could relate to more,” Kirtley says. “And once he got enough power to completely make it his vision, the audience for the most part is like, ‘Eh, I kind of liked the earlier stuff better.’”

Science fiction author Matthew Kressel hopes that Kaufman will create more films that have the same sort of balance his earlier movies did. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is exactly the sort of experience I’m going for,” he says. “It’s reflecting back to me, the viewer, what it’s like to be a human being, with both the beautiful things and the horrible things, both the joy and the suffering, and being OK with both sides of that. That’s why I think the movie is so beautiful.”

Listen to the complete interview with Tom Gerencer, Andrea Kail, and Matthew Kressel in Episode 549 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Tom Gerencer on Being John Malkovich:

The movie is all about how people have things we desire, we have things we want, and how far we’re willing to go to get what we want, in terms of just completely screwing someone else over and not even looking back. John Cusack‘s character goes, “Wow! There are so many implications about this,” and you think he’s going to start talking about something profound, and he even says, “There are really profound implications.” And he goes, “For example, I went in there with a piece of wood in my hand. Where is the wood now? Is it still in Malkovich?” That’s all he can come up with.

Matthew Kressel on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:

I’ve heard people criticize this movie, “Oh, she’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” And if you look at it in a superficial way, you could say, “Oh yeah, she’s got the dyed hair, and she’s spontaneous and impulsive, and she crashes the car, and she likes to drink and go out all night.” But if you look at it really, I believe it destroys that trope. And the reason why is, she doesn’t save him. She’s not the one that comes and saves his life and makes all his dreams come true. She’s just as flawed as he is, and when he comes to recognize that—that she’s not going to save him and not going to solve all his problems—and still accepts her anyway, that’s the beauty of the moment.

Andrea Kail on I’m Thinking of Ending Things:

It’s built as a horror movie. You’re walking through that barn, and you’re just waiting, and then you’re going into that basement, and you’re waiting. You’re just waiting for the blood to start pouring out of the walls or something, and it never happens, but that’s sort of when I realized that it’s a horror movie, but it’s an internal horror movie. It’s the horror of being trapped in your memories and regretting life … These are all the horrible things that happen to you in middle age—parents dying, realizing your life’s half over and you’re a janitor in a high school. So that’s where I think that all comes from.

David Barr Kirtley on mortality:

I saw Charlie Kaufman say in interviews that everyone’s going to die, you’re going to die, you’re going to lose everything, and that’s how life ultimately ends and he wants to be honest about that. And all of that’s true obviously, but also all of us are incredibly lucky to ever have been born at all, when you think about how statistically unlikely it is that any of us would ever have been born and been alive to experience grass and oceans and sunsets and everything. So I feel like fixating on the negative is not necessarily being honest. It is sort of shading things in a particular direction that you don’t have to do.

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