Not long ago we lauded the Film Plays Itself series on the Criterion Channel, a collection of films about films that includes everything from Sunset Boulevard to 8½ to Hollywood Shuffle to Adaptation. Here, Tinseltown is by turns cynical, magical, savage, surreal, everything you could possibly hope for, anything you could possibly imagine. Here, film artists are by turns inspiring, insipid, visionary, avaricious, down on themselves, full of themselves. If you’re interested in movies about movies, Film Plays Itself represents a kaleidoscopic cross-section of Hollywood artistry that encapsulates pretty much everything you could want.
…except for Barton Fink.
Continue reading Barton Fink (1991)
One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
Continue reading Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
Rather than going out and partying or hanging out with friends as most teenagers do on Friday nights, I instead chose to have an existential nightmare by watching the latest film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman: Anomalisa.
You may recognize Kaufman as the writer of such films as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich. Kaufman also wrote the much beloved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and directed the incredibly complex and possibly genius film Synecdoche, New York. If you’re interested in reading some more thoughts on Kaufman’s works, there’s a wonderful writer series here on Motion State. To say the least, in this very impressive filmography Charlie Kaufman has built for himself, Anomalisa stands out as both incredibly unique and right at home.
Anomalisa is about a man named Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis. Michael is a corporate spokesperson known for writing books on customer service. Many people look up to Michael and the way he is able to look at the world, but beneath that exterior, he is actually struggling deeply with problems in his personal life and what he deems “psychological problems”. When people talk, Michael simply hears the same bland voice over and over. One evening in his hotel room, Michael is practicing delivering a speech he is scheduled to give the next day and attempting to infuse it with the sincerity that he obviously lacks. Just outside, he hears the voice of a beautiful young woman named Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael is instantly mesmerized by her and is determined to make Lisa a part of his life.
Continue reading Anomalisa (2015)
I have no idea who Charlie Kaufman is. I’m aware that he’s a screenwriter, that for a while he was known mostly as “the Being John Malkovich guy”, that he’s forayed into directing, and that he’s the esteemed subject of this Writer Series (one lucky guy). I’ve seen his movies, read his scripts, watched his interviews. I’ve done all of that all over again. I could zip over to Almighty Wikipedia and tell you his middle name and age and birthplace and favorite Dr. Seuss book (probably Hop on Pop), but the point is that when the only access point to a person is their art, it’s difficult to say you really know that person at all. In much the same way that a picture of a person is not, in fact, the real person, poring over an artist’s work hardly gives any insight at all to what kind of person they really are.
…that’s the easy answer, at least, and it’s one of many possible answers to the fantastic knit ball of questions that is Kaufman’s second collaboration with director Spike Jonze. The beautiful, prismlike nature of Adaptation. really can’t be overstated: dynamic and poignant, sensible and absurd, heartbreakingly sad and riotously funny. It respects and follows a certain structure while simultaneously succeeding in not giving a single shit about structure, consequently managing to start at the literal beginning of time and nonetheless distilling those billions of years into a single keystroke.
Continue reading Adaptation. (2002)
Charlie Kaufman’s feature screenplays have only been adapted by four directors. There’s Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.), there’s Michel Gondry (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), there’s Kaufman himself (Synecdoche, New York and the upcoming Anomalisa). The fourth is none other than George Clooney, who chose the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as his directorial debut.
Confessions was a battle of personalities from the start. Kaufman, still a youngish scribe, was already gaining a reputation as a writer very involved with a given film at every stage (up until now that was a point in his favor; stay tuned). Kaufman attracted some big interest, and Bryan Singer was originally attached to direct Johnny Depp in the lead role. Once the two of them moved on it was Clooney who moved into the director’s chair, arguably enjoying the height of Clooneydom following O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Ocean’s Eleven. And the largest personality of them all might be Chuck Barris himself, author of the autobiography Confessions, host of a dozen late-night gameshows, veritable connoisseur of crap TV. Barris claimed he worked as an international CIA assassin on the side while producing television by day, which has never been confirmed or denied but does indeed make for one hell of a story.
Continue reading Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Let me tell you about the ending of Being John Malkovich.
For a long time prior to 1999, the spec script by Charlie Kaufman bounced around Hollywood without causing much hubbub. Kaufman’s 1994 draft made no mention of John Malkovich whatsoever, and only after two years and dozens of refusals did eventual director Spike Jonze get ahold of the screenplay. Jonze was primarily a music video director at the time and had never directed a feature film before, but clearly something about Being John Malkovich piqued his interest. He brought it to Propaganda Films and a year later casting was underway.
At this point, though, Being John Malkovich had a final act that was so bonkers and off-the-wall wild that, frankly, it put the rest of the bonkers and off-the-wall wild film to shame. The Being John Malkovich that we know ends on a subdued, somber note, uncomfortably tragic, undoubtedly affecting. Craig, the puppeteer played by John Cusack, abuses the magic portal to John Malkovich’s brain and becomes trapped in the next “vessel”, the brain of a prepubescent girl, from where he presumably is forced to watch her life unfold as a caged and powerless homunculus. The original draft of Malkovich didn’t have this muted, chilling conclusion – instead, it had chainsaw juggling, human-chimp intimacy, a reincarnated Harry Truman battling a firebreathing Malkovich, Kevin Bacon, and the Devil himself.
Continue reading Being John Malkovich (1999)