The old joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter captures both the cynicism of Hollywood and the lowly status of its scribes. Not all screenwriters are powerless, but the exceptions have been few and far between. Ben Hecht, Robert Towne and William Goldman in their different ways had leverage beyond the norms of their profession, but none achieved the unique ?clat of the man behind one of the most talked about films of the moment, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Charlie Kaufman’s status in Hollywood is a singular one. When Premiere magazine compiled its movie "Power 100," there was only one screenwriter on the list – Kaufman (at number 100). George Clooney, who directed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, one of three movies penned by the writer in 2002, said: "One of these days, the term Kaufmanesque will be just as familiar as Mametspeak." Cameron Diaz, who was unrecognisable in Being John Malkovich, Kaufman’s debut screenplay, said of it: "They say in Hollywood that there are only 14 screenplays. Well, this is number 15." Both Being John Malkovich and his second script, Adaptation – about Kaufman and his fictional brother trying and failing to adapt a book for the screen – were nominated for Oscars. In the press, Kaufman is often given possessory credits for these films despite the fact that they were directed by Michel Gondry, Clooney and Spike Jonze. Kaufman, it seems, has achieved that rarest of things: recognition as an auteur screenwriter.
His David Lynchian eccentricities haven’t hindered the process. He sometimes doesn’t eat lunch because, as he puts it, "the thought of getting food stuck in my beard is almost unbearable" (rather like Lynch telling me once that he wears three ties "for protection"). A recent Esquire profile of Kaufman, commenting on his move to LA in 1991, had to make do with sentences like this: "He may or may not have brought his wife, who may or may not be called Denise." His r?sum? claims that he was born "between three and five decades ago." The enigma notwithstanding, his life story is unexceptional. Kaufman was born in 1958 and brought up in a Long Island Jewish family. He acted at school and studied film at NYU. His taste in culture was comic-surreal: the films of Lynch and Woody Allen; the writing of Kafka, Beckett and Flannery O’Connor. After his move to LA, he wrote for television sitcoms and comedy shows and began drafting a spec screenplay about a puppeteer who works on the 7.5th floor of an office building and finds a tunnel which leads into the mind of John Malkovich. Kaufman didn’t expect to get the result made, but Malkovich read and liked it and got it to studio execs, many of whom thought it was too weird, until Michael Stipe’s company bought it. Spike Jonze directed and an all-star cast signed up for parts.
Being John Malkovich was critically acclaimed and, as a result, even bigger stars – Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep – were cast in Adaptation. After the dreamlike promise of the first film, Kaufman’s static account of a split personality paralysed with anxiety and indecision seemed like marginalia. It looked as if the curse of the auteur had already kicked in: acquire a reputation for genius and no matter what you write, it will get made.
Thankfully, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a far more vital work. Its main character’s oscillations are not about how to turn a book into a film, but whether to forget a love affair. Kaufman’s science fiction conceit is that the woman in the story, beautifully played by Kate Winslet, has had her memories of the relationship wiped and the man – Jim Carrey – begins to undergo the same process, and then has doubts. As with Adaptation, the film is not about how people change – the traditional character arc in US cinema – but how the flickering nature of the human mind makes them too indecisive to change. Kaufman appears more obsessed by breakdown than love in the film, and there are times when its fragmentation seems pointless, but by the end it has achieved honesty.
Does Kaufman deserve the accolade of American cinema’s only auteur screenwriter? He is certainly consistently un-Hollywood in his concerns. No other screenwriter today has shown such an interest in the activity of human consciousness. Most write classically structured screenplays about characters who speak externally and whose experiences form the story of the film. Such an approach renders the screenwriter invisible. Kaufman produces an admixture of memory, fantasy and mental association. Dennis Potter did this, and so did Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence) and what is striking is that they too were considered auteurs: no matter who directed their work, it was considered Potterian and Mayersbergian.
Such work is distinctive because it is about interiority and inaction, and, crucially, it requires the imagery to be unreal. It – the writing – directs the image track and the timeline of the film. But Kaufman’s position is ambiguous. Fawned over by a film industry starved of new voices, he is also indulged by that industry and worn as its badge of prestige. There’s not much room for more films such as his in the multiplexes, but perhaps his success will inspire more ambitious writing in the future.