catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 4 :: 2003.02.14 — 2003.02.27


Consciousness is a terrible curse?

Adaptation is the second collaboration of director Spike Jones and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The story takes place during the filming of their first movie, Being John Malkovich, and from what I can gather from these two scripts, Charlie Kaufman may very well replace Woody Allen as America's premier neurotic filmmaker. One of the first lines of dialogue from Being John Malkovich is Craig Schwartz (John Cusask) talking to his pet chimp, Elijah. Agonizing over his go-nowhere career as a puppeteer, he tells Elijah "You don't know how lucky you are being a monkey because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think, I feel, I suffer, and all I ask in turn is the opportunity to do my work, and they won't allow it because I raise issues." Of course, Craig says this under a context of comedy. We laugh at him because he is self-important. We can hear a resonance of this in Adaptation, but this time through the character of Charlie Kaufman as we watch him write the screenplay that we are watching right before our eyes. The film opens with the credits on a black screen as Charlie (Nicolas Cage) ruminates about how ugly and fat he is, about how he can't write and how the woman in front of him thinks he's a loser. Craig Schwartz's neurotic narcissism is gone and, in this movie, is replaced by the neurotic self-doubt of Craig's own creator.

Charlie takes the job of adapting Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief, a book he greatly admires but contains little story and vast amounts of personal reflections and musings. We watch Charlie get nowhere in both his attempt to adapt the book and to meet women, while his brother Donald, his alter ego, quickly hammers out a cookie-cutter serial killer script which immediately sells for big money, while at the same time succeeding admirably with the opposite sex. This drives Charlie nuts and understandably, because Charlie contains a bit of Craig Schwartz's artistic self-importance by rejecting Donald's formulaic mode of writing. Instead, Charlie seeks to create something "real and beautiful." Again, we laugh because of Charlie's twinge of arrogance, but also because at the same time we sympathize with his desire not to sell out.

Interspersed between these scenes is the story of Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) researching and writing her book. Her subject is a man called LaRoche (Chris Cooper), a red-neck self-taught horticulturist who obsesses over the many rare and beautiful varieties of orchids. She can't help but be drawn to him because of his overwhelming passion for orchids. He has devoted his life to these flowers, and this is something she envies. As she says in her book, her passion is to "feel passionately about something." Although she is married, she is lonely, and as she delves deeper and deeper into her book, she longs for a life like his.

The film is split between these two worlds, fragmenting what story actually exists and mirroring Charlie's own fragmented neurotic thoughts. As a result, Charlie's attempt to write the script goes nowhere and so the script of the actual movie goes nowhere. This seems to reflect Charlie's own philosophy, which is to write something, in his words, like real life, where nothing happens, and it ends in disappointment. Yet as the film proceeds, Charlie's attitude and in fact the script itself begins to transform. The film's title of Adaptation begins to take on a second meaning. To adapt is "to make fit (as for a specific or new use or situation) often by modification," as Webster defines it. Charlie begins to adapt himself, the script he is writing and the film's script itself, to his brother's writing style.

The change begins once Charlie decides to seek help from Susan Orlean. He flies to New York and attempts to meet her, but is again thwarted by his nagging self-doubt and fear. While he is staying in New York, he decides to take the crash-course seminar in screenwriting that his brother Donald took. This begins Charlie's adaptation. As he sits in the vast audience, Charlie's neurotic inner monologue kicks in, decrying the whole undertaking and questioning his desire to be there. Suddenly the instructor switches into a fierce tirade about how voice-over is a simple exposition device for a lazy screenwriter. Charlie's thoughts immediately stop, and we don?t hear them again in the film. He also stands up in class and asks about scripts that "don't go anywhere and end in disappointment, because that?s how life is." Again, in no soft words, the instructor tears into this notion, declaring that there are billions of stories happening every day in the world and if he can't see that, he certainly feels sorry for Charlie. After class, Charlie approaches the instructor again and explains how the seminar "has shook him to the core," not just in writing, but in his life. The instructor, now a bit more mild-mannered, sympathizes with Charlie and gives him more advice. Charlie then calls his brother and asks him to come to New York and help him with his Orchid Thief script.

At this point, the whole film shifts. The two brothers begin following Susan Orlean. The two authorial voices of this film, Kaufman and Orlean, confront each other for the first time and the film's two stories converge. Charlie and Donald are no longer seen without Susan Orlean, and soon an elaborate story develops: Orlean still stays in contact with LaRoche, something she initially denied, and in fact is having an affair with him. On top of that, Charlie discovers that they are growing an extensive crop of a rare orchids which produce some sort of ecstasy-like drug when processed. Charlie and Donald are soon discovered and taken out to the swamp to be killed. They escape and while hiding from LaRoche and Orlean, the two brothers have a touching moment of bonding. In the morning, as the brothers attempt to leave the swamp, LaRoche and Orlean chase them until Charlie and Donald steal a car, which they promptly crash, killing Donald in the process. Charlie escapes back into the swamp, followed by LaRoche who is then killed by an alligator. After some emotional moments speaking to his mother, Charlie returns to L.A., where we see him writing the events having just taken place into his script. He meets back up with a woman he's had a fondness for and tells her he loves her. She admits she loves him as well. Charlie leaves and as he sits in his car at the exit of a parking ramp, he dictates into his tape recorder what the ending of his script will be: him sitting in his car at the exit of a parking ramp, having just spoken to the woman he loves, and discovering how he will end the script.

I speak of these last scenes somewhat glibly because they felt out of place with the rest of the film. In fact, it felt like I was watching an entirely different film. It was everything Charlie had not wanted it to be initially. He had made comments at several points to both his brother and his agent about the movie clich's of car crashes, drug dealer, emotional moments of family reconciliation, winning the girl, and even the overuse of multiple personality disorder. All these things happen in this film to some degree or another, and surprisingly, in all seriousness. At the end, I was waiting for some big switch, thinking the old Charlie—neurosis, fragmentation and all—had to come back. The film just could not end this way, but it did, and instead what we are left with is a time lapse shot of flowers (not orchids) opening and closing as the days and nights zoom by with "So Happy Together" playing in the background. So who exactly is together and are they really happy?

That song initially comes up when Donald mentions that he has put it into his serial killer script. Later, Donald sings it to Charlie as he debates whether or not to pursue Orlean in New York. Is the key a marriage between these two polar opposites of Donald and Charlie? It is possible, but Charlie does not seem to share any place with Donald in the script. The ending may indicate that Charlie is either absent or lost inside Donald, in many ways mirroring the final scene of Being John Malkovich. That film ends with Craig's consciousness trapped inside a little girl's mind, forcing him to watch to former wife spend the rest of her life with Maxine, the woman he loves. It is a frightening and disturbing ending to an otherwise funny movie, and when you compare it with the ending of Adaptation, the latter can be taken in two ways: either Kaufman has drenched his script in irony and sarcasm, or he believes the fantasy.

Perhaps buying into the fantasy is not so bad. We are told, after all, by many contemporary thinkers that our existence is the creation of our own story. As we have seen, the notion of living your life as a story arises when Charlie confronts the screenwriting instructor. Yet other aspects of the film hint that the Charlie at the end of Adaptation is not so much a self-creation as he is a chimera. "Conciousness is a horrible thing," we are told in Being John Malkovich, and we feel that in Adaptation as well. As a result, what this film communicates is not a self-created story, but a delusionary fantasy, an attempt to escape the painful self-awareness that plagues Charlie Kaufman.

Writing is not only a lonely and often mind-wrenching job, but it is also the act of fantasizing, and in this script, Charlie Kaufman likens it to masturbation. This is not a new concept by any means; feminist thinkers have even noted that masturbation and the physical act of writing itself, of pen spilling ink on paper, holds eerie similarities. But here its most obvious parallel is the act of the mind manifesting presence from absence. In Adaptation, Charlie masturbates several times to women he knows, and in fact we see some of his fantasies played out on screen, but always Charlie is left alone. Charlie even masturbates to the jacket photo of Susan Orlean, and from that point on, the film begins its shift from the fragmented script of Charlie and Orlean writing their story to the straight-forward, more Hollywood story, complete with moments of emotional reconciliation, car crashes, and winning the girl. In the end, Kaufman appears to have not created his own life-story, but simply engaged in a one final, gigantic masturbation fantasy. "So Happy Together" can then be taken not as the successful merger of the two writing styles of Charlie and Donald, nor the merger of the two authorial voices of Susan Orlean and Charlie Kaufman, but as a bitter statement on the lonely act of writing/masturbation and the necessity of fantasy in order to escape the affliction of consciousness.

As I mentioned earlier, Kaufman bares similarities to his neurotic godfather, Woody Allen, who has a plethora of films exploring the ups and downs of creating art. Not only does Allen seem to have the same obsession with masturbation, but the same desire to remain in a fantasy world of his own work. To Allen, salvation and happiness exist only in the act of making and watching movies, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in his most self-indulgent and delusional work, Deconstructing Harry. In that film, he plays a novelist in the process of self-destruction; he can no longer write as his friends and relatives complain that they can see themselves in his work. He fades in and out of the world of his novels, alienating everyone he knows until finally he is left all alone, save the characters manifested from novels.

Do Allen and Kaufman accept this fantasy as a means of remaining sane, or do they lament its necessity? Personally, I find the choice to be no choice at all. If the only escape is Susan Orlean taking her happy drug, Woody Allen existing solely inside the world of cinema, or Charlie Kaufman fantasizing about women he cannot have, then what? Is this creating your own life story or is it living inside a fantasy world?

I happened to catch In A Lonely Place last weekend on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart as a crime drama screenwriter named Dixon Steele, it contains the same level of meta-fiction as Adaptation or Deconstructing Harry, but with more of the existential angst of the post-WWII film noir period. One night, Steele invites a coat clerk to his place to have her explain a book that she has read and that he has been hired to adapt. She does so and leaves, but the next day is found murdered. He is exonerated by his next-door neighbor, a woman he soon falls in love with, who saw the coat check girl leave his apartment alone. We see it happen, so initially when he is accused of the murder, the concept is so ridiculous that we do not even wonder about it. Steele remains sure of himself as well, toying and joking with the detectives on the case, and even going so far as to reenact the murder for them. But another detective continues to investigate Steele, and slowly both the audience and the woman slowly begin to doubt what they had before thought they knew. Steele's violent and hot-tempered nature begins to show itself, and suddenly no one is quite so sure if this writer who creates such fantastic crime stories murdered that girl or not. He has become, in a sense, the creation of his own work. The woman begins to back away from Steele and plans to secretly to leave him, which throws Steele into a rage to the point where he has his hands around her neck. They are interrupted by word that the coat clerk girl's boyfriend has confessed to the murder, but the news comes too late to save the relationship, and Dixon Steele is left alone in the end.

In A Lonely Place portrays the elemental confusion and despair of not knowing what is real and what is not, and even by its very title, describes not only the act of writing itself, but the dangers of creating a self-story. Steele characterized himself as a man capable of committing such a crime, which in the end, leaves him with nothing. It stands in sharp contrast to Allen and Kaufman whose attitudes are more flippant, uncertain, or even nihilistic about the same set of problems. I am more inclined to accept In A Lonely Place rather than Adaptation, since the former at least understands and worries about the inherent problems of writing and self-creation while the latter seems willing to fatalistically delude themselves purely for escape. It may be harder to live with these uncertainties, but at least it is more honest.

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