Ah yes, surrealism. The term carries with it a certain weight that implies the utmost pretension; just speaking it aloud you can practically feel the ghost of Salvador Dalí looking down his nose at you. The surrealist movement began in the early 20th century, and it was intended to be a means for artists to project the unconventional realities of their subconscious minds onto the conventional reality of the world around them. In surrealist art, literature and film, clocks melt off the wall and human faces stretch and morph like dough. The nature of the movement inherently makes its art confusing, inaccessible and strange.
In the modern day surrealism has had a facelift, largely thanks to writer and director Charlie Kaufman (“Anomalisa”). Over the course of his filmography, Kaufman has managed to take the shocking, bizarre and grandiose and frame it through the context of genuinely human stories. Kaufman’s surrealism is less like peering into the void and more like watching common struggles and themes expressed in extremely uncommon ways. The result is an anthology of films that are as uniquely touching and heartfelt as they are mind-bending and weird.
Kaufman’s career in film began as the writer for Spike Jonze’s (“Her”) 1999 film “Being John Malkovich.” The film follows Craig, (John Cusack, “Grand Piano”) a struggling puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich (“XXX”), playing himself. After entering the portal, Craig is transported into Malkovich’s body for 15 minutes before being spat out on the side of the New Jersey turnpike. The concept is inherently comedic, and numerous antics ensue as Craig and his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) decide to get rich by charging admission to John Malkovich’s head. However, for all its eccentric humor, “Malkovich” never drifts too far from the human questions that sit at its core: What is appealing about becoming someone else? Why do we feel a desire to escape our own lives? Kaufman deftly weaves these musings into the film, but addresses them with a sort of dark levity that doesn’t make you feel like you’re watching a philosophical film. The profundity of “Being John Malkovich” is hidden amid its humor.
With 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Kaufman writes yet another offering that marries heady, surrealist philosophy to common emotions, this time through the frame of romance. “Sunshine” tells the story of Joel (Jim Carrey, “The Truman Show”) and Clementine (Kate Winslet, “Titanic”), a couple whose relationship has fallen apart, leading them to undergo a procedure to have all memory of one another erased from their minds. As the procedure progresses, audiences are treated to wild, non-chronological journey through Joel’s memories and mind. The film asks heavy questions (Is it better to remember something unpleasant? Can we gain something in forgetting?), and Kaufman is unafraid to tackle these questions head-on. The strange imagery and winding storyline allow “Sunshine” to explore these questions in detail, and the film’s emotional center stops it from ever feeling heady or cold, creating a film that is intimate, philosophical and surreal.
Kaufman’s repertoire of surrealism and existential dread seemed to draw to a head in his 2009 directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York.” The film follows Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”), a theatre director who struggles to create his magnum opus, a life-sized model of Schenectady, New York, inside an impossibly large warehouse. As Caden’s project grows, the line between theatre and reality is blurred as he becomes a character in his own play. “Synecdoche” is likely Kaufman’s most ambitiously surreal film to date. Caden’s love interest lives in a house that is perpetually on fire, and Caden ages sporadically over the course of the film. Kaufman is portraying a man who is actively building his own version of reality, a version fueled by neuroses, grandiosity, arrogance, love and ambition. Exploring this world in all of its nonsensical glory allows Kaufman to make even greater statements and questions. Are we all performers in a sense? Does it matter? Is he performing in asking that question? Kaufman deconstructs the artist’s struggle and reframes it as the human struggle; we are born, we create something — whether that be art, a family, a career or a legacy — and then we die. Who is it all for?
Charlie Kaufman’s work asks more questions than it answers. His films address nearly every possible human experience — love, loss, fear, regret, heartbreak, the list goes on. Yet Kaufman’s writing of both dialogue and storyline carries with it such a uniquely intimate tone and cadence. As a result, the ambitious philosophical scope and surreal imagery of his films never overshadow what sits at the absolute core of all of his work: a profound understanding of what it is to be human. Breaking from the surrealists of the early 20th century, Kaufman’s surrealism is a vehicle for humanity, not the other way around. He acknowledges that our minds don’t work like reality does; they’re filled with insane hypotheticals and wild musings. In bringing these what-ifs to life, Kaufman reveals our deepest fears and greatest wishes, often without us even realizing it.