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How Charlie Kaufman uses the extraordinary to explain the ordinary

The filmmaker's newest work, Anomalisa, is just the latest example.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Charlie Kaufman may be Hollywood’s most accomplished absurdist. The screenwriter and co-director behind the new stop-motion animated film Anomalisa is also the visionary behind oddball wonders like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and his difficult but brilliant directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman’s work is layered with metaphor and meaning, and his films tend to exist in parallel worlds where the normal rules of neither movies nor reality seem to apply.

In short, his movies are heady and often dense, and they can take a bit of time to unpack. (Here’s a four-part, 80-minute analysis of Synecdoche, if that’s your thing.) But if you just want understand Kaufman’s essential sensibility, you may as well start by watching a 10-minute short produced by Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim titled "Unedited Footage of a Bear."

The short (which isn't Kaufman's but was instead made by Alan Resnick and Ben O'Brien) is part of Adult Swim’s ongoing series of satirical infomercials. It starts out as, well, footage of a bear. Within a few seconds, however, it switches to a (fake) "commercial" for the (fake) nasal spray Claridryl. At first it plays like a fairly conventional satire, emphasizing all the cloying, familiar tropes of ads for anti-allergy drugs, including a voiceover that lists increasingly dire-sounding side effects.

But then it takes a dark and unexpected turn, as the side effects begin to manifest in the main character. From there, it gets even weirder, as violent, hallucinatory imagery takes over. It’s a prescription drug ad suffering from the side effects of the drug it’s selling. It’s entirely insane — yet there’s also a certain terrifying, inescapable logic to it. It’s hard to turn away.

That same description applies, in varying ways, to much of Kaufman’s filmmaking, and not by accident. In a recent interview with New York magazine’s Adam Sternbergh, Kaufman named the Adult Swim short as the sort of comedy he really likes.

"It’s just this really horrifying, really well-done surreal nightmare," he said. "I’ve always loved things that purport to be one thing but turn into something else." Kaufman reiterated that same idea later in the interview, saying that what he really appreciates is "anything where it feels like it doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go. That freedom, that sort of anarchy of form, is the thing that really appeals to me."

Kaufman's work can't be defined by any one genre or style

Anarchy of form is a constant in Kaufman’s work. Indeed, his movies often exist in open rebellion against established traditions and constraints. As both a writer and a director, Kaufman is dedicated to blowing up the conventions of Hollywood screenplays and cinema.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a strange sci-fi love story that essentially focuses on all the ways love can go wrong. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a tricky, slippery biopic about game show host Chuck Barris’s claims that he also acted as a CIA assassin; it questions the truth of its subject’s wild claims even as it presents them. Being John Malkovich is centered on a puppeteer who finds a portal into actor John Malkovich’s head, but loses control when Malkovich stops being a puppet and becomes a kind of puppeteer himself.

And Synecdoche, New York is a sprawling, wildly ambitious meta-movie about a fatalistic theater director who's so obsessed with capturing the totality of existence that he develops a play that expands in scale and scope until it is difficult to tell the difference between the play and reality (indeed, there may be no difference at all). The artist’s struggle to portray the world becomes the world itself.

As Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche received somewhat mixed reviews upon release in 2008; it has since grown in reputation, with Roger Ebert eventually calling it the best movie of the 2010s. But perhaps the most revealing and fully realized of Kaufman's films is Adaptation, about a screenwriter not-entirely-coincidentally named Charlie Kaufman who struggles with the process of adapting New Yorker writer Susan Orleans’s book The Orchid Thief, while watching his brother Donald succeed with more conventional fare (a thriller in which a cop, his love interest, and the serial killer he's chasing turn out to be the same person).

Naturally, the movie grew out of Kaufman’s real-life assignment to adapt Orleans’s book. And in the end, the Donald character seems to take over, transforming a quiet film about the struggle to make a movie about flowers into a drug-addled suspense flick. The screenplay is credited to both Charlie and Donald Kaufman, the latter a fictional character who exists only in the movie he appears to have helped written. Like "Unedited Footage of a Bear," it is kind of insane — yet not without a gripping internal logic.

Each of Kaufman's films exists in a kind of recursive postmodern loop, as a hall of mirrors and metaphor, in which art and life intermingle almost interchangeably and the artifice of cinema becomes a way to portray the artifice of real life. They’re cinematic Escher drawings, refusing to hold a single, consistent form. But they’re all emotionally grounded as well, dwelling on the individual human experience and the loneliness of existence as characters struggle to make connections beyond themselves.

Anomalisa emphasizes the crushing banality of existence

Anomalisa.

At first glance, Anomalisa might seem to break the Kaufman mold: It presents itself as a fairly conventional drama about a middle-aged man on a business trip, albeit one made using an innovative stop-motion puppetry technique. The main character, author Michael Stone (David Thewlis), arrives in Cincinnati to give a speech on customer service, and proceeds through a series of dull interactions — with his airplane seatmate, his cab driver, the service workers at his upscale hotel. In typical Kaufman fashion, the dry, elliptical conversations emphasize the boring and the mundane and the terrible difficulty of true human connection.

But as the conversations continue, the movie is rapidly overtaken by weirdness, because apart from Michael, every single face has the same basic characteristics, and every single voice — whether it belongs to a man or a woman, to someone he knows or someone he doesn’t — sounds exactly the same. (They’re all voiced with brilliant blandness by Tom Noonan.)

That is, until Stone meets Lisa, the only other person who has a voice of her own. She’s an anomaly — hence, Anomalisa. That meeting sparks an emotionally intense one-night fling, which eventually leads to Michael’s sad realization that their spark will fade and Lisa’s voice will come to sound just like everyone else’s.

Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa is a sad, lonely anti-love story about the ways life and romance will always disappoint us. And like all of Kaufman’s movies, it’s also an exercise in clever formal experimentation and sly reference: Human interaction doesn’t merely seem bland and featureless to Michael — it is literally all the same. The hotel Michael stays at is called the Fregoli, after Fregoli syndrome, a disorder in which a person thinks everyone else in the world is the same person.

The movie even seems to reference Kaufman’s own work. One of its funniest sequences comes when Michael finds himself in an absurdist nightmare scenario, in which the hotel begins to take on the properties of a fever dream and he struggles to escape. It’s all very, well … Kaufmanesque. And then Michael wakes up, back in his ordinary life. Despite the strangeness of its premise, Anomalisa takes place in a world that is nonetheless defiantly real. As always, Kaufman is subverting expectations, even those he’s created himself.

Anomalisa’s puppets are more than just gimmicks

And then, of course, there are the puppets, which serve their own twisty purpose.

With its intimate scale and setting, Anomalisa is arguably the most grounded and human story Kaufman has ever worked on. The majority of the movie takes place in a single hotel, and much of the action consists of boring, everyday activities — checking in, taking a shower, calling room service.

Staging it all as a stop-motion puppet show has the effect of calling special attention to all the normal things that happen on screen (the anatomically correct puppets help). None of them would be particularly notable if an ordinary human actor were doing them — but played via co-director Duke Johnson’s marvelous puppet work, they become a thing of magical beauty.

It’s a gimmick, yes, but it’s not just a gimmick. It's a way of distancing the audience while also drawing them closer in the process by asking them to look more intently at what they would normally ignore.

And this, more than anything else, may be Kaufman’s true strength as a writer and filmmaker: He uses the extraordinary to portray the ordinary, and to reveal life as it is often felt but rarely captured. It’s weird stuff, and the turns his films take are often dark and unexpected. The normal rules of Hollywood movies rarely seem to matter.

But that’s why Kaufman’s unconventional approach can be so emotionally satisfying. It’s fitting, really: He’s an absurdist obsessed with the impossibility of human connection — but through his movies, he’s connected with real human experience by remaining powerfully, defiantly absurd.