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Why Charlie Kaufman Is Us

In exploring our inner selves, he's become one of the best writers of his generation, David L. Ulin argues.

May 14, 2006|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is The Times' book editor and the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground."

It's Charlie Kaufman's world. We just live in it.

The day after I first saw Kaufman's movie "Adaptation," my wife and I took our daughter to a birthday party. It was mid-December, an afternoon of flat white sunlight, washed out in that Southern California winter way. At the door, a tangle of balloons announced the festivities in orange and blue and red. Inside, kids raced by in groups of twos and threes while parents clustered in the corners, trying not to spill their coffee, chatting stiffly among themselves. One of the very first things you learn about birthday parties is that no one over the age of 6 or 7 wants to be there, yet when your children are young, you have no choice but to stay. So you look for a place to install yourself, and try to appear engaged--no matter how uncomfortable you feel. It's a curious disconnect between inner and outer reality, not unlike the existential tension of a Kaufman film. How did I get here? you keep asking. And more important: How do I get out?

That afternoon, the only way out was via the backyard, which flickered like an alternate reality through a pair of French doors. After a while, my wife and I drifted down the hall and onto a small patio, breathing relief in the tepid air. Although the day was mild, none of the kids had found their way here, and it was quiet, a patch of grass shaded by fruit trees. In the middle, a slim, dark-haired woman sat talking in a small group. Who is that? I wondered. Where do I know her from? And then, in a flash, I knew. There is a moment in "Adaptation" when the character of Kaufman (who has written himself into his own movie) calls home to check in with his twin brother Donald (whose existence is another invention of the script). Over the phone, he hears laughter and a woman's voice. The woman is the actress Catherine Keener, who starred in Kaufman's first film, "Being John Malkovich," and, in this scene, plays Boggle with his brother, much to the writer's dismay. "Catherine Keener?" he asks, his voice plaintive, tight. "Catherine Keener's in my house?"

Just the night before, I'd laughed at the lunacy of the situation--a dramatized version of a screenwriter lamenting a real-life actress' friendship with a brother who doesn't exist. It was like a Mobius strip of the imagination, a double exposure of fact and fiction. Barely 15 hours later, here I was, watching Kaufman's movie come to life. For who was the woman in the backyard? None other than Catherine Keener, whose own child was at the party. I stood there, briefly confused. Then my wife brushed up behind me and, with a quick elbow to make sure she had my attention, repeated in a quiet whisper the line of dialogue I was then recalling: Catherine Keener's in my house?

There are a couple of approaches you can take to this experience, a couple of lines of interpretation. Some might see it as just one more example of life in Los Angeles, where even in the most unexpected setting, we may come face to face with the reality--not the illusion--of Hollywood. I, however, choose to see it differently. It's a perfect example of the connections we forge with the art that moves us, in which a particular piece of writing, of film, of music can take up residence not only in our heads but in our lives.

For me, "Adaptation" is precisely such a work, a strange and remarkable movie that offers the most accurate portrayal I've yet seen of what it's like to be a writer. It's also a compelling riff on narrative structure, on the intricacies of art and commerce, the difficulty of storytelling by committee and the universal human desire to be liked. Based on Susan Orlean's 1998 nonfiction book "The Orchid Thief," it is an investigation of obsession, of the elaborate, looping interplay of the author's mind and his material and, indeed, himself. "Do I have an original thought in my head?" the film begins, as Kaufman--or Nicolas Cage, who plays both Kaufman and his brother--murmurs in a voice-over, while credits flash across the bottom of a black screen. A minute later, we're on the set of "Being John Malkovich," where Kaufman/Cage is waved off the soundstage after getting in the way of a shot. "What am I doing here?" he wonders. "Why did I bother to come here today? Nobody even seems to know my name. I've been on this planet for 40 years, and I'm no closer to understanding a single thing. Why am I here? How did I get here?"

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