In their most successful works, artists like Wallace and Kaufman reassured their audiences that earnest emotion remained possible, even at the end of history. That these artists used so many postmodern techniques in the first place, however, testified to their sense that sincerity in an age of irony was no simple matter. In Kaufman’s triumvirate of early-career masterpieces—“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” from 2004—sincerity tended to come only after a harrowing journey into the back channels of the self. Famously, in “Being John Malkovich,” the actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich) dives into the supernatural “portal” that others have been using to tunnel into his brain and finds himself in a restaurant where the waiters, lounge singers, and even his own date all share his face and speak only one word: “Malkovich.” The scene is a terrifying depiction of the solipsistic imagination, and the viewer shares Malkovich’s relief when he is expelled from it. Later in the film, in another dazzling sequence, the two female leads, played by Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener, chase each other through Malkovich’s subconscious, which appears as a parade of shameful childhood memories. In one, he stands at the foot of his parents’ bed while they have cartoonishly enthusiastic intercourse; in another, he is taunted by a bus full of schoolboys as urine dribbles onto his shoes.
This turns out to be a test run for my favorite sequence in any Kaufman film, which comes midway through “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” when Joel (Jim Carrey), having paid a company to “erase” his memory of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) while he sleeps, changes his mind during the procedure. Trying to escape the company’s technicians, he drags Clementine off the “map” of their shared history and back to his childhood, where he hopes the erasers cannot follow. There we see Joel—still played by the adult Carrey—getting his arm twisted behind his back by some bullies in the park, hiding under his kitchen table, and almost being caught masturbating in his room by his mother. Eventually, the technicians bring Joel and Clementine back onto the map, the worlds of Joel’s childhood collapse like houses of cards, and the couple find themselves on the beach in Montauk, at the barbecue where they first met. “What do we do?” Clementine asks, knowing that the memory erasers will come for this, too. “Enjoy it,” Joel says.
Among other things, such scenes reveal something about Kaufman’s picture of the self. Inside each one of us, it seems, there is a reel of images running on loop. The loop contains our happiest moments and our saddest ones, and some negatives that are so shameful we can hardly bear to look. Typically, Kaufman’s characters are haunted by their most painful memories, which is what causes them to seek an escape from the “curse” of consciousness, as the beleaguered puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) calls it in “Being John Malkovich.” But, as Joel and Clementine learn in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” what is really accursed about consciousness is that the strip cannot be snipped: our painful memories are an indissoluble element in the same film as the happy ones.
In their wiser moments—as at the end of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” when Joel and Clementine decide to give their relationship another try, even knowing the disappointments in store—Kaufman’s characters come to understand their pain as a condition of self-expression: they emerge from the maze of the inner self intact and, at least for the moment, capable of genuine feeling. But a more unsettling possibility runs in parallel through the films, a band of unease about the porousness of self and other, past and present, real and imaginary. In “Being John Malkovich” and in Kaufman’s directorial début, in 2008, “Synecdoche, New York”—which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a death-obsessed director who embarks on a massive theatre project about his own life—what constitutes the “real” world is inflected and sometimes overwhelmed by the protagonist’s inner reel. In the animated film “Anomalisa,” which Kaufman co-directed with Duke Johnson, in 2015, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a customer-service guru on a business trip to Cincinnati, suffers from an inability to hear the voices of others as anything but a grating echo of his own. Briefly released from his condition by a woman he meets in his hotel, then cruelly returned to it, he appears to us as a cautionary tale: not everyone who journeys into the depths of the self is able to find the way back.
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