The Truths About Charlie


Being John Malkovich, the comic brain-twister directed by Spike Jonze from Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay, invited analogy seekers to cast their nets wide. Adaptation, the team’s hugely clever follow-up, is a movie so extravagantly self-conscious that it bids to preempt analysis.

“Do I have an original thought in my head?” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) wonders at the onset. Much of Adaptation immerses the viewer in Kaufman’s neurotic stream of consciousness. It’s a mind so roiled with anxiety as to make Woody Allen and Albert Brooks seem like veritable bodhisattvas. Nothing may be taken lightly: Charlie’s identity crisis when ordered off the set of Being John Malkovich triggers a cosmic flashback 4 billion years to the origin of life on earth, and then forward, through the screenwriter’s birth, to his lunch with a silky studio executive (Tilda Swinton). She wants him to adapt Susan Orlean’s book-length report on rare flowers and the collectors who love them, The Orchid Thief.

In a joke that takes most of the movie to fully blossom, Charlie immediately begins to rant about all the commercially driven liberties that he will not take with The Orchid Thief screenplay. Against all odds, he is still given the assignment. As a reward, he gives himself a massive writer’s block. Charlie’s agony before the typewriter is contrasted with what he imagines to be the poised facility with which Susan Orlean (hilariously played by Meryl Streep) composed her book. The spectacle of Susan in the throes precipitates a flashback to her inspiration—the arrest of John Laroche (Chris Cooper) and several Seminole accomplices as they emerge from a South Florida swamp carrying four pillowcases stuffed with rare flowers.

At this point, Kaufman has most of his narrative ducks in the water—the trick is bringing them into the same pond. As Charlie frantically reworks and reworks his material, Adaptation takes on a generic resemblance to Geoff Dyer’s 1997 Out of Sheer Rage, a putative study of D.H. Lawrence that becomes Dyer’s account of his inability to write such a study. Narcissus may be a flower, but in Kaufman’s earthier formulation, solipsism is synonymous with onanism. Still, Adaptation‘s success in engaging the audience in the travails of creating a screenplay is extraordinary. The perversity of this approach suggests the old joke about the aspiring starlet so dumb she came to Hollywood and screwed the writers. (At the same time, Kaufman’s script ideas bring to mind the apocryphal story that, having read the scenario he commissioned Maurice Maeterlinck to write, mogul Sam Goldwyn burst from his office bellowing, “The hero’s a bee!”)

There’s also an echo of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, although Charlie is scarcely as glamorous as Marcello Mastroianni’s stymied maestro. “I understand nothing outside of my own panic and self-loathing,” he wails, as the prelude to a telepathic conversation with Susan Orlean’s author picture. Despite its mad intertextuality, time-jumping, and all-over parallel action, Adaptation is not entirely literary. Nor is its technique unduly flashy. As Being John Malkovich was, in good measure, a movie about movie acting, it should not be too surprising that Jonze is a talented director of actors, as well as comedy. Charismatically deprived of his front teeth, Cooper gives a career performance as a garrulous redneck genius; sensitively self-absorbed, Streep would rate a supporting actress nomination just for her scene presiding over a Manhattan dinner party. Cage approaches Oscar heaven with the arrival of a third writer, namely Charlie’s cheerfully crass twin brother, Donald—whom he plays as well. (The perfectly seamless presence of the two Cages on-screen has the uncanny effect of neutralizing the actor’s naturally obstreperous affect.)

The despised Donald functions as Charlie’s materialized doppelgänger—a fount of idiotic script ideas who swears by guru Robert McKee and manages not only to sell his first effort, a multiple-personality serial-killer thriller called The 3, for high six figures, but even pick up a winsome costume assistant (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the set of Being John Malkovich. Charlie is ultimately so desperate that he drafts his brother’s assistance and even attends the McKee seminar himself, only to hear the great man (Brian Cox) declare, “God help you if you use voice-over in a script, my friend.” After asking an embarrassing question during the seminar, Charlie manages to extract some advice from the oracle on the script he is writing about “disappointment.”

By this point, Adaptation could inspire footnotes. Although the movie gives the positive-thinking Donald Kaufman a credit, he does not exist. I’m not sure if the injunction “Your characters must change and the change must come from them” is authentic McKee, but Kaufman ascribes it, with maximum pomposity, to the script guru and then uses it to wonderfully double-edged effect. Like 8 1/2, Adaptation is a movie that gleefully swallows its own tale. Once the action begins to follow Donald’s script, we’re plunged into a sudden morass of cyberporn, exotic drugs, car chases, adultery, and murder—complete with another McKee bête noir, the deus ex machina. Or, perhaps the uplifting bromide and “happy ending” are the orchid in the swamp of narrative.

Nearly unflagging in its inventiveness, Adaptation is also a bit exhausting. Ultimately, the movie’s title seems less a play on adapting Orlean’s book than a riff on the evolution of behavior helpful to an organism in a specific hostile environment. Which is to say that this parodic story of Hollywood creation is full of universal, or at least 20th-century, paramount needs—which is to say, yours, mine, and the movies’.

Adaptation might not seem so unusual in Iran, which, as all conscientious moviegoers know, is a hothouse of self-reflexive cinematic practices. Blackboards, the latest release from this land of allegory—directed by then 20-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf from a script co-written with her father, Mohsen—is, however, somewhat less a hall of mirrors than Samira’s precocious debut, The Apple.

The Kurdish-language Blackboards is not a documentary, but as its title suggests, it is didactic. Indeed, it’s an object lesson in which everybody is bowed down with something on their back—most obviously the itinerant teachers carrying their slates through the mountains of northwestern Iran. Searching for pupils, two split off from the group, Said (Said Mohamadi) and Reeboir (played by Bahman Ghobadi, the Kurdish director of A Time for Drunken Horses). Said meets a group of young boys used as mules to smuggle contraband across the Iran-Iraq border. Reeboir falls in with a gang of old men, trying to return to their ancestral village. As part of the deal, the incongruously cheerful Reeboir makes a marriage agreement with the film’s lone woman (and professional actor, Behnaz Jafari). After this querulous ceremony, Reeboir hopefully gives his grim, grimy-faced wife her first lesson, writing “I love you” on his blackboard and coaching her to repeat it. She doesn’t and gets a zero.

Makhmalbaf’s close-ups—not to mention her incredible cast of garrulous geezers—create a kind of kvetchorama of constant complaining in continual movement. Nothing if not arduous, Blackboards is filled with tricky shots in an improbable landscape. Danger is everywhere. The travelers are constantly hiding or fleeing from soldiers, and in the haunting final image, Reeboir’s blackboard (still marked “I love you”) disappears into the dust of battle. Like some recent movies from the House of Makhmalbaf, Blackboards is both shrill and soporific, and because everything is repeated five or six times, it can seem tiresomely simpleminded. Take it as persistence. Each time a kid learns something, he puts himself in peril. A response to futility, this movie is designed to lecture the rocks—it’s as true to its concept as Adaptation.

Seventeen years in the making, in even less hospitable terrain than that of Blackboards, Christophe de Ponfilly’s Massoud, the Afghan is a highly personal portrait of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the charismatic leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance who was blown up by Al Qaeda assassins two days before last year’s terror attacks put Afghanistan at the center of American political geography.

Ponfilly is scarcely less self-conscious than Charlie Kaufman. His first-person report draws on two previous movies he made about Massoud—an engineering student turned mujahideen who fought first against the Soviets and later the Taliban—and is filled with voice-over ruminations about his own frustration and despair. “Never had filming seemed so useless,” he declares over some 1993 footage of ruined Kabul. A few years later, Ponfilly is back filming the ruins of these ruins. Massoud ends in 1998, with the commander preparing to launch a new attack on Kabul. Massoud is calm and ascetic, with a sly sense of humor (the French-speaking hero tells Ponfilly that the world figure he most admires is Charles de Gaulle). It’s not the least of Afghan tragedies that this noble warlord would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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