To celebrate TIFF’s ongoing Bangkok Dangerous: The Cinema Of Nicolas Cage series, Alan Jones has resurrected his retrospective of the actor’s work entitled The Nic Cage Project. In this edition, Jones takes a look at Charlie and Donald Kaufman’s brilliantly contrived Adaptation – playing tonight at the Lightbox.
It’s a recurring joke in Adaptation that some screenwriters are good at structure. When Donald Kaufman (Nic Cage), the hack writer of a sub-Silence of the Lambs serial killer movie tells his twin brother Charlie that their mother liked his screenplay, Charlie dismissively tells him they should collaborate: “I hear she’s really good at structure.” When Charlie goes to his agent (Ron Livingston) to tell him about his writer’s block, the agent tells him Donald’s screenplay is really good: “He’s really goddamn amazing at structure.” Charlie is, or course, a somewhat fictionalized version of the real Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriting wunderkind behind Being John Malkovitch, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York. Donald is a fictional creation, a composite character that represents the status quo of Hollywood screenwriting: three-act stories written under strict guidelines of what makes “good” or “bad” writing. His inspiration is Robert McKee, the real life screenwriting guru (played in the film by Brian Cox) whose “guidelines” to screenwriting are instinctively dismissed by the fictional Charlie.
The great irony of the film, however, is that the real Charlie Kaufman really is goddamn amazing at structure. In fact, whether you’re looking at the rules for screenwriting dictated by Robert McKee or Syd Field, or whoever else makes a living from giving lectures about screenwriting and narrative structure, Charlie follows all of them. Well, maybe not all of them, he’s clever enough to sidestep or bend many of them. For example, a good portion of Adaptation is guided by voiceover, one of Robert McKee’s no-nos, but almost all of the “conflict” (a term endlessly employed by screenwriting gurus) in Adaptation is between Charlie and his own insecurities, and so the voiceover is not used for emotional exposition, which is the real reason behind avoiding it.
In my four years of academic Cinema Studies, the structure of a classicist was barely mentioned, beyond a cursory discussion of three-act structure in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s ubiquitous introductory text book Film Art. This avoidance of the “rules” behind filmmaking art is indicative of fictional Charlie’s attitude towards Donald – a holier-than-thou attitude that dismisses Donald as a perpetuator of mediocrity. Indeed, Adaptation is hardly mainstream, and many an urbane intellectual viewer probably shares fictional Charlie’s attitude towards Donald, Robert McKee, and generic Hollywood films in general, assuming these are a perfectly legitimate targets of their condescension. But the rules or guidelines that apply to popular Hollywood cinema also apply to almost all American independent productions, including those films written by Charlie Kaufman and including a good deal of “art cinema” that demands intellectual consideration.
Adaptation is not unoriginal, but it does make use of formula (as almost all written work, good or bad, does). It is the story of Charlie and Donald Kaufman writing Adaptation, which begins as an adaptation of Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief, a book that, according to Charlie, has no structure or character growth; two things one needs, according to the Robert McKees of the world, in order to create a good story. Being that the screenplay for Adaptation is about it’s own creation, it is full of self-reflexive commentary (like all of Kaufman’s screenplays). At one point Charlie puts it like this: “I’ve written myself into my screenplay. It’s eating itself. I’m eating myself… It’s self-indulgent. It’s narcissist. It’s solipsistic. It’s pathetic. I’m pathetic. I’m fat and pathetic.” All of which is to some extent true, (although the real Charlie Kaufman is quite slim and, as it happens, Nic Cage, dressed in a fat suit and a wig that emulates thinning hair, is really good at playing someone this twitchy and neurotic and self-absorbed.)
The challenge for Kaufman is not only to incorporate originality into formula, but also to incorporate character growth into a worldview that is essentially pessimistic and unchanging. In one Adaptation scene, at a point of desperation, fictional Charlie attends a Robert McKee lecture hoping for inspiration. He stands up and timidly asks “what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies? They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world…” The real Charlie gets around this problem through sleight of hand. In Being John Malkovitch, the protagonist’s change is entirely external. The external change provides him with new confidence, but his inability to become a better person gradually undoes this change. (One may think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doesn’t represent this pessimism, but if one reads the pre-Michel Gondry drafts of the Eternal Sunshine screenplay, one will see that, as originally conceived, the story is really fucking depressing.) In Adaptation, the change comes in the third act, when Charlie the character gives up on his ambition of writing a storyless screenplay (“sprawling New York shit”) and asks his hack twin brother to help him finish the script. At this point, it stops being a film about writer’s block and insecurity and becomes a film about drugs and sex and violence and crime. The climax is a self-aware fascimile of a bad Hollywood thriller and, most importantly, the main character overcomes his insecurities and gets the girl in the end.
It’s usually an ill-advised tactic for a critic to ponder the intentions of a writer, but I wonder, while watching Adaptation, if the real Charlie Kaufman is using the screenplay as a cathartic scream, a cry of failure. I wonder if the real Charlie wishes he could write something so revolutionary that he can prove one doesn’t need the rules or the guidelines of Hollywood classicism. But all the while realizing that he can’t break free of three acts, a beginning, middle and end, and placing conflict and drama into every scene. Perhaps while he’s writing, in the back of his head sits Donald, saying “Yeah man, but don’t forget about the structure.”