charlie kaufman explained

High-Octane Navel-Gazing: A Very Brief Introduction to the Work of Charlie Kaufman


Charlie Kaufman is directing again, and I haven’t been this excited for a movie for quite a while, so I figured I may as well do up a short piece on who this guy is and why moody and moderately intelligent people everywhere get hyped when he steps back into view of the public eye. 

Let’s start with a very short bio. Kaufman started out as a comedy writer, and he worked on the famously defunct Dana Carvey Show, which only ran a few episodes before getting pulled. 

Other writers on the show included Louis C.K. and Dino Stamatopoulos, the latter of which happened to create one of the best animated shows of all time, Moral Orel. 

Oh yeah, and Stephen Colbert was in the cast. In short, the show remains a big deal for comedy nerds. 

Kaufman also had an infamous pilot script that never got picked up, but that showed off some of his wild ideas with regards to time and surreal elements. 

But Kaufman’s big Hollywood break came from working with director Spike Jonze, who had done a bunch of music videos and skate videos by this point, and he would continue to be involved with the Jackass series, because why not. 

Together, Kaufman and Jonze created Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, two movies that you need to watch. 

Spike Jonze was a big enough deal at the time to get these movies made, and if they were made today, they would probably be streaming exclusives. 

They each have different stories, but they brought the Kaufman themes to the forefront, themes about impressions of the self, whether it’s possible to truly know someone else, as well as this emerging theme of wanting to return to childhood. 

In Malkovich, the protagonist is forcefully returned to childhood, and in Adaptation, Meryl Streep follows the climax by yelling “I want to be a baby.”

And based on the trailer for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, looks like time and the fluidity of time are going to be big factors once again. 

Charlie Kaufman explained

The most popular Charlie Kaufman movie is Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which also won Kaufman an Oscar.  

But since the narrative subject matter revolves around a romantic relationship, the movie and its memorable quotes were relegated to the Tumblr crowd long ago. 

This bio section is really dragging on, so I’ll just say that Kaufman has taken his time with projects since Eternal Sunshine. 

Synecdoche, New York is probably his most significant movie, and it was also his directorial debut. 

Anomalisa was produced with the help of Starburns Industries, named after Dino Stamatopoulos’s character in Community. Started out as a Kickstarter, and I still haven’t received my copy of the movie, as promised. [throat clear] And it’s very good. 

Now let’s move on and talk about why Kaufman’s work has hit it so big with English majors and white-guy YouTube video essayists. 

The Meat 

The shortest explanation I can give for Kaufman finding success with a narrow crowd of folks is that he utilizes a lot of postmodern themes and writing techniques. 

He also speaks pretty directly to people who have dealt with various forms of mental illness, specifically depression and generalized anxiety.

Here’s something that’s important to say: not a lot of contemporary entertainment does a very good job of confronting these topics in a healthy and honest way. 

I mean, you’ve got 13 Reasons Why, which is bad, and which basically boils depression down to a soap opera trope. 

And thankfully, there’s been plenty of great arthouse stuff and premium television that taps into this vein, but when Kaufman got his start, the mainstream wasn’t really grappling with difficult subject matter. 

Making entertainment with substance is a big goal for Kaufman. In fact, I remember him saying in an interview (which he doesn’t do very often) that he’s concerned that the general public isn’t being fed anything of real substance when it comes to entertainment, but since I can’t remember which interview it was, I’ll just say that has certainly been my impression of his work. 

So while Kaufman’s subject matter and his non-linear storylines and other unconventional writing techniques are still uncommon in mainstream movies and television, none of this is new to people who read, especially those who read postmodern material. 

I honestly believe that Kaufman’s core audience is almost entirely made up of people who have already exposed themselves to weirdo art movies and 20th-century literature. 

Why? Well, people who have engaged with these kinds of media have built up a tolerance for it, and they already know how exciting all this can be when it’s done well. 

And, most importantly, they’re not scared off by content that’s immediately challenging. In literature, there’s a long history of work that makes itself difficult on purpose, requiring quite a bit of study and multiple attempts to digest the material. 

Charlie Kaufman explained

Whether this approach is inherently exclusionary is a conversation we should have at some point, but as it stands now, people attracted to this kind of media very often have some degrees in hand. In other words, they have been trained to engage with difficult content. 

If we want this narrow audience to expand and diversify, then we need to do a better job, collectively, of introducing audiences to unconventional storytelling techniques and challenging work, and defaulting to the Hero’s Journey over and over again isn’t helping anyone. 

But, again, that’s a real big conversation and I’m gonna try to stick to the work here. 

The Big Idea 

For me, the most common and the most appealing aspect of Kaufman’s work is the overwhelming sense of impending doom. 

Most of Kaufman’s lead characters are just having a real tough time. They’re looking for purpose, they question themselves constantly, and they are extremely aware of their bodies and thoughts and how they’re seen by other people. 

This kind of accelerated navel-gazing is another key feature of postmodern literature. 

But it’s also just really relatable, especially right now. 

Plenty of smart people have talked in recent years about the increase in diagnosed anxiety, specifically in capitalist societies, and certain writers like the late Mark Fisher have even gone so far as to suggest that economic systems could be at the root of these mental disorders. 

But we don’t even have to take it quite that far to prove that Kaufman’s work is particularly useful at this moment in time. 

If the last few months have made anything clear, it’s that there are very real problems in the world today, problems that we do need to worry about, that we need to work very hard to fix. 

Speaking from personal experience, anyone grappling with anxiety can have a tough time going about their usual business without returning to these objectively miserable realities. 

Distraction can delay these thoughts, but if there’s ever a lull, uh oh, here they come again. 

Charlie Kaufman explained

Then the thinking errors come into play, convinced they know what will happen next and how everything’s headed downhill. 

By the way, this is more or less how we got the doomers. Watch [this video] for more info. 

While Charlie Kaufman’s movies don’t necessarily offer solutions to consistent anxieties and moments of self-questioning, they at least acknowledge these thoughts, and that alone can be really helpful. 

It’s just nice to watch a movie where characters worry about stuff YOU worry about. It’s nice to see someone struggling with similar problems (which itself is another reason why increased diversity and representation in media is only a good thing).

Kaufman’s movies are for people who know they don’t know very much at all, who respond to good news with, ‘yeah, but it’ll probably go wrong pretty soon, though.’ 

I honestly believe there’s value in talking about this stuff through media. 

And I’m incredibly interested to see where this new movie lands. Will it give us answers? Nahhhh, probably not. 

But it will go places we don’t see very often, and that in itself is exciting. 

It’s rare that the mainstream promotes anyone with unique ideas and their own approach to storytelling. So rather than clinging to Charlie Kaufman as a postmodern geek god, let’s use his career and his work as an example of how much we need media that does something new. 


So that’s where I’m ending things for now. But I actually just finished reading the book the new Kaufman movie is based on, and since, at the time of recording, the movie hasn’t been released, I’m planning to make a separate video just talking about the book and some of my … concerns for how the movie will turn out. So if you’d like to see that, keep an eye out. 

Otherwise, thanks for stopping by! 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.