Grandeur Delusions: The Male Protagonists of the Films of Charlie Kaufman
A mild mannered NBC page goes from zero to hero, making hit shows and makings hits at the same time. A slightly schlubby puppeteer struggles both with his art, his lust for an elusive female co-worker, and his fascination with the portal into the head of another man. A self-aware introvert travels back through his most recent relationship and starts to understand the fallacy of his own romantic mind. These three characters do not share the actors who played them or even the directors who guided them, but they do share two things: a writer, named Charlie Kaufman, and a unique sense of delusion. As Freud would put it, a delusion of grandeur, to the extent where such delusions affect the way that each characters’ story is told, in terms of aesthetics and structure. In George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) leads a double life where, by day, he’s producing shows like The Newlywed Game and by night he’s making hits for the CIA; but Barris’s story, told from his perspective, is so bizarre the audience is thrust into a hyper-stylized fantasy where one is not quite able to tell if he is telling the truth. Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich presents “objectivity” as a deliberately absurdist comedy, playing the concept itself and deconstructing the romanticized “genius” in the form of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). Lastly, in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is so deep set in his introversion, that when he finally is given the opportunity to explore his own memories, he is able to see them for what they are. These are tied together by Kaufman’s singular ability to tap into the cult of the genius and deconstruct what that entails through storytelling, as well as each respective director’s ability to channel those ideas through a visual format.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: Spy Meets World
Chuck Barris is both a mild mannered person as well as a go getter, and though this seems inherently paradoxical, at least on paper, the paradox is part of the story. As he tries to innovate television with various variety and game shows, he is also working for the CIA as a hit man. This seems farfetched given the fact that he looks too incompetent for the job. As various talking heads sprinkled throughout the film can attest, Barris is incredibly enthusiastic about his job as a TV producer. He has grand plans for his shows, which are almost beings for him. The nearly anthropomorphic description of these projects, which Barris repeatedly refers to as his “babies” is not necessarily uncommon for that world, though. But whenever his reality hits a bump in the road, his disappears.
This brief plot overview and description of his personality is important to solidify that, for the most part, reality and what one may call fantasy (though it is purported as truth) are sharply defined by their aesthetic. Although Barris’s day job is, in comparison, less outwardly flamboyant in its look than his night job as a hit man, there is nonetheless a distinct stylish panache given to both worlds. The film as a whole is told in flashback from Barris’s perspective and it seems that Barris does a careful, almost novelistic job of defining the two worlds to his desire. With Barris, who seems to develop “his babies” not unlike Archimedes, there is an overt sense of delusions of grandeur, or more specifically megalomania, which is defined by psychologist Sigmund Freud as someone who “is characterized by an inflated sense of self-esteem and overestimation by persons of their powers and beliefs.” Barris thinks what he is doing, his ambitions, accomplishments, various trips, etc. is the peak of his power as an individual.
Barris begins his story discussing his role as an NBC page, which in and of itself seems banal. But Clooney heightens this delusion by utilizing a longer shot and an in camera trick, allowing Barris to enter the scene as a tourist at the NBC studios and continue a few moments later as a page. He continues his origin story describing his sexual appetite and, throughout, he seems to hold his performance as a lover in disproportionately high esteem. As he continues to develop his shows, certain scenes, which are supposed to take place in reality, also are imbued with a bit of megalomania. As he is testing out subjects for The Dating Game, the color palette of the film is illustrated with deliberate artificiality. It has a strange pastel quality, where certain colors stand out more while other seem faded and glossy. Barris was perhaps, at heart, an entertainer, and even as he tells us the less ridiculous parts of the story, he nevertheless spices them up.
When one steps in Barris’s more surreal world, one gets the impression that this is a world constructed in the mind of someone who has seen a few film noir classics and feels the need to be reliant on those archetypes. This is the 1960s, however, and Barris in his genius, insists on turning the color up, really letting colors bleed in an impressionistic way. While in a bar in Finland, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel amplifies the reds in the room and darkens the black, creating chiaroscuro in a rather hackneyed way. Patricia Watson (Julia Roberts) oozes elements of the classic femme fatale, her voice smoky and seductive. All the while, Barris seems out of place, not because he does not fit in this scenario per se, but because he tries so hard to fit. As aforementioned, these scenes of intrigue riff on classic film noir, but what they (intentionally) lack is the actual nihilistic quality that was imperative to classic film noir. These scenes, from the blown out white balance of the Mexico hit to the muted, icily composed training camp Barris attends, are such calculated rip offs of other styles (film noir, pop art, etc.) that one quickly realizes how much of a showman Barris is.
While Kaufman is able to acutely observe the ridiculousness of a self-proclaimed genius, Clooney articulates that by drawing a line that begins as a distinct dichotomy between hyper-aestheticized fiction and reality and allows it to become thinner and blurrier with each moment. The reliability of this narrator is key, but since nearly every scene Barris describes is highly stylized, the most important confession one can glean from this character is that Barris might be realizing he’s delusional.
Being John Malkovich: Puppet Master
The first images on the screen of Being John Malkovich are that of an eloquent, beautiful routine performed by a marionette. Entitled “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment”, Spike Jonze cuts to a scraggly haired, stubble covered, glasses wearing slob standing over the proceedings and controlling every movement. There is a collision here: someone who is unpleasant, both in how he looks and who he is, creating something elegant.
The title gives away the personality of Craig Schwartz though, as it is purposefully, by Kaufman, self-indulgent and self-important, and even the dance itself, however evocative it is, reeks of the pretention of many a struggling genius trapped by financial circumstances and often vocalizing about how few understand their respective art.
It is a fascinating way to introduce the audience to Schwartz, a creative genius who thinks he is very much misunderstood by the people in his life, and even those in the streets who punch him in the face during a “performance”. The only way to relay the story of such melancholy and circumstance in the life of self-proclaimed genius is to do so in the form of an absurd comedy. The only way Craig can get away with being who he is, drinking in the praise and accolades, is if he inhabits the body of another person. With his puppeteer skills in mind, he is able to become John Malkovich (John Malkovich), an actor who already has the success and respect that Schwartz needs.
Kaufman is able to key in on the romanticized genius with almost disturbing precision: Craig is sloppy, self-interested, and, to the point of this essay’s thesis, a megalomaniac. Craig is so desirous to be loved and appreciated, implicitly by a great number of people, that he creates his own idea of objectivity. By climbing into the mind of another person, he creates an external reality by ignoring the internal reality he has actually created by jumping into John Malkovich’s mind. The use of puppets and his deft control of them further show his desire to externalize his reality.
While it is clear that Cusack wants to be loved, how much he is aware of that is not entirely clear. This internal reality is probably fogged by the very case of megalomania he seems to suffer from, which he instead tries to compensate for by becoming someone else. He is not satisfied by what he has and his erratic and impulsive actions, such as the pursuit of his coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener), indicate this.
Though it is framed as deeply absurd and very funny, the film progresses to reveal much darker tones to the story. Craig is lonely and even fame does not satiate his desires. Behind the self-proclaimed genius, the bizarre antics and strange tendencies notwithstanding, seems to be loneliness. The dance at the beginning, regardless of its self-indulgence, might be Craig’s most honest moments.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Mind Over Matter
Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is an archetypal “Nice Guy” and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) is an archetypal “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. Both of these character types are regressive, flawed and usually depthless, often hinging on cliché plot points in order to show any development. The “Nice Guy” is defined by his entitlement and wallowy nature while the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is defined by the fact that she exists only to change the life of the “Nice Guy” and has few motivations of her own. (She’s also free spirited and quirky to a fault.) This would be deeply problematic for Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were it not for the fat that Kaufman writes the film as a deconstruction of these archetypes (which technically didn’t start existing until after the film, so the film is mildly prophetic).
Although Jim Carrey’s Joel Barish does not initially fit the description of someone who suffers from megalomania or even fit the previous character archetypes in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Being John Malkovich, Joel’s self-importance manifests itself differently in the form of severe self-deprecation. There is a paradoxical lack of self-esteem as well as an inflated sense of self-esteem, such that while Joel does not think highly of himself, he does often think he is better than most of the people around him, hence the entitlement. One also gets the impression that Joel’s introversion has somewhat to do with the fact he considers himself better than the people in the crowd. When he learns that his ex-girlfriend Clementine has erased him from his memory, he decides to do the same as revenge, and the journey he takes inside his own mind allows him to understand his own flaws. This framework of the film lets Kaufman deconstruct both archetypes, but focus more on that of the “Nice Guy”.
Joel travels through his memories and consciousness, trying deeply to hold onto memories, which he realizes are either exaggerated or romanticized. Yet, despite this fact, he is able to understand the flawed nostalgia of it all. While in the streets shopping, he and Clementine discuss children, and, while Clementine reacts very severely to what he says, Joel understands that his ability to judge a situation is imperfect. In the Chinese restaurant, he talks about boredom in the relationship, but in the voiceover, there is this impression of self-consciousness, that Joel is realizing that both people in the relationship were highly flawed individuals.
The entitlement and mild megalomania occurs primarily prior to the actual journey into his mind and is defined by the incredulousness and the “How could she do this to me?” reaction. While such a reaction is not unwarranted, there is a disproportionate level of high esteem and inadequacy in Joel, which is often dichotomized in the memories. Joel is very much sure that what he does in the relationship is right, such as when he and Clementine are lying in bed together and they discuss the nature of communication. The inadequacy kicks in when Clementine verbally retaliates and retorts. This is less emasculation and more shock. He may have not encountered someone as fiery as Clementine.
The universe that Kaufman and Gondry create in Eternal Sunshine is informed by Gondry’s pet visual obsessions, very much a combination of the real and the surreal. Scenes often take on a filtered look, bringing out certain pastel colors while retaining a peculiarly lit look as if a high power headlight were used to light the scene. When Joel encounters Clementine in the bookstore in a previous memory, the spotlight is on them as the books begin to disappear. Clementine’s audacious looking hair pops, the only thing that matters to Joel.
The journey ends at the beginning and the audience comes to understand that part of the attraction between Joel and Clementine was their alienation from the rest of the world. Though it may have been, for Joel, reflected in a more unusual transmutation of delusion (Joel’s slight possessiveness in the memories is an indication of such), he uses it as a guard.
While Kaufman does not focus on the genius in the traditional sense in Eternal Sunshine, he nevertheless considers the implications of what “Nice Guys” are: extremely vulnerable individuals who, when given the opportunity, might be able to recognize their own flaws.
What Charlie Kaufman is able to do in these three films, aided by the visual styles of George Clooney, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry, is get to the heart of what lies beneath one who suffers from megalomania. Kaufman discovers deep vulnerability, humanity, fear, and desire. Chuck Barris creates his own reality to compensate for the crumbling one he lives in, Craig Schwartz needs to much to be loved he creates his own idea of “objectivity”, and Joel Barish uses his introverted nature and “Nice Guy” qualities to romanticize his past relationship. Kaufman, though, makes these characters with nuance and complexity, never letting them off the hook exactly, but giving the audience the opportunity to delve further into their minds.