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The Naughts: The Film of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Film of the ’00s (photo)

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I’m not sure if “Adaptation” is emblematic of the American-film ’00s — I’m afraid that the real culprit might be one blockbuster or another, exemplifying at this stage our fears instead of our hopes — but it’s certainly an endlessly resonating high-water mark, a mirror-hall launch that Godard could’ve loved, and which preemptively folded all commentary about it, positive or negative, into its self-knowing structure. Director Spike Jonze never dropped the ball, and Nicolas Cage was surpassingly brilliant, but it’s Charlie Kaufman’s bomb test, successful enough to establish him, in a stroke, as the most original and fecund screenwriting talent this country has seen since, possibly, ever.

A kind of perpetual motion machine, Kaufman’s screenplay might be the most subversive filmmaking act in Hollywood since 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock turned the star of “Psycho” into bathtub carrion only 40-odd minutes into the film, essentially leaving it protagonist-free and the audience unmoored in a lawless cinematic frontier. Kaufman tortures the sacraments of orthodox moviemaking in a much more outlandish manner: he is his own protagonist, and the movie we’re watching is one he cannot write, until he does, sort of, with the help of a twin brother he doesn’t have, but the screenplay doesn’t actually get written as far we know, but of course it did in reality, with fictional brother Donald’s name on it, eventually spiraling the movie into exactly the preposterous mainstream idiocy the film’s Charlie Kaufman abhors, which is not to say that Kaufman himself abhors the same, because while he mocked and subverted the Robert McKee-mandated flowchart for screenwriting success, he also followed it perfectly, out of derision or desperation or insecurity or ambition or…

It was not uncommon in the New York screening rooms of 2002 to hear the dimmer but often high-circulation critics kvetch about how the film “just went downhill” in its last, rippingly farcical third act, a position you’d hope they’ve had the sense and shame to modify in the years since. But in a sense it’s hard to blame them — Hollywood was built and is sustained by the placid rewards of “invisible” filmmaking and plot-work guilelessness.

12112009_Adaptation2.jpgMass audiences do not have a history of enjoying challenges to their semi-subconscious moviegoing experience, while it is exactly that passive semi-subconsciousness that could be said to be responsible for so much damage. (You could start with D.W. Griffith, and his refinement of classic syntax extolling the virtues of the Klan to unschooled millions, inciting decades of renewed racial violence.) Subversion, even if it’s not political, is more than sport — it’s awareness of the world we’ve built ourselves, not merely awareness of its many mirrors.

“Adaptation”‘s version of this attack has as many layers as a Dobos torte. As we have seen since, Kaufman never meta-fiction he didn’t like, and the film is best taken, with aspirin, as a hyper-Godardian ruse (the film’s closest cousin might be Godard’s “King Lear”), a neurotic essay on creation posing as a self-analytical failure to evolve into an ordinary cinematic chronicle of action and feeling. Call it the most thoroughly reasoned, and slyest, example of what might be called the “Duck Amuck” paradox, in which the film proper never “becomes,” but inexplicably “is” anyway, because we’re watching it (aren’t we?), as it unfolds its drama of abortive composition.

This may be a mutant form of Brechtian “distanciation,” but we’re never far — watching the movie we acquire a fierce intimacy with movie-ness itself, as a process and as an experience. How can we not? This is realist cinema, admitting at every step that movies are sandcastles, voluminous lies, protracted jokes on the idea of seeing and believing. For McKee, a film script may be a matter of preordained, formulaic manipulations, but for Kaufman, it’s as tempestuous and enigmatic as life.

For all of that, Kaufman’s keyhole trick is to actually invest in the characters we’re not supposed to think are genuine, giving them woeful humiliations and random ailments and loneliness and self-defeating habits and, regularly, moments of old-fashioned sympathetic catharsis. Like Godard at his ’60s peak, Kaufman wants to have his self-reflexive cake and to throw it, too, and have us eat it and be moved.

If you write movies like this — my editor of the erstwhile Village Voice critics’ poll, in explaining why Kaufman came out on top that year, shrugged and said, “Just look what he did” — they will come. True to his aesthetic, Jonze was focused, rough-&-ready, on his characters, not on the camera, and the cast all brought their impish game faces, and though Chris Cooper won something of a character-actor career Oscar for his ropey hick gamester (transformed, as the movie progresses toward Donald Kaufman’s hackwork, into a hunky villain), Cage outdid even Jeremy Irons in limning the space between two conflicting halves (conflicting, mostly, over their ideas of what “artist” and “screenplay” mean), and all the while manifesting the bleeding heart inherent in Kaufman’s work, a desire to live to make movies as if they mattered, and mattered not merely to the viscera, but to the mind.

12112009_adaptation4.jpgThe ’00s so far have been a gift of Kaufmania, from “Adaptation”‘s ouroboros (imagine, a Hollywood movie that had the elitist temerity, flaunting Brechtianism and familiarity with ancient Greek, to actually use the word) to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”‘s movie-as-memory literalism, to “Synecdoche, New York”‘s apocalyptic world-within-a-world-within-a-world. The decade was not a dull one, if you knew where to look — my choice for the ’00s’ global big dog would be Peter Watkins’ “La Commune (de Paris, 1871),” another mongrel that busted the paradigm in a mess of ways, and suffered far worse in its struggle to find eyes. But “Adaptation” has been our Tristram Shandy of Bush-era cinema, and we may have only begun to appreciate it.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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