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.
Mass 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.
The ’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.