Bright Lights Film Journal

Out of His Head: Metaphysical Escape Attempts in the Screenplays of Charlie Kaufman

“Kaufman’s homunculi schema is an implicit mockery of our bottomless ignorance of the nature of consciousness.”

Note: Dialogue excerpts followed by an asterisk and unaccompanied by a page reference are from final cuts of the film that do not appear in the published script. Quotes accompanied by page references denote scenes from published scripts that did not make it into the final film. I have used the following abbreviations in the text:
A: Adaptation
BJM: Being John Malkovich
HN: Human Nature

* * *

For all their elaborate whimsy and genre-defying caprice, there is one constant in Kaufman’s various film phantasmagoria: his concern with a specific type of protagonist.

[In] a way Joel is maybe a stand-in for me, you know? And maybe can be likened to Craig and Charlie in those other scripts that I wrote. . . . I do tend to write a certain kind of guy . . .  . It’s the only thing I can really do kind of, um, honestly. (cited in Feld, 2004, 136)

Nebbish, cerebral, sensitive, and painfully introverted, the Kaufman surrogate is not a happy guy. His psychological trajectory is not the classical Hollywood heroic arc wherein he achieves love, knowledge, and/or worldly success.

I hate a movie that will end by telling you that the first thing you should do is learn to love yourself. That is so insulting and condescending, and so meaningless. My characters don’t learn to love each other or themselves (Sragow, 1999).

The Kaufman protagonist is an introvert trapped by a sense of his own inexorable interiority. Instead of achieving “external” goals like love, knowledge or validation, he pursues externality itself. Put another way, he is engaged in a fevered escape attempt from the oppressive confines of his own head. As Kaufman puts it: “I guess . . . perception is reality, and also your prison” (cited in Feld, 2002, 126). To this end, the absurdist tropes that Kaufman employs become the narrative equivalent of the forced-perspective tricks that artist M.C. Escher uses to create visual gestalts: the in suddenly becomes the out.

The irony to such an abstract escape plan, an irony that Kaufman underscores to varying degrees in each film, is that gestalts are reversible. In Kaufman’s scripts, the gestalt of self/other (or within and without) becomes a sleight-of-hand labyrinth where an infinite exterior can become an infinite interior without any ontological change. Kaufman films are twisted moebius strips. They start in the tight, closed, personal space of their protagonist (lonely, depressed, frustrated, incarcerated) and expand through the twist in the strip into their opposite — expansive (sometimes overweeningly so) kaleidoscopic vistas. The moebius strip is a good visual analogue for Kaufman’s exploration of claustrophobic subjectivity. Most objects have at least two sides: a back and a front (inside and out). Because of its twist, a moebius strip only has one side. Move along the “inside” and you find yourself “outside”; move along the “outside” and you find yourself “inside” again. I suggest that this is the primary metaphor, and paradox, that informs not only Kaufman’s view of consciousness, but how he tries to represent it.

Theatre of the Self

The opening scene from Being John Malkovich is emblematic. A close shot on what appears to be the plush blue curtains of a grand theatre stage pulls back to reveal the larger (and paradoxically more cramped) setting of a dank basement workshop, the spacious stage instantly relegated to miniature status. A puppet’s gaze into a mirror leads it to perform what its master, Craig Schwartz, calls “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment.” Raging against its mirror image, the puppet discovers its dependence on the man who pulls its strings, the puppeteer whom it strikingly resembles in name and physical appearance. The puppet’s performance is met with enthusiastic applause, but it is canned, like the enhanced applause in so many TV sitcoms in which Kaufman earned his professional writing chops.1 Such adulation is the “external” validation that should be coming from “out there” but instead comes from inside a small box, essentially from Craig to himself. Self-applause is claustrophobic, and brings no release.


It is one of the (by now hackneyed) paradoxes of psychoanalysis — that twisting hall of mirrors with which Kaufman is clearly familiar — that something can be most hidden when out in the open, most exposed when one is trying to hide it. In is out, and vice-versa. Throughout his oeuvre, Kaufman’s moebius strips are woven with a technique I call “braiding,” i.e., he tightly entwines profundity with bathos, parodying “high art meditations” on perennial questions — in this case the nature of self and autonomy. Craig Schwartz is a caricature of the intense philosopher-artist (down to the dubious ponytail and beard, nursing paranoid beliefs that society is trying to stop him from succeeding because “I raise issues”*), but behind the humour we really feel the claustrophobia of Craig’s tiny cramped life. His is the most common malady of the modern age, Thoreau’s “mass of men” leading “lives of quiet desperation” (1971, 8).

Again, the conceit of the puppetmaster-as-Cartesian-homunculus (the “ghost in the machine”) is the deliberate use of a clichéd model of consciousness predating the renaissance, something that an irony-savvy audience can smirk at. But then Craig’s transpersonal portal experience marks a genuine existential crisis when Craig exclaims: “It raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the nature of the self, about the existence of the soul. Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? Was the Buddha right? Is duality an illusion?” (BJM 36).2 Kaufman demonstrates that peculiar symptom of postmodernism by seeming almost ashamed to raise metaphysical or personal concerns in a naked, straightforward manner. Through the defensive (and often very funny) braiding technique of twisting the tragic with the parodic, he hides his most profound metaphysical concerns behind his most explicit tongue-in-cheek tones: “I don’t have any answers. I’m a man without answers. He said somewhat histrionically” (BJM viii). This is a major and consistent paradox running through Kaufman’s portfolio: sincere engagement with character or theme comes couched in parodic misdirection.3 Consider the apparent contradiction inherent in the following interview excerpt:

If [a metaphor or conceit is] heavy-handed, I may still find it funny, and then if it’s embarrassing, I’ll take it out. Or maybe not. . . . I don’t think my characters are a joke. I take them seriously. And no matter how outlandish or weird their situation, their situation is real and a little tragic (cited in Sragow, 1999).

Being John Malkovich perfectly enacts this contradiction. Its absurdity is self-consciously heavy-handed — its tongue-in-cheek symbolism a pointed embarrassment for any humourless philosopher of metaphysics — but the human situation presented is ultimately a tragic one. Consider the poignancy of what spurs Craig to pursue his daunting escape attempt from his own oppressive interiority: not merely a sexually attractive woman but, specifically, an extroverted one. The published script makes this explicit in dialogue absent from the film. Craig tries to explain to Maxine why he is so attracted to her:

I’m not a homosexual. I just like women for more than their bodies. Y’know, it’s the eternal yin/yang. The male and the female forces complement each other. One is never complete without the other. So I absolutely respect that which is feminine. (BJM 27).

In a reversal of the traditional gender assignation of yin/yang values, it is the small introverted “feminine” (yin) Craig who wishes to emerge into the expansive masculinity (yang) of Maxine.4 She is hardly “feminine.” Her response to his cosmic attraction for her is direct and homophobically masculine: “You’re a fag and a liar” (BJM 27). As Craig intuits half-correctly — but gets his yins and yangs reversed — this is not a woman so much as a force of nature that turns everything inside out.

She’s not literally somebody I know, but she’s somebody that I think about and who I’m attracted to, which is not necessarily a very healthy thing (cited in Feld, 2004, 135).

Kaufman is referring here to Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), but Clem shares notable psychological characteristics with Being John Malkovich’s Maxine (right). Although in many respects a much crueller creature than Clem, Maxine exhibits the same near-sociopathic disregard for her own Kaufman surrogate, Craig. It may be simple lack of cash that pushes the puppeteer out of his cramped workshop and into the role of file clerk on the even more cramped “seventh and a halfth” floor, but it is into Maxine’s unrestrained, unrepressed, unrepentant, unreflective, and unqualified sense of autonomy that Craig wishes to escape by using the portal. At no point does he seem particularly to enjoy being Malkovich for its own sake — in one scene Craig even complains about having to occupy Malkovich’s aging body (BJM 97). Craig’s desire is to be manipulated by Maxine, to hand the puppetstrings over to her so as to be liberated from himself. And Maxine, as an inveterate manipulator, is given an offer too good to turn down: control two people at once: Malkovich physically and Craig psychologically. As she muses to herself: “So Craig can control Malkovich, and I can control Craig . . .”* Again we see more braiding: comic farce wound with cruelty.

The Populous Doll

Craig’s fantasy about escape into an externalised world of public adulation, of effective communication with others, ripens specifically through the doorway that is Maxine’s management. As the documentary on Malkovich’s unusual career change points out: “Maxine is definitely the driving force behind Malkovich” (BJM 97). This multiple-realm puppetry act is represented visually in the film when we see Craig — “managed” now by Maxine and manipulating Malkovich’s body — manipulate a marionette that is in turn manipulating a smaller marionette again. That is, by my count, a five-tier display of manipulation.5 This homunculi regress is repeated in the published script, but not the film, at two other points. The first is when Craig seduces Maxine by pretending to be Lotte inside Malkovich: “It was really really great being you being Malkovich, Lot” (BJM 65). The second, more complex example, which the film omits, is “Lester” revealing he is a vessel being manipulated not only by Captain Mertin, but also by seventeen other people (BJM 83). “Lester” constitutes a micro-community of homunculi nested within a single individual (“Lester”) who in turn is merely one amongst the many older folks who will later on constitute yet another micro-community who will manipulate Malkovich. The Matryoshka (Russian Doll) motif makes the single human head exceedingly populous, no longer the site of isolation. The moebius screenplay has rendered the inside of the head as a kind of “outside” now, a public, intra-personal space — acting cast and audience all at once.

The Cartesian Theatre

Kaufman’s ludicrous proliferation of homunculi (controllers controlling controllers ad infinitum) may be yet another braiding of silly and sublime. In the spiral of absurdity there might be hidden a subtle but significant philosophical critique of the Cartesian (“ghost in the machine”) model of consciousness that still haunts most moderns.

“Cartesian theatre” is a derisive term devised by the philosopher Daniel Dennett.6 It is an attempt to disparage Cartesian substance dualism, which famously posits two kinds of existence: res cogitans (mind/soul) and res extensa (body/physical world). In Descartes’ view of consciousness, the soul watches the world, and interacts with it, through an inexplicable portal in the pineal gland. Dennett opines:

Many theorists would insist that they have explicitly rejected such an obviously bad idea. But [. . . ] the persuasive imagery of the Cartesian Theatre keeps coming back to haunt us — laypeople and scientists alike — even after its ghostly dualism has been denounced and exorcized (Dennett, 1991, 107).

Simply put, most people still imagine their consciousness as an ultimate observation point, a sort of Platonic cave, experiencing the outside world from sensory information being fed into a “theatre” somewhere in the brain. Gilbert Ryle contributed to the mid-twentieth-century exorcism of cognitive science by pointing out that any explanation of consciousness that resorts to this image of an internal viewer (or meta-viewer) entails an infinite regress.

If, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle (Ryle, 1984, 30).

In order for this meta-viewer to make the body move, a meta-meta-viewer would first have to move the meta-viewer to act. And whatever moved the meta-meta-mover to act, something would have had to initiate that, and so on. Ryle’s infinite regress is a symptom that the ghost-in-the-machine theory has gone seriously wrong somewhere. As a matter of formal logic, “homunculus arguments” (where a phenomenon is used to explain itself and entails an infinite regress) are always fallacious. Furthermore, Ryle considers the conjunction of the terms “mind” and “matter,” and their relation to one another, to be a category error. There are two traditional (and opposing) monist reactions against Cartesian dualism. The first is subjective idealism, which subsumes all Being “inside” mind. The second is materialism, drawing all Being “outside” into matter. Monist responses to dualism produce an all-mind/no-mind dichotomy, each term seemingly irreducible to the other. Non-duality (as distinct from monism) is like the “inside” and “outside” of the moebius strip. Non-duality is a one-sided conundrum, a mystical (i.e., ineffable) state alluded to when Craig asks: “Was the Buddha right? Is duality an illusion?” (BJM 36).

Kaufman’s homunculi schema is an implicit mockery of our bottomless ignorance of the nature of consciousness. Humanity’s desperate need to fill the non-dual void of Being finds metaphorical expression in Kaufman’s multitude’s rush to be “somebody.” In the commodified modern age, the ultimate somebody is a celebrity — even if you’ve never heard of him or, like Erroll the hapless first customer of JM Inc., he’s your “second choice” (BJM 54). In a scene omitted from the final film, fat Erroll conspicuously refers to Malkovich’s slimness as “the Schopenhauer of the twentieth century! Thin man extraordinaire!” (BJM 54). In a distinctly Kaufmanian paradox, the very flimsiness of the connection (slimness = Schopenhauer) is a hint that this allusion is significant. Students of philosophy may notice a connection here between the non-dual Buddhism that Craig invokes and Schopenhauer, whose career was influenced by his study of Buddhism and its doctrine of anatman, i.e., no-soul/no ultimate ground of Being).7 In turn, Ryle’s attack on dualism and the Cartesian theatre in The Concept of Mind was channelled from Schopenhauer:

As a student [Ryle] read Schopenhauer, and a long time later . . . published the book that made his name, The Concept of Mind, in which . . . the central thesis . . . came straight out of Schopenhauer . . . Only when someone pointed the fact out to him after publication did he realize that what he had done was to recycle Schopenhauer (Magee, 1998, 382).

Through the spectacle of his JM Inc. customers lining up like dutiful consumers to escape the paradox of the claustrophobic void, Kaufman conflates socio-political malaise and spiritual perplexity with vast ontological regress. Thoreau, in his time, did the same to mock Captain Mertin’s contemporaries, some of whom are now huddled homunculi inside Lester’s populous head:

No man stands on truth. They are merely banded together as usual, one leaning on another and all together on nothing; as the Hindoos made the world rest on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and had nothing to put under the tortoise. [. . . ] It is unimportant what these men do. Let them try forever, they can effect nothing (Thoreau, 1906).

And trying forever, effecting nothing, is exactly the Kaufmanian protagonist’s fate.

That Kaufman is performing a dig at an explicitly Cartesian worldview (a model of consciousness that many of us can’t quite shake off) finds further support from Craig’s intimation to Elijah the chimp:

You don’t know how lucky you are being a monkey, because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think, I feel, I suffer . . .*

Given Craig’s strikingly uncommon assumption (for a modern) that the animal does not have a consciousness, together with the clear echoes of Descartes’ most famous axiom on Being (“Cogito, ergo sum”), one is tempted to read this speech as an allusion to Descartes’ belief that animals are unconscious automatons:

[T]hey have no reason at all, and . . . it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights, is able to tell the hours.8

The obvious irony is that it is Elijah the caged chimp, rather than Craig the ostensibly free man, who experiences a classical Freudian epiphany and succeeds in shaking off the trauma of incarceration.9

Kaufman revisits this ironic incarceration scenario in a more expanded form in his second feature, Human Nature (Michel Gondry, 2001, right). The film is narrated by three characters, two of whom are incarcerated and one who has spent much of the action in a glass cage. Lila Jute, the self-possessed heroine who is so hairy she thinks herself like an ape, recounts her story from within a police cell. She has been sentenced to life imprisonment but dismisses the punishment, claiming she has been imprisoned by her body her whole life: “At least now I’ll be able to blame the state, not God, for my incarceration” (HN 3). Kaufman’s comic braiding has Lila’s audience of bored detectives roll their eyes at the over-the-top poeticism of her official statement.

Dr. Nathan Bronfman, the repressed intellectual, is confined to an infinite cell, this one in a pristine white afterlife that looks like his parents’ dining room, the enclosed space where he learned the table manners with which he is personally and professionally obsessed. Nathan’s silent, sterile hell is a mock-up of the site of his repression, his inculcation within the symbolic code that, during life, had both trapped him and also set him apart from the animal (i.e., instinctual, extroverted life). Nathan’s afterlife cell is Escher-like, a moebius strip that literally folds back on itself: exiting one door has him instantly re-enter the same space through another door. Like Craig, Nathan is doomed to a life — potentially an eternity — of impotent reflection from within a bounded-but-infinite space.

Puff’s character is that of the chimp who has been captured and incarcerated by humans. Where Elijah is an actual chimp who comically recapitulates a grossly simplified version of Freudian wish-fulfilment of freeing a parental figure to achieve psychological freedom for himself, Puff is Elijah’s inversion: he is a human who has been forced by his father to live in the wild and believe he is an ape (specifically a “pygmy chimp” [HN 8]). Puff’s rediscovery of his humanity is threaded through the film’s plot in the form of a verbose speech he gives to Congress. As such, Puff’s character is a twist on the ape who learns how to speak and be civilised in the Kafka short story “A Report to an Academy”:

Honoured members of the Academy! You have done me the honour of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape (Kafka, 1993, 195).

Kafka’s unnamed ape describes the painstaking effort of learning to speak, drink from a schnapps bottle, and finally make his way to performing on the variety stage.

With an effort which up till now has never been repeated I managed to reach the cultural level of an average European. In itself that might be nothing to speak of, but it is something insofar as it has helped me out of my cage and opened a special way out for me, the way of humanity” (ibid., 205).

For all the bravura of the speech, the final paragraph hints that Kafka’s ape’s “escape attempt” into humanity has been a subtle failure and higher form of incarceration, a realisation that the ape has incompletely repressed, recognising it only in his mate, “a half-trained little chimpanzee”:

By day I cannot bear to see her; for she has the insane look of the bewildered half-broken animal in her eye; no one else sees it, but I do, and I cannot bear it (ibid., 205).

Puff, the inversion of Kafka’s ape, announces to Congress how he plans to return to the freedom of animal life, and enjoys the consequent applause afforded the “noble savage” sentiment. More explicitly than Kafka’s ape, Puff has second thoughts about his own escape attempt, and as soon as he strips off and returns to the forest, he gets dressed again and sneaks back to humanity via a lover waiting for him in a car. The closing scene in Puff’s story shows his angst-ridden face as he drives away from the woods forever. It is the look of the “bewildered half-broken animal,” and captures Puff’s inability to be fully “free” again, either naked or clothed, trapped forever in the impossible conundrum Kafka’s ape cannot quite bring himself to admit in his report to the admiring audience of the Academy. If self-reflective humanity is a kind of meta-zoo, where the audience itself is the exhibit, Puff cannot work out in the final scene if he is heading into or out of captivity again.

Small Nobodies Chasing Big Nobodies

Kaufman’s pairing of introvert with extrovert is important. The interiorizing (slightly claustrophobic) persona seeks to emerge and expand into the spaciousness enjoyed by the fully exteriorised (free-moving) persona. Though absent from the film, Being John Malkovich’s published script has Maxine respond to Craig’s introduction of himself with a quote from Thoreau and Captain Mertin’s contemporary, Emily Dickinson: “I’m Nobody. Who Are You?,” a Zen-like paean to the pleasures of escaping the confines of one’s persona: “How dreary — to be — Somebody/How public — like a Frog/To tell one’s name — the livelong June/To an admiring Bog!” When Craig triumphantly identifies the author of the quote, Maxine enigmatically responds “I wouldn’t know,” and promptly exits (BJM 15).

Craig’s frumpy wife Lotte, as repressed as her husband, is attracted to Maxine for the same reasons: Maxine’s uncluttered emotional spaciousness and autonomy. She is untrappable, and can enter or exit any psychological space she chooses. For instance, when Craig claims he cannot go back to living life as he has done having gone through the magic portal, Maxine economically gestures to the window, implying that he take his own life, and effortlessly exits the conversation, utterly unconcerned with its metaphysical or moral implications. Both introverts, Craig and Lotte become entangled in an ugly race to escape into the vicarious freedom of the confident extrovert by trying to win her affection. As Craig explains — to himself in his own head during an imagined conversation with his Maxine puppet — the charm of puppeteering is about “being inside another skin” (BJM 30) and, as is implied, escaping one’s own.

The escape attempt in Being John Malkovich involves, of course, literally occupying someone else’s skin via a tunnel. This radical escape attempt from the perceived confines of being a repressed non-entity ironically involves entering a series of ever-more-constrictive physical spaces. First one must stoop under the low roof of the Lestercorp corridor, then crawl through the tiny door of the magic portal, which ominously slams shut behind. Then the narrow tunnel leads to a profound constriction (Malkovich) where personal physical space collapses to nothing — one loses one’s body. Even the view from Malkovich is constricted (note the behind-the-eyes, inside-the-skull shading around the lens margins during the portal occupation scenes). In a nod to Warhol’s pop dictum, the Malkovich tourist is vicariously “famous” (or metaphorically externalised, i.e., drawn into the public, transpersonal consciousness of celebrity) for exactly fifteen minutes before being externalised again, literally shot out of the wide-open sky next to the New Jersey turnpike. Typically, the patron wishes to revisit this freedom-from-the-self by going through the constricting procedure again. In a sly irony, Malkovich, the celebrity vessel of the film, cuts a poignant figure. While occupied by ontological tourists, we only ever see Malkovich doing banal, non-celebrity things like eating toast, showering, and tele-ordering bath mats in what seems a lonely, sterile apartment. (In an interview with Charlie Rose,1011 the real John [Gavin] Malkovich said he created the film’s fictional John [Horatio] Malkovich by getting into Kaufman’s head. One could say that the actor had returned the favour by “portalling” into the cranium of the writer who had dared to “portal” into him.)

Given Craig Schwartz’s terrible fate (simultaneously embodied and disembodied), the moebius strip of Being John Malkovich can be seen as a tragic nightmare woven with madcap absurdist comedy techniques. There is the Mozartian virtuosity of stylised comic exchanges, there is the inherent levity of its absurd premise. But if we ignore that comic “side” of the moebius strip for the moment, the film can be read as a lachrymosa movement, charting the progress of a frustrated male introvert from that of a figuratively impotent character ignored by society to that of a bodiless ghost, his attempts to escape his own head literally caging him forever in someone else’s. Kaufman, in an act of self-flagellation perhaps, finally abandons Craig to wallow in an infinite version of the artistic introvert’s worst nightmare — doomed to look out at the world but deprived of his only creative outlet, his artistry. Craig (reduced to a point of pure ghost-in-machine observation) cannot escape from — or manipulate — the happy female child he is trapped inside. The child-prison, incidentally, is named Emily after Emily Dickinson, the poet who never pursued publication (externalisation), who dismisses personae altogether in the poem Maxine quotes to Craig when they first meet. It is the same poem being performed by Craig’s famous and ostentatious puppeteering rival in a giant televised display. Dickinson’s “selfless” poem is repeated yet again by Maxine to Lotte when they are reunited for their separate, “happy” ending (BJM 109).

From Cartesian Theatres to Circular Temples

Being John Malkovich takes the Kaufman surrogate, Craig, on a tour of the Cartesian theatre via a potentially infinite homunculi regress. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) takes the next logical step by folding that infinite regress of ghosts-in-the-machine (which, as Ryle demonstrates, is created by circular thinking) into a self-consuming circle. Adaptation explicitly invokes (and enacts through its narrative structure) the alchemical symbol of Ourobourus.

The Ourobourus’ relation to the homunculus motif is elaborated on by Jung when he analyses a dream by Zozimus, a 3rd-century alchemist. Zozimus dreams of a temple “with neither end nor beginning” guarded by the dragon Ourobourus. Slaying the dragon grants one access to the circular (infinite) temple (Jung, 1967, 64). Inside the temple, Zozimus encounters an image of all humanity seething yet remaining alive in a small bowl of burning water (a vision, perhaps, of the future existential discontents who become patrons of JM Inc.?). The temple is presided over by a priest who instructs Zozimus on how to interpret the cryptic sight of suffering: “The sight that you see is the entrance, and the exit, and the transformation.” When Zozimus asks “What transformation?” the priest says he is referring to escaping the prison of the body (ibid., 61). This same priest transforms into a homunculus, who “changed into the opposite of himself” before “he tore at his flesh with his own teeth, and sank into himself” (ibid., 60). Jung’s annotation is as follows:

In Zozimus, this circular thinking appears in the sacrificial priest’s identity with his victim and in the remarkable idea that the homunculus into whom [he] is changed devours himself. . . . The homunculus therefore stands for the uroborus [sic], which devours itself to give birth to itself. . . . It follows that [the homunculus], the uroborus, and the sacrificer are essentially the same (ibid., 84).

It might seem perverse (and perhaps it is) to cite an archaic dream in order to analyse one of the more self-consciously postmodern films ever made, but I believe Zozimus’ vision reflects the deep structure and themes of Adaptation (right). The constant and conspicuous use of voiceover throughout (which becomes a running gag when McKee silences it) lets us know that we, the audience, are trapped in Charlie’s head for the bulk of the action, trapped in the Cartesian theatre with his panicked homunculus. Like the homunculus in Zozimus’ dream, the introverted Charlie is faced with adapting to his extreme suffering — entering it to exit it — by agonisingly transforming into his grotesque extroverted opposite, Donald. Donald is working on a blockbuster screenplay called The Three, which involves a killer who is also the cop chasing him and the victim he is eating. Charlie realises he is doing the same thing, eating himself, by writing himself into the imprisoning structure of the circular temple (or circular prison) of the screenplay he is working on: “I’m insane. I’m Ourobouros” (A 60). The critical transformation occurs when the “priest” McKee appears and initiates the alchemical reaction. Immediately after the seminar, where an on-stage McKee invokes the suffering of all humanity (the burning bowl on the altar), Charlie begins his entering-to-exit mutation. His suffering and constriction increase in a plot that looks more and more Donald-esque in authorship (he tears at himself and becomes his opposite). Finally he is released from his writer’s block prison, apparently triumphant. This being a Kaufman moebius strip, Charlie’s successful “exit” is a qualified one. He emerges into the kind of train wreck ending of Hollywood action cliché and happy closure he so desperately tried to avoid:

I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing. Like an orchid heist movie . . . or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running. . . . I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end (A 5).

The prison of film narrative convention he has railed against from the beginning has profoundly re-inscribed itself, swallowing him rather than he expunging it. As in Zozimus’ dream, the result of this self-consumption is the construction of a temple, an edifice, a moebius strip, not a story of liberation.12 Kaufman makes this point himself, stating rather abstractly that the focus of the film (like an Escher landscape) is not the human pictured but rather the moebius strip he finds himself wandering in.

The character in that movie is the script, that’s the character you’re following, not the people. And I guess people can’t feel an emotional connection to a screenplay. But I thought it reflected a corruption of the man who was writing it (cited in Koresky and Plouffe, 2005).

In typical Kaufman braiding, we get mixed messages about his transpersonal intentions. On the one hand, Charlie derides Donald’s interest in dissociative personality disorder. On the other, the final text on screen is an excerpt from Donald’s The Three, given by, I presume, the “sacrificial victim” Cassie:

We’re all one thing, Lieutenant. That’s what I’ve come to realize. Like cells in a body. ‘Cept we can’t see the body. The way fish can’t see the ocean. And so we envy each other. Hurt each other. Hate each other. How silly is that? A heart cell hating a lung cell (A 100).

The first time I saw that panel I enjoyed it as a parody of on-the-nose dialogue from a “psychological” B movie — which it is. But this is Kaufman’s double-world of mocking sincerity, and I have, over repeated viewings, come to realise this is Kaufman’s modus operandi. One can read this parting gag as a metaphysical manifesto: all intimation of a mystical non-duality may only be hinted at in jokes or very subtle traces.13

Kaufman revisits the motif of consciousness as a matryoshka doll more extensively in Synecdoche, New York (right). Craig’s miniature stage has been replaced by Caden Cotard’s vast playhouse, but the game remains the same: escape the claustrophobic “self” and achieve communication with the “other.” More committed versions of the seemingly hypnotised customers of JM Inc. manifest themselves, this time as an army of overachieving actors giving up their lives for Caden’s perpetually untitled creative endeavour, each one desperate to connect with something “worthy,” something more significant than their “selves.” Each is only too happy to discard their own persona to adopt the perpetual role of a “simulacrum” (the word is one of Caden’s many unused pretentious titles, and one of Kaufman’s many digs at the postmodern lexicon which, like psychoanalysis, has so profoundly influenced his thought and which he so routinely ridicules).14 The wonderland of shifting scales of large and small in the Kaufmanian universe continues to reinscribe the topology of the moebius. Malkovich’s populous head is replaced by Caden’s warehouse, a physical space which, though vast, is just another bounded prison where the hordes of homunculi can endlessly prepare for the day the show will go on, the day communication with the “other,” the “outside,” will be achieved. Synecdoche, New York presents us with a more nuanced version of the Cartesian Theatre suggested in Being John Malkovich. The scores of actors playing someone else playing someone else again in tiers of representation become a physical mock-up of Caden’s consciousness, populated as it is with autonomous processes: projections of projections, memories of memories, whole compartments of life literally sealed off from others, never to interact. Unpleasant narratives (i.e., unacceptably painful or distracting sites of trauma) may have their rehearsals cancelled without warning from time to time, but the elaborate, mostly self-perpetuating activity is barely touched on by the supervising ego — Caden Cotard. The film progresses from the Cotards’ cluttered house, with its tiny paintings and trauma-inducing plumbing, to Caden’s cavernous warehouse. In the process, Caden shrinks from being an active (if shambolic) character to being a passive fragment of his own consciousness, the homunculus as memory director. He becomes the floating point of subjectivity, the distracted and impotent executive catching glimpses here and there of the simultaneous narratives being acted out and explored in the exteriorised semi-consciousness of his warehouse/mind. Like the conscious ego, he can make pronouncements, point out a criticism here and there, but the proliferating process of homunculi recreating a model of the “outside” world remains primarily automatic and utterly beyond conscious control or even inspection. Like Craig, Caden hands over the reins of his creative project (his autonomy) to a confident woman who proceeds to become his director, following her orders right into non-being and perhaps the only valid “escape” ending in Kaufman’s work so far.

As the Buddhist poet and philosopher Chogyam Trungpa notes: “Talking about confusion is much more helpful than talking about how to save ourselves” (Trungpa, 1991, 47). The entry point to non-dual perception is not achieved by clarity but by embracing confusion. It is profoundly difficult to stay in the indeterminate state, walking a one-sided path, not picking a final comforting position: up, down, in, out, right, wrong, lost, found. “Confusion,” Kaufman notes, “is my favorite word” (Sragow, 1999).

I try to write in the midst of confusion and be strong enough to stay there, rather than swim to the shore of some kind of conclusion . . . (cited in Feld, 2002, 127).

The imagery used by Kaufman in this quote, suggestive of a boundless void, hints at the anxiety that his writing process must entail for him. Small wonder two of his major characters, Craig’s bodiless puppeteer and Mary Svevo’s sad memory-loss receptionist,14 are both so engaged by Pope’s “Eloise to Abelard,” which opens:

In these deep solitudes and awful cells, Where heav’nly-pensive contemplation dwells, And ever-musing melancholy reigns . . .

and closes:

 Let him our sad, our tender story tell; The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost; He best can paint “em, who shall feel “em most.

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Dennett, Daniel, and Marcel Kinsbourne (1992). “Time and the Observer: The Where and When of Consciousness in the Brain.” Behavioural and Brain Sciences. v. 15: 183-247.

Dragunoiu, Dana (2001). “Psychoanalysis, Film Theory, and the Case of Being John Malkovich.Film Criticism. v. 26, n. 2: 1-18.

Descartes, Rene (1976). “Animals Are Machines,” in Animal Rights and Human Obligations.Eds. Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Princeton, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Feld, Rob (2002). “Q & A with Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze.” Adaptation: The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press.

— (2004). “Q & A with Charlie Kaufman.” Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press.

Jung, Carl (1967). Alchemical Studies. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kafka, Franz (1993). “A Report to an Academy,” in Franz Kafka: Collected Stories.Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Everyman Libraries.

Kaufman, Charlie (1999). Being John Malkovich.. London: Faber and Faber.

— (2002). Adaptation: The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press.

— (2004). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press.

Koresky, Michael, and Matthew Plouffe (2005). “Why Charlie Kaufman Doesn’t Watch Movies Anymore.” Reverse Shot. Spring. Accessed 29 June 2008.

Magee, Bryan (1998). Confessions of a Philosopher. London: Phoenix.

Pope, Alexander (2006). The Major Works. Ed. Pat Rogers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ryle, Gilbert (1984) The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sarris, Andrew (1999). “Spike Jonze’s Head Game: Malkovich’s Wit and Ingenuity.” New York Observer. Nov. 14. Accessed 8 April 2008.

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1974). On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.Trans. Eric Payne. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co.

Sragow, Michael (1999). “Being Charlie Kaufman.” Nov 11. Accessed 26 June 2008.

Thoreau, Henry (1906). The Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Eds. Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.

— (1971). The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

— (1980). The Writings Of Henry D. Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.Eds. Carl Hovde and William Howarth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Trungpa, Chogyam (1991). Orderly Chaos: The Mandala Principle (London: Shambala).

Zacharek, Stephanie (2002) Adaptation and the perils of adaptation.” Dec 16. Accessed 14 July 2008.

  1. Get A Life (1991-92), The Dana Carvey Show (1993), The Trouble with Larry (1993), The Edge (1993-94), Ned and Stacy (1996-97), to name a few. []
  2. Cf. Thoreau’s inquiry into the essence (or lack) of the self-positing “I”: “If I am not I, who will be?” (Thoreau, 1980, 156). []
  3. For a curiously overwrought and scathing attack on Kaufman’s ironic tendencies see Stephanie Zacharek’s breathless review of Adaptation: “Cowardly! . . . [Kaufman and Jonze are] using their smug gimmickry to distance us from our deepest emotions rather than lead us straight into battle with them” (Zacharek, 2002). []
  4. An identical inversion of yin/yang gender characteristics occurs in Eternal Sunshine. Joel is painfully repressed and literally spends most of the action in his head. The extrovert Clementine literally wears her change of mind on her head, in various capricious dye jobs. []
  5. That is: Maxine (1) controlling Craig (2) controlling Malkovich (3) controlling the first puppet (4) controlling the second puppet (5). []
  6. For a comprehensive account of Dennett’s critique of the “Cartesian theatre” model of consciousness, see Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1991). For a summary of his position, see Daniel Dennett and Marcel Kinsbourne, “Time and the Observer: The Where and When of Consciousness in the Brain,” Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 15, 1992, pp. 183-247. []
  7. Schopenhauer, though an atheist, was impressed with the character of Jesus as a “natural Buddhist”: “Whatever anyone may say, Christianity has Indian blood in its veins” (Payne, 1974, 187). []
  8. Rene Descartes, “Animals Are Machines,” in Tom Regan and Peter Singer (eds.),Animal Rights and Human Obligations (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), p. 62. []
  9. For an interesting Lacanian reading of Kaufman’s post-Freudian bent, see Dana Dragunoiu, “Psychoanalysis, Film Theory, and the Case of Being John Malkovich,” Film Criticism, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2001, pp. 1-18. []
  10. The Charlie Rose Show, Oct.14, 1999. []
  11. Eternal Sunshine’s Mary Svevo’s surname is an allusion to the modernist writer Italo Svevo, who failed to achieve fame in his native Italy but was made famous in France because of his friendship with arch-meta-writer James Joyce. Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno is about a man forced to remember his past by his psychiatrist in the form of a memoir. []
  12. This inescapable “ultimate moebius” ending is more evident in the original denouement (to use a Donald word) for Eternal Sunshine. The original draft, which Kaufman is on record as preferring, began and ended 50 years in the future, where we finally learn that Joel and Clem have been continually meeting up, falling out of love, and then deleting each other from their memories on a perpetual loop their whole adult lives (Feld 2004,142-143). []
  13. One example of these traces that jumps to mind is the regressive lacuna on the “Lacuna” sign emblazoned on Stan and Patrick’s van door when they visit Joel Barish to chase him around his head. The “c” on the van door is missing, rendering it: “La una” — “the one.” The extrovert Clem that we meet in that film is part of introvert Joel, a homunculus splitting in two. []
  14. Cf. the feckless Donald is entranced by Charlie’s acerbic suggestion that Donald’s killer be a literary professor called “The Deconstructionist” because he cuts off little pieces of his victims until they are dead. In Kaufman’s soundplay Hope Leaves the Theatre, the hapless audience member Louise recollects how she was suckered into subscribing to an empty postmodern feminism in her youth that ultimately proved bankrupt and that she bitterly regrets. []