Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2004

By James Verini

On Page 38 of Charlie Kaufman’s script for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — which is to say, about a third of the way through the new film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — the following line of dialogue appears:


I’m in my head already, aren’t I?

There are few employed screenwriters who could get away with that line, even fewer who could get a laugh with that line, and fewer still who could, at the same time, make it a terrifying, genuine, wiltingly beautiful line.

As a question, asked in life, as something you might turn around and say to your spouse, “I’m in my head already, aren’t I?” is absurd. Samuel Beckett would have blushed at it. As a line from a movie, if we didn’t know Kaufman was responsible, we might guess it came from some gloomy sci-fi picture involving plugs in the backs of people’s necks. (Noted: There is some cheap mind-erasing equipment in “Eternal Sunshine.”)

“I’m in my head already, aren’t I?” a line that Jim Carrey, playing Joel, delivers in his pajamas, is emphatically a Kaufmanesque line. That adjective may not be in Webster’s yet, but it is, you can be sure, common currency in the story department of most Hollywood studios.

Charlie Kaufman is, of course, Charlie Kaufman, the Very Successful Hollywood Screenwriter. He is the painfully private, 46-year-old, undeniably important author of five produced films who eschews everyone’s attention, whether it’s “Entertainment Tonight” or the New Yorker or his own agent, and thus perpetuates the myth of his talent, which is prodigious enough not to require it. Kaufman is the slight, modest Long Island native who has descended on Hollywood like some benevolent deity’s answer to Joe Eszterhas.

And “I’m in my head already, aren’t I?” is the kind of line Kaufman likes his characters to say. That’s the kind of question, sometimes it can seem the only question, Kaufman likes to ask.

“There’s no objective reality as far as I’m concerned,” Kaufman said from his home in Pasadena, where he lives with his wife and a young daughter. “There’s only what takes place in your brain. My brain. We have our perceptions, and that’s all we have.”

The story of “Eternal Sunshine,” which comes out Friday, is this: Joel Barish is a New York City man of unspecified vocation who has stumbled upon one very nasty rabbit hole: His girlfriend, Clementine, played by Kate Winslet, has employed a company called Lacuna Inc. to have him erased from her memory. Now Joel, though he doesn’t quite believe such a thing could ever happen, has gone to Lacuna to undergo the same procedure. As it begins, he peeks in on his own scene, at once petrified and entranced by what he sees. “I’m in my head already, aren’t I?”

The idea originally came from a conversation between the film’s director, Michel Gondry, whose feature film debut was Kaufman’s “Human Nature” (2001), and an artist friend. What if you received a card informing you that you’d been erased from someone’s memory, they mused? Gondry had in mind a thriller, until he brought the idea to Kaufman, who doesn’t write thrillers.

“I was interested in doing it as a relationship story,” said Kaufman, who speaks quickly and excitedly and, on occasion, elliptically. “I was struggling with the ‘Adaptation’ script, and I started finding connections. I like to find what it is I’m thinking about at the time and write about that.” At the time, Kaufman, who reads a lot to “excite ideas,” was finding inspiration in the letters of Heloise and Abelard.

Those tragic 12th century lovers show up in one of Craig’s puppet shows in “Being John Malkovich.” The title “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” comes from Alexander Pope’s poem “Eloisa to Abelard” and refers to the easy time the vestal virgins of antiquity must have had getting through life, since they’d never given in to carnal sin.

“They’re these very beautiful and contemporary-feeling letters about love and passion,” he said. “She’s talking about her love and trying to get him to acknowledge it, and he just wants to talk about God. I love that line, and I thought it was really cumbersome, which appealed to me for a title.”

Joel is a consummate Kaufman creation. He comes from the same bloodline as the beleaguered puppeteer Craig Schwartz in “Being John Malkovich,” the ape-man Puff in “Human Nature,” Chuck Barris in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and, of course, Charlie Kaufman himself in “Adaptation.” Melancholic, lonely, confused, Joel nonetheless exudes a desperate passion for life. He is at once hopelessly self-absorbed and endlessly endearing. He is a great character.

This is the point about Kaufman that is often overlooked: Remove all the brain-portals and menacing machinery and it is Kaufman’s ability to conjure up people as real and sadly sweet as Joel Barish that makes him a superior writer, and, even more strangely, a reasonably bankable one. (It’s as though Jorge Luis Borges rolled into Hollywood and became the toast of the town.)

That Kaufman was ever granted so much as a driver’s license in Los Angeles still seems like a minor miracle, so insistently different is everything he writes. Kaufman started as a sitcom writer, with a stint on the cult favorite “Get a Life.” His last TV job was in 1996, on Dana Carvey’s short-lived sketch comedy show, although he wrote an unproduced pilot called “Depressed Roomies” and another, about an itinerant poet, called “Rambling Pants.”

He admitted that he is surprised every time he sells a script. He wrote “Malkovich” as a writing sample, something outlandish enough to attract notice but which he never expected to see made. It was made, by the music-video director Spike Jonze, and, while it was in production Kaufman not only sold the “Eternal Sunshine” pitch but also landed the assignment to adapt Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief.” That turned into “Adaptation,” also directed by Jonze.

Though Kaufman’s continually being labeled “cerebral,” Jonze said that he “thinks from his gut.”

“He writes about how he feels in his life and in the world,” Jonze said. “He relates to every character in his movies.”

“It was clear to me this was someone with a really arresting, really original voice,” John Malkovich said of first reading “Being John Malkovich.” Kaufman, stinting with information even with people whose names appear in his titles, never told Malkovich why he’d chosen him. And Malkovich never asked Kaufman. But one day when they were leaving a meeting, Malkovich said, “and Charlie said, ‘You know, I’m a really big fan of yours.’ ” Malkovich replied: “Charlie, I read the script.”

Released in 1999, “Malkovich” was a critical success and a solid box-office draw. More important, it tore a swath a mile wide through screen-writing convention. A puppeteer protagonist? A portal into John Malkovich’s brain? The actor’s name is the movie’s name? You couldn’t do that.

Not satisfied with another celebrity-culture brain-flay, three years later, in “Adaptation,” Kaufman upped the ante, taking us into his own portal. By that point the real Kaufman had become a celebrity — or, rather, owing to his famed reclusivity, an anti-celebrity — in his own right. But that didn’t matter. A movie about Kaufman’s real-life failed attempt to make a book into a movie?

The screenwriter and his fake twin brother in the lead? You couldn’t do that either.

“Eternal Sunshine” is no less ambitious. A Rashomon-like take on a love story, it is, like all Kaufman films, brimming with ideas but also based in human frailty. The film is an attempt to redress the rosy images of relationships Kaufman grew up watching on television, he said. It’s closest relative in cinema is probably F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Sunrise,” a hallucinatory and unnerving love film from 1927. (Murnau’s subtitle was: “A Tale of Two Humans.”)

It is filled with touches that could only come from intense study of how normal people live: old letters written in red marker, awkward silences on commuter trains, unflattering underwear. Then it moves, not based on “character motivations” or “story arcs” (techniques stressed by screen-writing gurus like Robert McKee, whom Kaufman parodies in “Adaptation”), but with the logic of a dream.

None of which appeals to studio executives dreaming of $30-million opening weekends. And yet Kaufman adamantly refuses to underestimate his audience’s intelligence or its ability to keep up with him. This has paid off about 50% of the time. “Human Nature,” a fable about the nature-versus-nurture debate, contained flashes of brilliance but felt like an academic exercise.

Interestingly, the most poorly received of his films, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” an adaptation of television impresario Chuck Barris’ autobiography, fails in large part because its subject matter was probably too suited to Hollywood for Kaufman’s sensibilities: Barris, who created “The Gong Show,” claimed he’d moonlighted for years as a government assassin.

“The reason I was interested in ‘Confessions’ was this idea that perhaps Chuck Barris is lying,” he said. “If he is lying, why is he lying? His lies to me are what tell you everything about him.” That may be so for the writer, but who wants to watch a movie that keeps announcing it might be one big lie?

Kaufman, for one. The mutability of truth is at the core of his stories. “Art always tells the truth, even when it’s lying,” Craig says in “Malkovich.” “The truth is for suckers,” Charlie Sheen (playing himself) says in the same film. To an extent, Kaufman believes this. “I think people’s personal realities are kind of fleeting,” he said. “There’s nothing to hold on to in the truth about people.”

While he was writing “Eternal Sunshine,” Kaufman conducted an experiment. He took his wife out to dinner and brought along a tape recorder. The next day she told him everything she remembered of their conversation. He recalled a totally different exchange. They played the tape back and found that they both had only the loosest sense of what they’d actually said.

“This is a story of a relationship, but what you’re really seeing is Joel’s interpretation of it,” Kaufman said. “We’re watching Joel’s memory of her and his interpretation of his memory.”

“Eternal Sunshine” is experimental in structure and lacks many of the conventional hooks of “Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” Kaufman said that “it seems like a life’s work to understand a relationship,” and, indeed, the film is packed with a screenwriting career’s worth of ideas. But it is also at times hysterically funny. “I can count on one hand the times I laugh while I’m writing,” said Kaufman, who is usually categorized as a comic writer. “Sometimes I know I like the jokes, but the rest of the time writing is just torture, like all other times.

“There’s a lot of tragedy and sadness in my characters. The people who are saying these funny things and doing these funny things … they’re not funny to them.”

In the end, it is Kaufman’s characters and their thoughts, not the parallel worlds they find or the odd companies they hire, that most concern him. “Malkovich” began as a story about a man who fell in love with a co-worker, he said. The little idea about the portal into Malkovich’s brain, the one that put Kaufman on the map and got the word “genius” attached to his name after just one movie, was, he claimed, “a detour.” A detour that took control of the story, he admitted, but still just a detour.

“I write improvisationally. I write as though I’m having a conversation. If there’s something that comes up that appeals to me, I don’t resist it.” If there is one complaint you hear about Charlie Kaufman movies, it is that they don’t end well. He is sometimes accused of resorting to tactics he scoffs at in the first act of his scripts: kidnappings, chase scenes, gunplay. Kaufman is aware of this complaint.

“The end of ‘Adaptation’ is an intentional failure, and I didn’t want to make it a joke failure,” he said. “I wanted to make it a real failure.” Charlie Kaufman, the character, writes the ending not that he would write but the one that his brother, Donald, would write. In the fictitious Charlie’s mind, that’s a failure, but in the real Kaufman’s mind, that failure was necessary for his screenplay to be a success. Get it?

“I’m a big proponent of failure,” he said. “I would much rather see an honest failure in a movie than a slick piece of trash. I don’t know what the ending is to anything. Nobody does.”