2003 Academy Awards; Being Charlie Kaufman, with a Wink at Originality

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

2003 Academy Awards; Being Charlie Kaufman, with a Wink at Originality


Byline: Scott Galupo, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Martin Amis, the British novelist, once speculated about when his father, the late Kingsley Amis, quit reading the son's novel "Money: A Suicide Note."

It was when a character called "Martin Amis" was introduced, the younger Mr. Amis surmised.

Pere Amis, himself a celebrated comic novelist, had no truck with postmodern literary devices - the stories within stories, "unreliable narrators" and other deliberately confounding tricks meant to toy with the conventions of the traditional realistic novel.

In "Pale Fire," for instance, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov invented a long poem about which his narrator, the neighbor of the fictitious poet, writes a loony commentary.

The Argentine master of short fiction Jorge Luis Borges wrote from the perspective of a librarian in "Labyrinths," a series of footnotes to imaginary books.

"Money" itself came out in 1984, and it wasn't the first novel in which an author inserted himself into a narrative. By then, postmodern techniques already had pretty much become a new set of literary conventions.

That hasn't stopped Hollywood from collectively swooning at the feet of Charlie Kaufman, a 44-year-old screenwriter with a mere four movies and, come tomorrow night, possibly an Oscar to his credit, for his work on "Adaptation," an acclaimed movie starring Nicholas Cage as ... Charlie Kaufman. Or is that "Charlie Kaufman"?

After studying film at New York University, Mr. Kaufman, of West Hartford, Conn., and later Long Island, N.Y., started writing for TV shows such as "Get a Life" and "Ned and Stacey."

It wasn't until 1999 that he made his screenwriting debut with "Being John Malkovich," to the head-scratching delight of a small but enthusiastic audience.

Now, the enigmatic Mr. Kaufman is in the running for a best-adapted-screenplay award for the nested narratives of "Adaptation," directed, like "Malkovich," by Spike Jonze. Although inspired by a book by Susan Orleans called "The Orchid Thief," "Adaptation" is more about Mr. Kaufman's anguished attempt to interpret and adapt his source material than about that source material itself.

In a further po-mo twist, Mr. Cage also plays an invented twin brother of Mr. Kaufman's named Donald. The screenwriter and Mr. Jonze are mischievously suggesting that he's for real: "Adaptation" is credited to both Charlie and Donald Kaufman.

Many film critics greeted "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" as the arrival of something special, something new under the Southern California sun.

If that's true, Hollywood lags a good 50 years behind the literary-fiction community.

How been-there-done-that is Mr. Kaufman's self-referentiality? Recall, for starters, the furor over Edmund Morris' official biography of President Ronald Reagan, 1999's "Dutch."

So "inscrutable" and "elusive" was the former president that Mr. Morris resorted to inserting himself as well as a couple of characters invented from whole cloth into "Dutch" in order to place Mr. Reagan's enigmatically aloof personality in proper context. However indefensible in moral and historical terms, playing these games with narrative perspective is considerably more "edgy" in a nonfiction biography than in a fictional screenplay.

Maybe a movie about the creation of a movie is a little more novel? This would have come as news to Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut, the directors of, respectively, "81/2" and "Day for Night. …

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