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Being a fan of Charlie Kaufman's early screenplays - Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - I sat down last night to watch the film he recently wrote and directed, Synodoche, New York.
I had high expectations I guess - perhaps too high. I had assumed that Kaufman's quirkiness came from a need to be original. Alas, the film betrayed his true fascination - in a line from the movie, he even says, "I realize now that nobody's interested in my misery."
And why should they be?
Kaufman's universe is a bleak one. Our lives are seedy and pointless and become all the more complex, or rather painfully complicated, as we strive to examine and make sense of them.
There's no joy in Synodoche, only angst, regret and loneliness. No love, only misunderstanding, lack of connection and fear - and the ever present specter of death.
The only line I found uplifting in an otherwise dire waste of screen time was: "There are no extras. Everyone of us is a star in our own lives." But even this I think Kaufman meant in a bad way, like it was somehow wrong that we might be self obsessed when each one of the billions of us can't possibly be that important.
Fair enough. I'm sure most people might disagree...
It's interesting to me because Hollywood screenwriters often talk about Charlie Kaufman in reverential terms - as a writer of integrity and vision, formerly shunned by 'the system'.
Ironically I think it was Kaufman's determination to succeed despite the need to 'commercialize' his ideas that made his work compelling.
Now that he's rich enough to do it himself - we can see exactly why Hollywood tries so very hard to make writers create fun and entertaining projects that are appealing to a wide audience.
Because, when you make a movie like Synodoche for apparently intelligent adults (instead of aiming at fourteen year olds) you end up with a self indulgent mess of drivel that nobody wants to go and see - unless you're feeling suicidal, I suppose.
There are many ways of getting a message across. I know that there are some writers out there that have grown cynical of the constant barrage of 'positivity' they are called upon to write.
Indeed many writers complain to me that they can't get their 'downbeat' stories published or taken seriously.
But that's because publishers, agents and producers know we live in a largely adolescent culture where the most voracious markets want fantasy (with a small F), action and escapism.
Seeing joy and love and justice on our screens fills us with hope - for our own lives and for that of our own species.
On a fundamental level I believe humanity doesn't want to wallow in nihilistic self absorption. Not all the time anyway. If you want to tell stories with a 'tough' edge (whatever that means) then you, as a writer, must also show the counter-balance.
Because writers should strive to be objective - and see both sides.
Hollywood is apparently famous for creating the 'happy ending'. In terms of creating successful, popular movies, they have enough experience to know that it works. They know that when you tell a story, you need to leave the audience on a positive note.
But this was no Hollywood invention. The happy ending is, as Carl Jung explained a long time ago now, an archetypal symbol hardwired into our collective psyche. It's been that way since we crawled out of the swamp - and is indeed perhaps symbolic of that mythical event.
Writers shouldn't think that a happy ending is a cop out. It's not.
You can be as brutal and confronting as you like - just watch the average modern horror movie to know that. But without love and hope, without the vanquishing of evil and the protection of the innocent, there's no real point to a story...
We all know this deep down - but the artist in us will occasionally resist what we might regard as the cliche.
Of course death is inevitable - but so is our desire to triumph and create a better, more compassionate world. It doesn't matter that this seems like a vain exercise in futility. It's part of who we are.
To quote Kaufman, we may be "just the tiniest fleck of insignificance in a vast uncaring universe" - but surely that's the point.
We really don't want - or need - to believe that.
And surely the legacy we would want to leave behind is that despite all the pain and suffering, our spirit made us strong and resourceful.
And as writers, we need to remind our audience of that as much as we can.
There may be a thousand bad things that can happen to us but, when it comes down to the final judgment, we are capable of transcending the body and becoming spiritual beings full of love and joy - and of maintaining a never ending optimism for the future.
And what's wrong with that?
If you never felt positive, you'd never write anything - and nobody would ever know about your misery and despair.
Not that they'd be interested in it anyway, of course.
Your Success is My Concern
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.”