Two great tastes that taste great together: Kaufman’s concepts and characters, Jonze’s visual style, their shared sense of humor. These two artists came to make only two feature films together, but when those films are Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. that is certainly notable. No other screenwriter could have made these films; no other director could have, either. It would be overstating it to say their collaborations propelled them to cinema superstardom, but their work undoubtedly made an influence for impressionable young cinephiles like I once was. Their careers will always be tied together and in my mind they are difficult to break apart. Even as they’re filmographies have separated, their influence on each other has remained.
Charlie Kaufman is one of the purest auteurs working in cinema today—every one of his films are individually unique despite coming for a clear source. His odd humor and flights of fantasy somehow live in the same world as cruel, cynical people with ever-present tones of hatred, jealousy, and cold intellectualism. Breaking through primarily as a writer makes it even more impressive as screenwriters are almost exclusively completely anonymous or get their acclaim by directing their own work.
I hadn’t realized that Being John Malkovich was Kaufman’s first feature screenplay and it never occurs to me that only five of his screenplays were produced prior to his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York—and at that, there are only really three in that criteria that are “Charlie Kaufman movies” [all apologies to Michel Gondry’s Human Nature, which I don’t know if anyone has seen, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which is really good but an adaptation]. Kaufman’s voice overpowers the need for a large body of work.
Spike Jonze’s career trajectory is almost exactly the same. Like Kaufman, Jonze possesses a shockingly small filmography with only four feature filmmaking credits. Also like Kaufman, Being John Malkovich was his debut. Jonze had already made a career as a premiere music video director by 1999 with work like Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” Beastie Boys’s “Sabotage,” and Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” [the Christopher Walken cultural touchstone “Weapon of Choice” was released in 2000]. In a golden age for music video in the latter days when they were still found on television [though not for much longer], Spike Jonze made them an art form.
Being John Malkovich is a perfect blending of their talents even if their talents hadn’t yet been fully realized. For Kaufman, the film is a smattering of ideas on identity, artistic success, depression, loneliness, powerless masculinity, all ideas that has returned to throughout his films. We praise Kaufman for his weird and complicated fantasy narratives, but I don’t know if any other screenwriter is able to find so much comedy out of so much bleakness and he does it so easily. In his direction, Jonze brings incredible specificity to his production design and the ability to put a stamp on scenes. His work in music videos was perfect training for making Lotte’s chase through Malkovich’s subconscious and the “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment,” scenes with entirely different tones but each a perfect sense of pace and movement.
As I rewatched Being John Malkovich I began thinking about “credit,” which is a generally stupid thing to do, but I’ve seen my opinions change over the years. When I was younger, after first discovering Charlie Kaufman with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that is one of the most important in my identity as a cinephile, I put the screenwriter on the pedestal. After catching up with both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., I approached them through with Kaufman as the auteur in my mind. It was only later that I really thought of Spike Jonze not only as an incredibly important part of this relationship, but one of the best filmmakers working today.
It has been a while since I’ve revisited Adaptation., but I think in this balance, that film might tip a little more toward Kaufman—it is so much about the artistic merit of screenwriting and, of course, Kaufman plays an unusual role within the narrative. I also don’t remember that film being quite as visually inventive as Being John Malkovich. The more I think about it, Kaufman’s pet themes seem more shaggy than we see in later work [for better and worse]. Jonze definitely embraces Kaufman’s material, though, allowing the screenplays to shine, which maybe led to what struck me with those films.
Kaufman vs. Jonze is a difficult “Sophie’s choice” that we luckily don’t have to make. Thankfully, they were able to build their way into Hollywood together, able to utilize their individual strengths to make two amazingly bizarre films. As good as their work together is, their best work was yet to come with Kaufman able to take his big ideas and make them bigger and somehow with more thematic clarity while Jonze hit more emotional depths. Both are now Oscar winners, not exactly box office successes but with a firm place in independent and esoteric cinema. I wouldn't be surprised if we still haven’t seen their best work. Crossing my fingers that it might come with a reunion.