What does Charles Kaufman think he's doing?

Dan Friedman

Charles Kaufman has now made three films about getting inside the mind of a celebrity. The conceit of Being John Malkovich was that people would pay money to jump (literally) into the mind of John Malkovich-the suave star of The Sheltering Sky and Dangerous Liaisons. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Kaufman and director George Clooney choreographed a rompingly surreal excursion into the weird world of Chuck Barris (the creator and host of The Gong Show, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game), a world which he insists is real, but which the rest of us (including Clooney and Kaufman) may doubt. And of course there is Adaptation, which enters the split mind of Charles Kaufman himself (in the film, split into Charlie's and that of a fictional twin brother), trying to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, and instead creating the film that we are actually watching.

Normally, I'm not the sort of person who wants to talk about the screenwriter of a film or about celebrities at all. It's not just that I don't have any interest in whether Spike Lee picks his nose at Knicks games. I find the political fancies of the fleetingly famous as profoundly disinteresting as their personal or sexual peccadilloes. I don't care what Bono thinks about the 'Third World' debt, I am indifferent to Sting's views on the rainforest. Despite the powerful fascination that these details have for the viewing public, I think we all too easily transfer our interest from someone's music or films onto their personal and ethical choices and, in so doing, hide from our own responsibility to make choices.

Supposedly, this fascination is justified because we respect artists' work and transfer this respect to the artists themselves and their opinions. This rationale, though, falls woefully short of explaining the intensity of public interest in every aspect of every famous person and how we are surprised and hurt by 'reclusive' stars (even as they intrigue us). No, this isn't aesthetic/critical curiosity; we are, as many have noted, intrigued by celebrities as a group because they live out our fantasies - both in their work and in the fictionalized accounts of their 'real' lives offered up by television and tabloid newspapers.

This blurring of fantasy and 'reality' is most apparent in Hollywood. The whole business is premised on the fact that we gladly pay to see our most fantastic scenarios projected into view, and the 'movie star lifestyle' is part of the picture. So Kaufman is tackling something central to filmmaking by grabbing the idea of celebrity-with its fantastic context and content-bolting it serially and surreally onto real life, and showing us the results. Kaufman has become the late-blooming King of Quirk by showing the absurdity of trying to reconcile our everyday life with the dreams that bring us to the cinema.

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