Charlie Kaufman's Dilemma

When struggling with immense writers block in the face of adapting The Orchid Thief to the screen, Charlie Kaufman agonized. He struggled so much with it that he must have given up at least once or twice. That struggle to adapt an innately unfilmable work resulted in the movie Adaptation, a brilliant meta-examination (like all of Kaufman's scripted meta-examinations) of the writer's process from the point of view of someone who detests banality so much that it works against his own success. In the film, the story of the novel is related through the screenwriter's attempts to decode the story so that the audience discovers it like an essayist might research a topic.

Consequently, Adaptation is not about an eccentric swamp dweller who steals orchids from protected corners of the deep south, or even about the author who chronicled his story. It's instead a movie about creation, a movie laying bare the naked awfulness of the process of writing in all its unromantic, ugly truth. Along the way, Adaptation exposes us to the useful but artless script-by-committee process common in Hollywood, and as a final zinger, weaves this unoriginal tripe through the Orchid Thief story itself, devolving its sublime beauty to something far more worthy of Cinemax on a Saturday afternoon than an art house theater or the Criterion Collection.

It's for this reason that Adaptation is one of the better movies about art that I have seen in the past ten years. We artists appreciate the act of creating something with a lens on the human condition, so it's no surprise that we live to discover work conveying our experiences back to us in new and entertaining ways. But we crave more than that. We want to be edified about our own originality, even at the expense of a system whose business welcomes profit over uniqueness.

Who am I to judge this system, though? For that matter, who am I to judge art, or to judge what process works best? Peoples' process, like their brain chemistry, works in different ways. Some people are highly efficacious builders. The blueprint is finalized and approved. The foundation is laid. The skeleton is propped up. The wiring is woven through. The fixtures and connections are secured. The artifices are erected. The dressing is applied, and at last, the people enter, gazing around at this new wonder. Some people take this approach to a painting, or a photograph, or a work of fiction. It's arguably the least messy way to create, and ultimately results in something accessible and marketable.

Others do not build in such a manner. Surrealism comes to mind. I think of David Lynch and his obsession with the multi-dimensional quality of dreams and emotions. Or Italo Calvino, whose punctuated simplicity hides something enormous and profound. Or Bunuel, who always had something to say, even if it was merely: 'you will not understand this.' There are composers who, when scoring the triumphant scene in the movie when everyone claps for the underdog, are faced with the same dilemma. Do I use that same triumphant chord progression or do I try something different? How worth it would it be to be unique in this situation if all it does is separate the audience from their emotions?

Using the Adaptation example: the closer a script comes to reflecting the audience's, rather than the artist's needs, the more straightforward a creation becomes. It mustn't be forgotten that the process of creation itself is often messy and organic, no matter the desired outcome. As long as a mess is allowed to take its time and fine tune its imperfections and take stock of itself, it often becomes something more timeless than someone plugging numbers into a formula.  Sometimes, great personal, sprawling, messy, confessional strangeness catches fire on a larger scale and becomes something accessible. Sometimes an artist inadvertently taps the hive mind, and the bees come rushing out, surprising even the artist with their spirit. And the zeitgeist laughs warmly, and points, and applauds. Who knows, ultimately, how and why this happens?

All I know is that response can't be on my mind when I work through something in my head. I often get obsessed with who might be clicking on my work, or which hits are from disappointed Google searchers, which are referral spam, and which are the same three people politely obliging me each time I post something new. In that respect, everything about what I has a self conscious spirit that the most unabashed artists lack. I am far from the stoic, art for art's sake minded champion of truth. I am straddled instead between two worlds, as I've always been. In one world, I take an emotion, a state of mind, a pain, a ghost, a lyric, a reaction, and I convert it to something I see as the truest manifestation of that thing I can summon. In another world, though, I am keenly observant of what people react to. In this other world, I cannot help but think as my work as a product to be consumed, and in turn, I cannot help but torture myself over what might make that product more desirable.

This sensation of being caught between these two worlds brings me back to Charlie Kaufman and his dilemma when struggling to bring disparate dimensions of art together into one cohesive work. Where art comes from, what it aspires to be, and what makes it visible to the rest of the world are often vastly separate things. The torturous knowledge of this simultaneity drives me through the worst barrens of writer's block and the lushest corridors of inspiration and delight, alternately helping and hindering me. Creation, after all, is like an animal in every respect: open it up, and the mess confounds, confuses, and even disgusts. In motion, though, it is a creature that serves to interact with the world in ways only it can, and alter how we live.


Popular Posts