Charlie Kaufman is a writer’s director — an avid reader who translates uncanny romances to the screen. Known for penning the script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), his oeuvre is marked by intimacies that shift viewers’ comprehensions of love and power through irrealism: here defined as a destabilization of narrative and societal logics.
Early in his film career, Kaufman wrote two episodes of Get a Life, a darkly comedic anthology series with the buoyancy of Blues Clues. In this fantastical show, actor-comedian Chris Elliot played a deceptively witless, overgrown paperboy (who shared his forename). In Kaufman’s hands, foolhardy Chris acquired a softness — a gentle, gender-bending politic that fueled his reckless romanticism.
In one of Kaufman’s episodes, ‘Prisoner of Love’ (1991), Chris fell head-over-heels for Irma — his butch prison penpal. His love was detached from reality. Affected by loneliness, he literally saw her as someone she wasn’t, overwriting her rugged appearance with angelic sweetness. Still, his delusions offered me a window into a more compassionate world. Chris defended Irma’s right to a full life even as she ruffled his. He only began to turn against her when she didn’t share her sweets with him (which gives Chris a touch of patriarchal realism — that willingness to dispose of women who don’t return your affections).
Before and after Chris knew she was dangerous, he was submissive to Irma. In the final scene, she aimed her gun at him as he knelt before her, and he kissed its barrel suggestively — conceding the dominance of a criminalized woman he would normally have power over. Furthering the episode’s subversive bent, Sharon (an unarmed woman) saved Chris’s life as armed policemen idled outside (making it easy for Irma to flee). This bloodless ending, in which a hostage situation was resolved without typical detention or injury, suggested a reality where punishment need not be an ultimatum of conflict. In Kaufman’s story, Chris’s obtuseness wasn’t perilous to anyone, even when popular logics about gender, violence and criminality (‘bad’ women get caught, ‘good guys’ catch them) would have viewers expect a starker ending.
In Kaufman’s recent, Netflix-released film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (adapted from Iain Reid’s novel of the same name), gendered logics are similarly remixed. In this film, Kaufman thoughtfully represents a woman who is a figment of a man’s (Jake’s) imagination — her name, clothes, interests and circumstances shifting according to his desires. I enjoyed this film very much — not despite it puzzling me, but because it did. As evidenced by the title and concept of Synecdoche, New York (2008), Kaufman is keen on using containment and fragmentation to elucidate deep-seated truths. Ending Things is a labyrinth of beginnings and endings that resembles a trap, but functionally allows its characters to be many people at once.
As the many-named girlfriend turned and overturned discoveries about her captor, occasionally becoming more than his girlfriend, I reveled in the freedom of becoming endless in a world (of someone else’s making) that tries and fails to punctuate you.