After five lean years, 2020 brings a bumper crop for fans of Charlie Kaufman (perhaps one of the year’s saving graces), with the July publication of his debut novel “Antkind” and the release of his film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” streaming on Netflix from September 4.
The film is based on a quirky 2017 debut novel by Canadian author Iain Reid.
Speaking to The Times of Israel by phone from his Manhattan apartment, the 61-year-old Oscar-winning writer, producer, and director says that despite gaining a reputation among some for “ruining” the movie business, Netflix has established itself as a place to make “smaller and more eccentric” films, too.
“I guess the book is a thriller, but the movie steps back from that,” Kaufman says. “My work doesn’t really tend to fit into a genre, and so it’s hard for me to say exactly what it is.”
Kaufman describes himself as both a realist and pessimist with oscillating moods and a penchant for anxiety and depression. He’s long spun emotional trauma into gold, though, with films such as “Adaptation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Synecdoche, New York,” and “Anomalisa.”
His films often play with memory and the subconscious, presenting multilayered alternate realities and flouting the conventions of linear time. Not surprisingly, Kaufman attributes this to a childhood fear.
“I remember when I was very young I was afraid of time because I was afraid of dying, and I had this idea to invent a time machine so that I could have control over death,” Kaufman says.
“I like mysterious things like time that gave me an opportunity to think differently about assumptions,” he says. “There is an assumption that we know what time is, but when I’m left to analyze time I have no clue about what it is, or if it even exists.”
The start of Kaufman’s career can be nailed down to the early 1990s, when he was a staff writer on the television sitcom “Get a Life.” He made the transition to art house cinema with his debut 1999 film “Being John Malkovich,” written by Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze.
“Most movies tend to have a convention that leads to a formula, and that formula leads to a sameness,” says Kaufman. “Movies work like this because they are a business, but I’ve always been resistant to that and I love the idea of numerous stories being told [at the same time] that feel entirely different but in some way can expand the human experience.”
A different story
Kaufman’s debut novel “Antkind” was published in early July. The literary project began nearly a decade ago when a major US publishing house approached Kaufman with a win-win proposal: the promise of a hefty advance fee to write a novel about any subject he liked.
“Being told you can write anything can become intimidating and so it took me a long time to put pen to paper,” Kaufman says.
Being told you can write anything can become intimidating and so it took me a long time to put pen to paper
But there were other creative reasons for taking on the project, too. “I took this job on of writing this novel because I felt like I was in a difficult place in my career,” Kaufman admits. “The movie business after the financial crisis of 2008 became very conservative and it was all about giant big budget movies.”
“Certain people, like the Coen Brothers, continued to make quirky [independent] films because they had already established themselves as bankable, but for most of us there wasn’t [the creative space] to keep working,” he says.
“Antkind” is narrated by a middle-aged, middle-class hipster film historian/maker/theorist/critic/teacher, Balaam Rosenberg, or B, as most of his culture vulture friends call him.
B’s surname name causes one issue or another with almost everyone he meets, mostly because they naturally assume he is Jewish (he’s not). B reminds his readers that the famed Nazi Alfred Rosenberg was in fact a virulent anti-Semite, and actually believes that he might be distantly related to him.
The never-ending cases of mistaken Jewish identity led to a number of uncomfortable dramatic encounters: B is racially abused and called “Hebrew” by an angry stranger he meets on the street in Florida, while a doctor who assumed the name Rosenberg was Jewish insists on taking a piece of the then-comatose B’s foreskin for an operation on his nose.
“I don’t even know why I give B this particular issue, where everything about him is conspicuously Jewish, but he is not Jewish,” Kaufman says with a giggle. “It’s just one of those things that just seems funny to me.”
But Kaufman says he doesn’t spend much time thinking about his own Jewish identity.
I recognize that I am Jewish, but I don’t see myself as a Jewish writer
“I recognize that I am Jewish, but I don’t see myself as a Jewish writer,” he says. “I would readily accept, however, that there is a Jewish influence to my sense of humor. I grew up [watching] Jewish comedians like Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Mel Brooks, so I suspect my Jewish background has influenced my writing — but strictly in a cultural sense.”
When B is not fighting his continual case of mistaken Jewish identity, he’s busy with his polemical writing. We learn that he is working hard on a monograph entitled, “At Last, I Am Becoming: Gender and Transformation in American Cinema.” But B’s life takes a sudden dramatic twist following a random encounter with a stranger on the street in St. Augustine, Florida.
Ingo Cutbirth is a 119-year-old “African American” gentleman who has spent 90 years making a movie that takes three months to watch. B convinces himself he has discovered a masterpiece of outsider art that will dramatically transform his cultural credentials and instantaneously make him a darling of the sophisticated New York intelligentsia.
B has a more immediate concern, though — his addictive and unhealthy interest in his online public persona that brings endless anxiety and worry. In public, B strives to present a social media persona depicting a progressive liberal who tirelessly rages against social injustice, racial intolerance, and gender inequality.
But privately, B has become a ridiculous, self-hating prisoner of his own political correctness. B eventually concludes that his obsessive quest to create the perfect online alter ego devoid of any human foibles or failings is a losing battle that will only end one way: by his becoming a slave to clickbait cancel culture and the public shame game. In a rare moment of outward rage, B declares that “ we have become a nation of politically correct sheep.”
Kaufman’s novel approaches the subject of identity politics with a lighthearted satirical touch and a lot of laughs. There is more cerebral word play, slapstick humor, and playful gags than serious polemical posturing.
But Kaufman doesn’t want his subversive approach to be taken the wrong way.
“I hope the book isn’t making a statement that American culture has become straight jacketed by identity politics, because I really don’t feel that,” he says with obvious concern. “This character doesn’t know how to function in the world he is living in, and this massive surge in identity politics we are experiencing [right now in the US] is due to an enormous ongoing injustice towards people who are on the margins of society.”
Kaufman admits he is clearly concerned about the divisive and chaotic nature of American politics right now where “the government and corporations are trying to move the machine of public opinion in a certain direction.”
But politics notwithstanding, identity is something Kaufman has always struggled to understand with any kind of rational clarity.
“I feel the same way about identity as I do with time,” Kaufman says. “When you begin to directly ask the question ‘what am I,’ it actually breaks apart and becomes amorphous and ambiguous. We are always fighting against this idea [because] we don’t exist as a single entity, and we are a constantly moving, changing organism in a society that is constantly changing too.”
It’s no big surprise that the plot of “Antkind” unfolds with typical Kaufman-like chaos where nothing is really as it seemed to begin with. B wakes up in a hospital where he is told he has been in a coma for three months after a supposed fire, and his memory is skewed.
A number of questions quickly follow, throwing B — and the reader — into doubt over what is real and what may have been a dream.
“Antkind” doesn’t provide any definitive answers; Kaufman just isn’t that kind of writer.
“I’ve always felt that naturalism — in both movies and literature — is not a natural representation of the experience of being alive,” says Kaufman. “The subjects my work explores is the real world, the dreaminess of it is an attempt to explore the world as it is actually experienced. It’s not an attempt to be purposely weird, eccentric or silly.”
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