Film Review: i'm thinking of ending things
Kaufman's literal mindedness is at odds with his 'Lynchian' dream logic.
The work of Charlie Kaufman has been nothing if not cerebral. His groundbreaking film, Being John Malkovich, was actually about people finding access into a star's mind.
For Adaptation, he was offered to turn the book 'Orchard Thief' into a screenplay and he did what someone like Steven Zaillian would not even entertain: he turned his process of turning the book into a screenplay into that adaptation!
The main characters of the book became secondary, contrary to what Hollywood head honchos had imagined, and in walked Nicolas Cage as a Kaufman substitute split into two. While one was more serious minded writer who is suffering decision paralysis because of all the available paths that a writer can take to approaching a story, the other, his twin brother, writes a most unrealistic serial killer film that promptly gets a Hollywood deal.
Watching i'm thinking of ending things I got the feeling that the morose brother from Adaptation had murdered the younger, naive one who was having fun at the audience's expense, and lived on to turn each of his struggles into bite-sized metaphors.
On surface, i'm thinking of ending things is about an unnamed Young Girl (Jessie Buckley) who is travelling with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents on their farm in the wilderness. Upon reaching the farm she meets his strangely hysterical parents (Toni Collette & David Thewlis) and any semblance to a linear narrative goes off-rail. Time bends and past merges with the present.
I have yet to decide if it is the fault of its structure or its strength, (having seen the film only once yet) but there is no discernible line where the narrative begins to dissolve. I think, there is no line to begin with as we are already on narrative shaky grounds from the start.
The narrator (the young woman in question) keeps repeating her intention of "ending things" that we settle down to understand is her relationship with Jake. Their drive to the farm, an approximately 20 minute scene, is composed of jagged cuts and long discussions heavy with allusions, pop-cultural references, poetry (which the Jake can instantly relate to and thinks is written by his girlfriend but is an actual published work by Eva H.D.).
This journey is interspersed with scenes of a Janitor (Jake Boyd) constantly working in a school as he sees kids enact songs from the musical Oklahoma! (a genre that Jake is appreciative of and the Young Woman looks at with derision). At one point, The Janitor takes a break to watch a what looks like a typical Hollywood romantic comedy on a TV.
Importantly enough, Kaufman's best films (arguably) Adaptation and its follow-up Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were directed by Spike Jones and Michael Gondry, respectively. Both are confident visual stylists with a sense of humor. This latter quality made the characters reach out to the audience with a playfulness. There was also a clever, yet gentle satire on the genres they supposedly operated within.
In comparison, Kaufman's own directorial efforts come close to showing him as literal minded to a fault. They mar the dream logic of his films with a rather claustrophobic self-obsession. Here, there are no jibes, just a documentation.
Not that Kaufman is not aware of this.
This awareness of the confines of their viewpoint would have, ideally, pushed any other director to try to alleviate some of the somberness. Instead, it adds to the problem here as Kaufman sees his limitations as yet another fecund psychological area to be mined and dutifully represented. Because he is aware of the claustrophobic nature of his obsessions, he chooses to stress it rather than obfuscate.
Probably, the choice of shooting the film in a tight 4:3 (courtesy Lukas Zal of Cold War) stems from this proclivity?
All his insecurities as an artist, as a human being, all that has affected his art or made it effective, all his influences find a voice here. At one point the Young Woman literally turns into the famous film critic Pauline Kael, ripping with customary relish into A Woman Under the Influence, a film that Jake loves. We have already seen a Kael book in Jake's childhood bedroom. Like all of Kaufman's work, this one also has a lot of self-refection and self-criticism and perhaps, no where else this is more explicitly stated then in this scene. Talking of Gene Rowlands performance in the film The Girl/Kael says that "nothing she does is memorable because she is doing too much". This is a criticism that immediately sticks to the film. You smile in acknowledgement of the creator's awareness of his flaws but it doesn't mean anything else.
Each baffling moment in, say, Mullholand Drive is also compelling so that any effort to 'get it' takes a backseat. For instance, you don't have an idea of what's happening but you are moved in the Club Silencio sequence or laugh your ass off in the bungling assassin scenario. Lynch understands what Kaufman doesn't (or maybe he does but he's waiting to make a film about it): self-awareness in a work of art can be tedious without self-deprecation. And the latter does not have to be humorous. The Gene Rowlands criticism above does not stick to Lynch because of the approach and skill. Ambiguity adds to the experience rather than stand in its way.
There is a natural melancholy that drips from the scenes involving the Janitor. As the Young Woman and this man come together, she, probably, recognizes him for who he is. That, maybe they are one. A fact also on a cosmic level. A deeper sense of loss could have held it all together - emotion not reason is the key for such films. But there is no 'recognition' from the Young Woman and this meeting is further stultified by a dance in the school that should come across as beautiful but is received by a tired sigh.
I am not going to go into explaining things or trying to make sense of them because like the choices that a story brings, a critical appraisal is also full of many possibilities and speculations. Only with time and with new inclusions in the body of work of an artist can some real understanding be arrived at.
There is a chilling sequence in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where the words start disappearing from the books in a bookstore leaving them blank. What was once seen (by me) as Kaufman's fear for the written word can now, in the light of this film, be seen as his fear of dying options. What is a film if not an opportunity? A writer's head is full of many conflicting ideas, each one demanding attention. If these ideas are simply converted into stories then they find a comparatively quicker outlet but if they are to be converted into a screenplay and then, subsequently into a film, then it is much more of an uphill task.
Soon you see yourself paring down your choices and start doing away with the dreams that you know cannot be realized. It is this fear, coupled with how these ideas will be marred by external influences, that Kaufman explores here.
There are hints throughout, that all the characters that we are seeing on the screen are one person. Or at least, part of some experience that the Young Woman has had. I will not be surprised if it was a in-joke by Kaufman that both lead actors share their first name. If it is, then this is the only indication of a little exuberance on his part.
But mostly, Kaufman seems to be simply penning an (admittedly honest and intermittently beautiful) visual essay on himself and his processes.
I respect that and there are no limits to what an artist wants to explore, but if only he enjoyed this honest cataloging of his struggles as much as Kael enjoyed slicing into films...
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