Directors of the decade: No. 1: Charlie Kaufman & David Chase

Yes, they're both writers first. But their brilliant work blew open industry doors -- and blew our minds

Published December 31, 2009 2:31AM (EST)

David Chase, the creator of HBO's "The Sopranos," directed just two installments of the series' eight-year run, the pilot and the finale. Charlie Kaufman is mainly known as a screenwriter and has directed one theatrical feature, "Synecdoche, New York." Why are two people known mainly as writers sharing the top slot on this list of the decade's most important directors?

They're here because they spent the decade working within the same entertainment industry that otherwise prizes reassuring clichés and flashy stupidity, and produced work that was more compelling and unified than the work of all but a handful of full-time movie directors. They're here because their visions kicked down the doors of the audience's and the industry's preconceptions and showed them what's possible. They're here because their insights into human nature (not coincidentally the title of one of Kaufman's scripts) are so sharp and evocative that when we want to remember what it meant to be alive in the aughts, we'll only need to watch an episode of "The Sopranos" or a movie written by Kaufman and it will all come flooding back.

Charlie Kaufman is a former TV writer who worked on Chris Elliott's series "Get a Life," among other shows. He crossed over to theatrical screenwriting with "Being John Malkovich," a film directed by Spike Jonze that opened in October 1999 and was nominated for three Oscars (for direction, screenplay and Catherine Keener's supporting performance) in 2000. The plot concerns a schmucky puppeteer named Craig who finds a portal that leads to the inside of actor John Malkovich's mind and turns it into a slapdash business venture. But the film's plot is just a springboard for a deranged, often curiously moving exploration of the fluidity of identity, the urge to escape oneself, the artist's inclination to play God (Craig ultimately enters Malkovich long-term and succeeds as a puppeteer by piggybacking on Malkovich's celebrity as an actor) and the narcissist's tendency to treat other people as means to an end.

Most of the characters in "Malkovich" define love in terms of possession: Craig wants to "have" his sarcastic, sexy coworker, Maxine, even though he's married to a pet-obsessed woman named Lotte; Lotte enters Malkovich's mind while he's having sex with Maxine, gets in touch with her inner lesbian, rejects Craig as a partner and decides she must "have" Maxine; Maxine, meanwhile, wants to "have" Lotte, but only when Lotte is inside Malkovich. Craig and Maxine's boss, who owns a mysterious filing company headquartered on the "7 1/2-th floor" of a downtown Manhattan office building, also wants to "have" Malkovich, not as a romantic partner or a vehicle to achieve artistic success, but as a means of achieving immortality -- a vessel into which he can pour his soul when his body conks out. The film's conceptual peak is the sequence in which Craig-as-Malkovich works his marionette magic before an adoring black-tie crowd: puppetry cubed. "Malkovich" found a preposterous but resonant metaphor for art-as-control and art-as-escape, and dramatized the dream of sloughing off the shell of the body through sex, performance and altered consciousness. And like another touchstone 1999 release, "The Matrix," it had an ahead-of-the-curve fascination with real vs. virtual experience.

The above description barely scratches the surface of Kaufman's gonzo inventiveness, his dedication to finding surreal metaphors for human desires and foibles, and his ability to maintain a distinctive voice without repeating himself. Kaufman defies Hollywood's demands that lead characters must be "relatable," that goals must be clearly defined (and preferably achieved) by the end of the story and that every event must be fed through the industry-sanctioned three-act-structure meat grinder. Each of Kaufman's aughts screenplays had a different tone, a different point, and found a new portal into issues that obsessed him. Taken together, his scripts are more distinctive, creatively unified and relevant to modern life than the collected works of almost any contemporary filmmaker, domestic or foreign -- a formidable achievement in a culture that views directors as gods and writers as chumps.

Kaufman's follow-up to "Malkovich," the Michel Gondry-directed "Human Nature" (2001), is his kookiest work -- a sarcastic yet empathetic fable mocking humanity's belief that it's civilized. It's a comedy about a behavioral scientist, a so-called "ape man" (actually just an abused child raised naked in the woods by his father) and a female nature-book writer whose body is covered with hair (she was briefly employed in a circus sideshow, climbing a scale model of the Empire State Building while being circled by a dwarf in a biplane costume). Kaufman's script interweaves the three characters' stories via voice-over. (The scientist tells his story from a white room reminiscent of Dave Bowman's final resting place in "2001," and he has a mysterious bullet hole in his forehead. "From my new vantage point," he says, "I realize that love is nothing more than a messy conglomeration of need, desperation, fear of death and insecurity about penis size.") Building on the fascination with performance and possession in "Malkovich," "Human Nature" suggests that every core aspect of existence (work, sex, love, parenting, social interaction) requires pretending; that storytelling (whether by a filmmaker or an average citizen) is a means of asserting (often illusory) control over chaos, and that when we're finally forced to admit the fragility of illusions, we revert to animal instinct.

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002) -- George Clooney's directorial debut, based on game show impresario Chuck Barris' "memoir" about his supposed secret life as a CIA assassin -- was another examination of acting-as-lying-as-reinvention. But it was also a condemnation of Kaufman's former industry, TV, as a wasteland where art goes to die, an industry every bit as addicted to glitz, sleaze and lies as the film industry Kaufman had recently joined. That same year, Kaufman wrote "Adaptation," a screenplay that started out as a straightforward adaptation of journalist Susan Orlean's nonfiction book about an orchid thief but turned into something quite different when Kaufman suffered writer's block and warped the tale into a grotesque cinematic cousin of a Philip Roth novel -- a meditation on the multiple meanings of the word adaptation, and an assault on the mainstream filmmaking habits that Kaufman loathes.

The main character, a whiny, balding screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, is hired to adapt Orlean's book and is close to giving up when his shallow twin brother Donald shows up, offers some mostly dumb but commercially attractive ideas and ends up implementing them, completing the script and becoming the sought-after hack that Charlie could never be. As I wrote in a 2002 New York Press review, "Until you look back over 'Adaptation,' you might not realize how thematically tight it is. It tells two parallel stories, a la 'The Godfather, Part II.' One story concerns Susan's original fact-finding trip to the Everglades and her subsequent attempt to expand her original New Yorker article into a book. The other follows Charlie, a social autistic who lucked into Hollywood riches, as he tries to give Susan's book a commercial structure without betraying everything that made the book worth reading. Both stories are about talented writers engaged in a doomed and perhaps dishonest enterprise. They're both desperate to find a magic key that will let them explain the motives of the people they're writing about -- a Rosebud." Screenwriting guru Robert McKee -- a real-life menace whose books and seminars urge would-be scriptwriters to adhere to the three-act structure, the inciting incident, and other ingredients from the mass entertainment shopping list -- gets torn to pieces by Kaufman, Jonze and actor Brian Cox, who plays McKee as a pompous enemy of art. ("And God help you if you use voiceover!" he thunders from the stage, stopping the hero's own voiceover in midsentence.)

Kaufman's talent for nestling metaphors-within-metaphors gets another workout in "Adaptation." Charlie Kaufman has no twin brother named Donald; the real Kaufman invented him to set up the Brechtian insanity of the script's action thriller-ish final section, which is (intentionally) as arbitrary, stupid and cynically executed as the Hollywood studio norm. These and other flourishes are all of a piece -- aspects of a movie that attacks institutionalized dishonesty (in Hollywood, in book publishing and in individual lives) by constructing falsehoods within falsehoods within falsehoods and highlighting their ridiculousness. (A hilariously stark final title card dedicates "Adaptation" to the memory of the nonexistent Donald.) The film's integrity becomes crystal-clear only when the credits roll and you realize you've seen a whopping lie that illuminates many truths -- and a film about compromised and compromising people that compromised nothing.

Kaufman's second collaboration with Gondry, 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," may be his masterpiece. It revisits many of the topics and devices showcased in other Kaufman scripts, but this time they take a backseat to an affecting story of a doomed great love. The hero, Joel -- a typically sad-sack Kaufmanesque basket-case narrating his own pathetic life in voice-over -- undergoes experimental treatment to remove all memory of his great love, Clementine, only to realize mid-treatment that he doesn't want to erase those memories after all, because they're a part of his life -- a part of  him. The film's second half expands on the set piece from "Malkovich" in which the spurned, gun-toting Lotte chases Maxine through Malkovich's subconscious, scrambling around inside memories staged and lit like theatrical tableaus. Re-encountering Clementine within his own slumbering mind makes Joel fall in love with her again. He comes to understand that there are no such things as "good" and "bad" memories, only memories -- and that one cannot find peace without accepting the totality of experience. The film's title quotes Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard," a poem based on a true, tragic love story that's also referenced in "Malkovich." The eternal sunshine of a spotless mind -- one purged of darkness -- is what Joel realizes he doesn't want. But when he tries to hide memories of Clementine within other memories from childhood and young adulthood (more Kaufman-style Russian nesting-doll madness), the scientists hired to eradicate memories of Clementine respond to Joel's gambit by carpet-bombing his subconscious.

Like most Kaufman screenplays, "Eternal Sunshine" fuses romantic comedy, satire, farce and science fiction (the writer is indebted to many forebears, but none more than Philip K. Dick, whose fiction explored the difference between reality and virtual reality before the terms became common). But it avoids cluttered pastiche by clinging to core obsessions. One is the modern tendency to trust science to end unhappiness. The selective erasure process is a high-tech version of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol-- a comparison made explicit when Howard, the boss of the erasure team, tells Joel, "technically speaking, the operation is brain damage, but it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking." Another is the impermanence of love and life and how both can be made to seem permanent through remembrance -- and storytelling. Reuniting in Joel's mind, Joel and Clementine revisit their treasured moments together, and re-hear and reinterpret personal stories they traded in the past. Kaufman makes a point that's rarely broached in romantic comedy: the most comforting thing about long-term relationships is the chance to bear witness to another person's life.

Is it possible to top a work as all encompassing as "Eternal Sunshine"? Probably not -- but Kaufman's debut as writer-director, "Synecdoche, New York," dares to try. The hero, a depressed middle-aged playwright named Caden Cotard whose marriage is decaying along with his body, receives a $500,000 MacArthur genius grant and uses it to stage an immense open-ended theater piece, a "play about everything" produced in a warehouse containing a mockup of a metropolis and staffed with hundreds of performers whose characters, lines and motivations are devised on the fly by Caden. (At the start of each day's rehearsal, he hands key players scraps of paper with such terse notes as, "You lost your job today.")

Again, Kaufman gives us a story too diffuse and tangled to summarize; in fact the film's story isn't a story but the heart of a dream film that you don't so much watch as inhabit. "Synecdoche" converts Kaufman's distrust of commercial narrative conventions into a sustained assault that leaves the viewer as unmoored as Caden himself. He's Shakespeare's Prospero reimagined as a schmuck; his characters (and actors) overwhelm him and subsume the work they're supposed to embody. It's hard to say if the narrative spans many decades or a few months (some characters age faster than others) or if it's all a free-floating showbiz drama-as-deathbed-fantasy in the vein of "All That Jazz." There's a play within Caden's play and a warehouse within the warehouse. Caden adds a Caden-like character to the ensemble and fills the part with an actor who eventually takes over Caden's play and hires yet another actor to play him. The totality of "Synecdoche" recalls a tattoo glimpsed on the arm of a character in "Adaptation" -- a snake swallowing its tail.

Whether you adore Kaufman's work, view it with chilly respect or flat-out despise it (Slant critic Fernando F. Croce called "Synecdoche" "a formless display of undigested neuroses"), it's hard to deny his ambition, consistency and restless sense of play -- much less make a case that popular culture would be a more interesting place without him. "Originality is a much sought-after property in Hollywood these days," wrote Guardian film critic John Patterson, "and you can tell how rarely it's achieved by the fact that the only time you ever hear the word uttered is when a new Charlie Kaufman script gets filmed." Less than three years after his "Malkovich," the near-simultaneous release of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Adaptation" had already marked Kaufman as a rare screenwriter-auteur who set the terms by which directors, critics and viewers would interpret his work -- not by virtue of industry clout (at the time he didn't have any) but because the writing was so strong that it became each movie's true star, apt to be discussed in terms normally reserved for directors. In the last-half century of commercial cinema and TV, only a handful of scriptwriters could be similarly described. The short list includes Paddy Chayefsky ("Marty," "The Hospital," "Network"), Marguerite Duras ("Hiroshima, Mon Amour," "Mademoiselle"), Jean-Claude Carrière ("The Return of Martin Guerre," "Les possédés," "Birth"); Elaine May ("Heaven Can Wait," "Primary Colors"); David Mamet ("The Verdict," "The Untouchables") and Dennis Potter ("The Singing Detective," "Pennies from Heaven").

David Chase belongs on the list as well, for many reasons -- starting with his series' seismic impact on popular culture.

"The Sopranos" transformed HBO from a boutique cable operation into an entertainment industry powerhouse. Its popular and critical success -- and its post-TV triumph in the form of pricey DVD box sets that sat on bookshelves like fat novels -- empowered HBO and its rival U.S. cable outlets and broadcast networks to greenlight their own densely plotted, often dark or surreal series, including "The Wire," "Deadwood," "Heroes," "Six Feet Under," "Rome," "The Shield," "Rescue Me," "Saving Grace," "Breaking Bad," "Lost," "Damages," "Battlestar Galactica," "Queer as Folk," "The L Word," "The United States of Tara," "Nurse Jackie" and "Dexter." The combined success of all these shows established TV as the preferred home for character- and atmosphere-driven fiction so detailed that audiences couldn't sort of half-watch them while folding laundry; they had to commit to them, as people once committed to films in theaters.

The near-total elimination of medium-budget, classically styled adult dramas from mainstream film production this decade coincided with the rise of "Sopranos" and shows that drew inspiration from "The Sopranos." It's impossible to identify the chicken and the egg in that process. Either way, feature films became more like the Marshall McLuhan-era academic's kneejerk stereotype of TV (jumpy, trashy and stupid), while the best of aughts TV, led by Chase, embraced classically cinematic storytelling rhythms and visual grammar. "The Sopranos" was filmed with a single camera, movie-style. It often let significant action play in wide shots, wrote surreal encounters and narrative ellipses into scripts without feeling compelled to explain every one of them, and paced its dialogue as meticulously as exchanges in a Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz or Mike Leigh film. And more so than any series since David Lynch's groundbreaking "Twin Peaks," "The Sopranos" trafficked in the language and texture of dreams, to the point of building long sections of key episodes (most spectacularly Season Five's "Test Dream" and the first two episodes of Season Six) around the REM-sleep adventures of its main character, beleaguered gang boss Tony Soprano.

While it trafficked in post-"Godfather," guy-pandering subject matter (beat-downs and rubouts, double-crosses and visits to strip clubs), "The Sopranos" was uncommonly intrigued by the mundane and often stifling facts of domestic life. Its central female characters (Carmela, Livia, Meadow and Janice Soprano; Dr. Melfi; Adrianna La Cerva) were as idiosyncratic, as blazingly alive, as any of the show's men. And it treated gangsterism as a metaphoric prism through which to examine larger social, economic and political trends in the United States: the relocation of the American dream from cities to suburbs to exurbs (expressed visually in Tony's drive home in the show's opening credits); the reflexive materialism that contaminates personalities, relationships and whole civilizations (each time Tony gets caught cheating, he has to buy Carmella's forgiveness with a bigger prize, ending with a new house); the constricting stereotypes of "male" and "female" behavior passed down through generations like a disposition toward heart attacks or cancer (Tony's son A.J. develops a sadistic streak not unlike his dad's, and Meadow becomes her dad's apologist and enabler, a la Carmella).

The series also asserted the necessity of moral standards by exploring a subculture in which the only golden rule was, "Don't get caught." The extremes of sickness and health were represented by Season Six's "Kennedy and Heidi," in which the title's bit players cause a fatal car accident, and the driver ignores the passenger's distress and keeps going; and Season Three's "Employee of the Month," which finds Tony Soprano obliquely offering to avenge Dr. Melfi's rape, and Melfi responding with a single word: "No."

Filmgoers starved for this type of viewing experience had trouble finding it at the local movie house during the aughts. They were looking for a reason to stay home. Chase (and the writer-producer auteurs following in Chase's footsteps) gave it to them.

All this would be enough to earn Chase, who's technically more a writer-producer supervising a team of collaborators than a director, a spot on this list of the decade's most important filmmakers. He's perched at the top for the same reason as Kaufman: because of the sustained audacity, complexity, consistency and relevance of his vision, which he marked with a personal stamp that's as auteurist as it gets.

"Sopranos" viewers seeking more arguments for Chase's significance can find them here. For now I'll offer a couple more.

First, there's the ingenious way in which Chase embraced TV's default mode of characterization -- the vivid personality that stays more or less the same throughout a show's run -- and transformed it, so that it stopped seeming like a retreat from the reality of human experience and instead became a means to examine it.

"The Sopranos" was never more cutting than when it showed characters surviving traumatic events and resolving to change their lives, then slipping into old, bad habits. This process was demonstrated most unnervingly in Season Six, which kicked off with Tony getting shot by his demented Uncle Junior, roaming through a purgatorial dreamscape that translated his moral lapses into symbols, emerging from a coma, briefly becoming more introspective and less belligerent, then slowly morphing back into the old Tony. "They say every day's a gift," Tony grumbles, "but why does it have to be a pair of socks?"

All that therapy with Dr. Melfi had little effect on him; if anything, it seemed to make him a more effective gangster and provide him with language with which to manipulate rivals, employees and loved ones. Like so many of the show's major characters (notably the catchphrase-spouting gargoyle Janice), Tony luxuriates in self-help concepts without applying them -- a dynamic that reaches its pathetic zenith on a Las Vegas mountaintop in "Kennedy and Heidi" as Tony, fresh from a peyote trip and a tryst with his dead protégé's girlfriend, stares at the horizon and bellows, "I get it!" A brain twitch passing for an epiphany.

Last but not least, there's the show's ending, or non-ending, or cut-off point, which many viewers mistook for a cable outage. Whatever label you hang on it and no matter what you thought of it, Chase's final flourish was proof of his nerve and the payoff to years of bullheaded fidelity to his muse. It inspired debates about what constitutes good storytelling and whether dramatists are obliged to repay the audience's loyalty with closure. No theatrical film released this decade sparked as many arguments about art as the last five minutes of "The Sopranos."

Charlie Kaufman must have loved it.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

MORE FROM Matt Zoller Seitz

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Best Of The Decade Charlie Kaufman David Chase Directors Of The Decade Film Salon George Clooney Movies