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By Adam Nayman
“It’s all planned, but it isn’t thought out,” wrote Pauline Kael in her review of A Woman Under the Influence (1974), a nifty bit of critical jiu-jitsu turning John Cassavetes’ much-theorized—and, during Kael’s reign at The New Yorker, much-derided—technique of spontaneous improvisation within a dramatic framework against him. For Kael, Cassavetes’ singular talent was for conveying the inchoate agony of “intense suffering from nameless causes;” however, watching this approach deployed in a character study about a schizophrenic wife and mother subjected to shock treatment, she perceived only sadistic indulgence masquerading as empathy. Hence Kael’s disparaging assessment of A Woman Under the Influence as a “murky, ragmop movie” punctuated by moments of “idiot symbolism,” and built around a performance by Gena Rowlands that was “enough for a half dozen tours de force, a whole row of Oscars…it’s exhausting.”
These and other enduring verses of Kaelian apostasy are, bizarrely, present in Charlie Kaufman’s new movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things, ventriloquized word for word by “The Young Woman” (Jessie Buckley, initially referred to as “Lucy”) in the midst of a long, snow-flecked car ride through Oklahoma with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). To explain why The Young Woman is motivated to quote Kael’s review of that particular motion picture at length (and in a passable imitation of the late critic’s clipped, hectoring diction) is at once largely inconsequential to one’s enjoyment of a film with many other, weirder flourishes, and also deeply revealing, both of the intricate conceptual blueprinting at the heart of Kaufman’s venture—which, if nothing else, has been planned and thought out—as well as of the various conceits and grievances consuming the filmmaker of late. It’s hardly a literary spoiler to reveal that Canadian author (and Toronto Raptors fan) Iain Reid’s 2016 source novel of the same name contains exactly zero references to Kael, nor any observations of any kind on the practice, ethics, or etiquette of film reviewing, whereas Kaufman’s monstrous(ly sized) new novel Antkind, written either parallel or at least in close proximity to his adaptation of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is crammed with such stuff.
I lost count of the arguable comedic tours de force in Antkind somewhere around the 200-page mark, then started counting them again in the home stretch. If it’s possible for a book to be exhausting, invigorating, and convulsively funny all at once, Kaufman’s debut fits—and, probably to its credit, exceeds—the bill. Its style, to be reductive, evokes early Woody Allen (circa, say, Without Feathers); its subject, pace Kael—and Allen, and Cassavetes, and R.D. Laing, under whose influence A Woman Under the Influence was allegedly produced—is intense suffering, not from nameless causes but relentlessly inventoried and elucidated ones. Its protagonist, one immensely bearded B. Rosenberg Rosenberger, is an avatar of anxiety whose inner monologue testifies to an endless network of fears and fetishes multiplying and subdividing into infinity, balanced against—but not remotely evened out by—his professional arrogance as the kind of high-end, hyper-consciously woke film critic who receives fan letters for, among other things, his monograph on William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968).
I honestly forget (and am not going back to check) if B. ever actually mentions Cassavetes in the cinematic ramblings that serve as one meaty strand of connective tissue within Antkind’s distended, steroidal, and frankly non-synopsizable narrative. It’s probably easier to count the brand-name auteurs who aren’t alluded to, evaluated, or—as one of many indicators of the narrator’s mental deterioration—at some point punningly misidentified. For instance: Wes Anderson is praised extravagantly for The Wonderful Mr. Fox, while Christopher Nolan is derided as the cinematic equivalent of Starbucks; Jean-Luc Godard gets cited as B.’s greatest artistic hero (an obvious nod to another, more contemporary New Yorker film critic with a hate-on for Kaufman), and Daniel Day-Lewis is pilloried as a Strasbergian fanatic for his performance in Will There Be Blood? I myself laughed out loudest at the throwaway citation of the “Canadian filmist David Cronenbauer” and his “movie called A Brood,” described, not incorrectly nor at all coincidentally given the themes Kaufman has buried beneath all of his mountainous, forbidding layers of alienation effects, as a film about how “the negative impulses of individuals are given autonomous life separate from the individuals themselves.”
Kaufman has been successfully channelling his negative impulses for about two decades now. He’s also been misunderstood as a misanthrope for roughly as long. Of all the adjectives one might apply to his scripts, as well as his directorial efforts, “mean-spirited” probably shouldn’t be one of them, nor should “ironic.” Unlike certain other brand-name purveyors of millennial “smart cinema,” Kaufman doesn’t countenance glib distance. Hence the legitimately thrilling dynamics of his work with Spike Jonze, whose detached music-video sensibility gives Kaufman’s whirligig scripts plenty of room; temperamentally, he’s closer to his other major collaborator, Michel Gondry, whose cute-is-what-we-aim-for style is more hit-or-miss. In any event, I choose to take the moments of sentimental pathos in Kaufman’s films, like Nicolas Cage serenading his brother-slash-shadow-self with the Turtles’ “Happy Together” at the close of Adaptation (2002), at face value.
Certainly, Kaufman is attuned to the language and psychology of cruelty, and fascinated, like many artists—including Cassavetes and Cronenberg (and, while we’re at it, Judd Apatow, whose namechecks in Antkind are frequent, hilarious, and demanding of their own standalone essay and/or restraining order)—in how we process, internalize, and regurgitate trauma, with a special emphasis on how those thoroughly chewed-through and expectorated emotions provide the raw materials of creative expression. It’s one thing to note the interest in puppetry that runs through Kaufman’s oeuvre, beginning with the string-pulling existentialism of Being John Malkovich (1999) and extending through to the stop-motion universe of Anomalisa (2015): both films get evoked and invoked in Antkind, which also happens to be replete with marionettes, dolls, and anatomically correct automatons (including an army of robot Donald Trumps). It’s another to see that Kaufman’s interest and sympathies are well and truly split between the desire for control, exemplified most nakedly (and maybe unbearably) in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s MacArthur-ratified “genius” in Synecdoche, New York (2008) and the understanding that control—to quote Days of Thunder (1990)—is an illusion: that the Borgesian metaphor of a map larger than the geographic territory it describes crumples and blows away in the face of interior space, which is truly limitless.
To continue with the greatest hits of film criticism theme, you could say that negative space is one of Antkind’s foremost concerns, beginning with B.’s descriptions of a turn-of-the-20th century Claymation epic whose production included the manufacture and painstaking animation of characters never meant to appear onscreen. “So it’s more or less a conceptual notion,” B. prods one Ingo Cutbirth, the ancient, Henry Darger-ish—and, significantly, African-American—termite artist whose heretofore undiscovered stop-motion opus runs “three months including predetermined bathroom, food and sleep breaks.” “No,” the director rebukes him. “The puppets have been built with as much care as the seen puppets…they have lived their lives but not been witnessed by the camera.” While it’s futile to try to use any one of Antkind’s lines as a skeleton key to unlock its deeper meanings—and B., with his endless array of pithy, pitiable insights, is like a walking cautionary tale Against Interpretation—the idea of a universe divided between subjects and spectators feels as central as anything else, and by privileging the faulty literal and analytical perceptions of a professional, obsessional viewer, Kaufman exercises a satirical premise as old as Juvenal and as up to date as HBO Max: Who watches the Watchmen?
“I will destroy it after I watch it seven times,” B. proclaims of Ingo’s curio, visions of an anthology entitled Shoah ’Nuff: The Undervaluation of Lengthy Films in Our Current Fast Food Film Culture dancing in his head. (Somewhere, Susan Sontag is smiling…or not.) He’s only half right: shortly after B.’s first and only viewing, Cutbirth dies and the critic absconds with his masterpiece as its ostensible protector, imagining himself the “Howard Zinn of Ingo’s world” shortly before watching the canisters burn in a nitrate fire. “Not that unseen African-Americans need a Jewish historian to make them visible,” B. notes, annotating his own heroic analogy in the moments before the inferno. “But still, I will be it…even though I am not Jewish.” Such virtue-signalling is B.’s second major character trait after his cinephilia, and the two are bound up in each other in a way that suggests guilt and voyeurism fused on a molecular level. The various elaborate, self-lacerating apologies B. proffers for all the things he is not—Jewish; African-American; female; transgendered; a successful filmmaker—evince an inveterate spectator’s need to be Seen while pledging solidarity with those occluded by the mainstream’s gaze: a captive in his own ivory tower, complete with Rapunzel-like beard.
The question of whether Kaufman is using the character of B. as an effigy to prick—and, over the course of the book, immolate, mutilate, humiliate, subjugate, and otherwise dominate—the critics who’ve inveighed against his own work remains wide open—a space as gaping and bottomless as the manholes that Rosenberger keeps falling down every time he happens to mention one “Charlie Kaufman.” (“Godzilla with dentures…Pennywise the Clown with contact dermatitis”…it goes on like this.) Watching is one key motif in Antkind and falling is another, and both are combined in the ongoing device—the closest thing in the book to a throughline—of Rosenberger undergoing hypnosis to recollect and reconstruct the lost, paradigmatic classic that he hopes to use to “pry open the prudish legs of Cahiers du Cinéma.” If I understand this aspect of Antkind correctly—a big if—Kaufman is drawing connections between filmgoing and hypnosis in order to cinch their mutually eyes-wide-shut nature, while also staking out terrain adjacent to the title selection of Dave Hickey’s indispensable 1997 collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. In it, Hickey posits that criticism is, by its nature, nothing more than the subjective remembrance of an extant work—a pantomime of art ranging from rote to virtuoso without ever becoming the real thing. For Hickey, the distance between creation and recapitulation is irreconcilable, an open manhole cover, perhaps, into which failed artists like B. Rosenberg Rosenberger are fated to plummet, over and over again.
One could also argue that Antkind is not so much about criticism as it is about comedy itself, which would explain the recurring, symbolic presences of keynote goofs Bud Abbott and Lou Costello—both as themselves and as mirrored by a pair of Kaufman-esque doppelgangers known as Mudd and Molloy—as well as the consistent digressions about the fundamentally embarrassing mechanics of humour, which is by its nature dependent on victimization. (The Mudd and Molloy team fulfill ancient archetypes of the wiseacre and the straight man—the primal scene of shtick.) Comedy as an outlet for cruelty is a concept that Antkind’s stridently benign, performatively empathetic narrator embodies, not in spite of his resistance to it but because of it: in refusing to submit to the human comedy, this Serious Man becomes its punchline (whether or not B. is Jewish, he is definitely a schlimazel). As literary strategies go, solitary confinement with a nattering asshat is daring—or punitive—but either way it’s effective, and not without merit as a means of interrogating questions of identification and imagination. By limiting his novel’s reality to what its narrator sees—and/or remembers, confabulates, fabricates, fantasizes, and hallucinates—Kaufman isn’t so much writing himself into a corner as duly anthropologizing the life of the mind. His own, sure, but if you believe Buñuel (as you should) that specificity is the portal to universality, then Antkind is about as worth reading, word for word, as it was to write in the first place. Kaufman’s most salient point seems to be that even—and perhaps especially—those with the most narrow, blinkered view of themselves and their place in the world secretly contain multitudes, a proverbial cast of thousands (or millions, give or take a few hundred thousand Donald Trump clones) ready to mobilize when their thoughts and focus are elsewhere, parallel selves activated in the blink of a rapidly moving eye.
By this logic, the invocation of Walt Whitman in Kaufman’s script for I’m Thinking of Ending Things is probably inevitable: an alternate title for the film (and, while we’re at it, for Antkind) could be Song of Myself. Like the aforementioned Kael review of A Woman Under the Influence (Alternate Title #2), the Whitman sampler is an example of the myriad ways Kaufman imposes himself and his frames of reference (from A-for-Adaptation to Z-for-Zemeckis) on Reid’s book—which is not to say that he disfigures or destroys it. There are all kinds of ways for adaptations to be “faithful” (case in point: Adaptation), and Kaufman undertakes his renovations with respect: his additions test the book’s strength and resilience without compromising its load-bearing structural integrity.
A deceptively slender exercise in mounting dread cloaked in the thin, prickly skin of a relationship study—the title ostensibly refers to the protagonist’s desire to break up with her boyfriend before things get too serious—I’m Thinking of Ending Things unfolds simultaneously in real(ish) time and via synapse-fast flashbacks that capture the universal sensation of a present tense that’s constantly being intruded on by the past. It’s a book in which the main character’s train of thought keeps being hijacked—and the hijackers, we might say, become stowaways. The judicious but genuinely scarifying horror-style devices that Reid uses are genre-savvy feints, but they’re also an indication that he’s dealing with some genuinely unnerving shit: isolation; intimacy; instinct; and interiority, all grouped together under “I” for “identity”
That these are ideas that would excite the screenwriter who came up with the satirical premise for The 3 (Donald Kaufman’s “taut,” schizophrenia-themed thriller script in Adaptation) is obvious, and no matter how much he torques Reid’s dialogue towards the omnipresent pop-cultural riffage of Antkind, Kaufman fundamentally honours the author’s intentions. Looked at simply as a piece of filmmaking, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is impressive in a stilted, forbidding way: it’s been paced to weed out stragglers, but should also play well on the small screen, which will also permit cultists (and there will be cultists) multiple viewings well ahead of school. Directorially, Kaufman’s best choice was casting Buckley, an amazingly malleable actress whose ability to somehow look completely different from shot to shot is perfectly suited to the material. (It’s the most weirdly shape-shifting performance in a mainstream movie since Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread .) Buckley’s interpretation of The Young Woman (who was nameless in the book and takes on a variety of names here, including “Lucy” and “Louisa”) splits the difference between a wary watchfulness and fuzzy frustration; the character, who is onscreen basically for the entire duration, toggles compellingly between reticence, paranoia, and incomprehension (a mirror, perhaps, for the viewer). Shooting in a cramped, vertical aspect ratio, Kaufman literalizes Reid’s atmosphere of boxed-in claustrophobia—especially in the driving scenes, which go on for a long time—while simultaneously capitalizing on and enhancing the writer’s nifty equations of architecture to different types of psychic space. Background is foreground in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and Kaufman and his cinematographer Łukasz Żal, on loan from Pawel Pawlikowski, etch tactilely precise images of mysteriously locked (and scratched) doors, ominous staircases extending up above the frame, hidden, forbidden basements, and warrens of corridors prowled in deep focus by shadowy strangers.
The long middle section of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, describing The Young Woman and Jake’s increasingly fraught dinner with Mother (Toni Collette) and Father (David Thewlis), represents probably the best sustained directing of Kaufman’s career: its debt to the meet-the-parents section of Eraserhead (1979) is apparent, but it mostly pays up. In the book, Jake’s parents transform gradually from doddering homesteaders to ghoulish cartoons, and it’s a credit to Kaufman’s handling of his actors—including the congenitally overstated Collette—that the conceit still works in three dimensions. The Young Woman’s visit, already arranged under duress, is gruelling, uncanny, and increasingly death-tinged, serving as the inception point for a creeping mix of melancholy and morbidity that some viewers may find tough to take. Again, the excesses belong to Kaufman, and if someone were to say that eventually he overplays his hand, I’m not sure I could disagree: while he technically doesn’t change the substance or meaning of Reid’s conclusion (which is devastatingly rendered on the page), he does pile on a series of ostentatiously surrealist flourishes that end up proving—albeit from a different angle—what Antkind suggested all along: that nothing is more indelible than that which exists solely in our mind’s eye.
There is a temptation to see Kaufman’s way of thinking about ending things in I’m Thinking About Ending Things as the acme of his self-aggrandizement: a Nobel ceremony coda (lifted word for word from A Beautiful Mind ) that invokes the saddest song in what is otherwise the most gloriously corny of all American musicals (that’s a hint and not a spoiler) will surely be interpreted in some precincts as a (self-)pity party. If Antkind teaches us anything, it’s that Kaufman is probably going to read the reviews, even the ones in Canadian magazines historically more sympathetic to David Cronenbauer. Maybe that’s why I started and am thinking of ending this piece with Buckley’s impersonation of Kael, which in addition to giving the insectoid colony of Film Twitter (and the ruling members specifically namechecked in Antkind) an opportunity to relitigate the Perils of Pauline (and Cassavetes) again into infinity, proves something interesting that I’d never considered before: that film criticism read out loud sounds ridiculous, and is probably better left to echo as the voice inside your head.