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Canon Reformation (3): Adaptation.

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation.

So far in this column I’ve written about movies I’ve seen multiple times, but I hadn’t rewatched Adaptation. since December 2002. Regardless, for nearly two decades hence I’ve regularly heard Brian Cox-as-Robert-McKee bellowing “and god help you if you use voiceover!” I don’t think I was actively aware of McKee’s Story before seeing Adaptation. The spine, with its title in distinct marquee lettering, was familiar—I have vague memories of seeing it in the aisles of the film section of the Barnes & Noble I haunted way too much as a kid—but it would never have occurred to me to open it up, so my true introduction was via Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze.

There’s zero chance I was the only one who went to film school shortly after (fall of 2004) with a firm animus against McKee specifically, and “good screenwriting practices” generally, stoked by Adaptation. The NYU reality turned out to be way grimmer than expected: my first screenwriting class’s teacher’s dream project was an inspirational sports movie about a father and daughter who bond through competitive double dutch jumping. (I believe that may actually have eventually manifested as this Disney Channel movie, although that professor’s name isn’t among the credited screenwriters so who knows.) My instructor the following semester one day announced that we were going to watch a perfectly structured movie and put on…Wall Street—admittedly a hilarious work which will be forever remembered as a key piece of the Michael Douglas canon, but with all due respect nobody can learn anything worth learning from it.

By that time, NYU had made the decision to prohibit teaching Syd Field, so McKee (who didn’t really strike me as meaningfully different) was the standard instead. When Story was assigned I absolutely read the whole thing in a “know your enemy” spirit. None of the specifics have stuck, save the section where McKee lays out the 24 genres that encompass all of film. He’s very clear on this: there are no new lands to conquer, so don’t bother trying. But, he goes on:

for those who believe that genres and their conventions are concerns of “commercial” writers only, and that serious art is nongeneric, let me add one last name to the list:

25. ART FILM. The avant-garde notion of writing outside the genres is naive. No one writes in a vacuum. After thousands of years of storytelling no story is so different that it has no similarity to anything else ever written. The ART FILM has become a traditional genre, divisible into subgenres, Minimalism and Antistructure, each with its own complex of formal conventions of structure and cosmology.

This anti-exploratory, closed-mind approach was entirely in line with what the screenwriting program tried to beat into me. During a script analysis seminar (a graduate-level class!), the instructor would regularly pause the evening’s screening to announce “this is the end of the first act,” “this is the end of the second act” and so on, but was defeated by Talk to Her. When he paused it for the first and only time, he announced, “This movie’s so strange, I don’t actually know where the act breaks are.” At which I thought: I hope nobody shows you any James Benning or your brain will break. (I was an unpleasantly opinionated 19-year-old, which is probably not a huge surprise.)

In short, it did not seem to me, then or now, that Charlie Kaufman was overreacting by dedicating more or less an entire movie to the proposition that Robert McKee’s dictates of proper storytelling just suck. It does amaze me that this screenplay was realized for some $20 million dollars and released to a peak of 672 screens nationwide: normal people just don’t care about any of this. But it was an improbable moment, a peak for chatter about the “Rebels on the Backlot,” aka the so-called “Class of ’99,” almost all of whom were, at that point, coming back around for their second/third features. Between 1999 and 2002, I read dozens of variants on this entirely representative Variety article from 2001, headlined “Helmers let out a rebel yell,” which begins:

They fashion themselves as maverick storytellers. Their names are by now familiar — David O. Russell, Kimberly Peirce, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson. These filmmakers, and a few more like them, delight in dancing between the studio and independent worlds, but they are less interested in fat, long-term studio pacts than in creating movies with resonance.

Kaufman was part of that group, but, at that point, a screenwriter only and so less likely to be named as one of them, though he really should have been. The unexpected crossover awareness of Being John Malkovich opened up another strange portal: two hours of barely diluted self-loathing underpinning a self-described “ourobouros” narrative that never stops being reflexively clever or anatomizing its own obvious flaws. There’s not just Nicolas Cage standing in for “Charlie” and the cast and crew of Being John Malkovich cameo’ing as themselves: It wouldn’t have occurred to me in 2002 that Kaufman would go so far as to assign the agent character his real agent’s name—Marty Bowen, played by Ron Livingston as possibly the single most repugnant agent in screen history, which is saying a lot. Tilda Swinton’s character, a development agent, also bears a real name: Valerie Thomas, who was the first to read the finished script and “suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.’” (I would also like to note here that John Laroche, the actual orchid thief Susan Orlean profiled in her book and New Yorker article, is now back online and blogging, or at least was updating until late last year.)

The movie is fundamentally the same as I remembered it: often really funny (Donald on his thriller script: “Mom called it ‘psychologically taut'”), but with a painfully prolonged and boring final act that drags on way too long. Whether this is by conceptual design (to demonstrate at great length why McKee’s precepts are bad and inevitably enervating) or a product of ineptitude (because Jonze couldn’t figure out how to film exciting if admittedly stupid action sequences) is irrelevant: this is, essentially, a long demonstration of why not to give people more money for them to prove a point about how bigger-budget filmmaking is inherently an artistically self-defeating proposition. Kaufman grapples with McKee with a tortured intensity resembling David Foster Wallace’s ambivalent relationship to John Barth—someone he initially found first influential, and then someone to write against (necessitating the 120-page rewrite of Lost in the Funhouse that closes Girl with the Curious Hair). But DFW was intellectually grappling with an intellectual adversary he respected: Kaufman’s characterization of McKee shows zero respect. The reason he’s tormented by him is that McKee represents the worst aspects of Kaufman’s chosen industry in one handy package: per John Malkovich in Burn After Reading, “You’re one of the morons I’ve been fighting my whole life. My whole fucking life.” (McKee, tellingly, did not see it this way: he considered the scene where he gives “Charlie” advice in a bar and receives a grateful hug a “big redeeming scene” and insisted on it as a condition of his participation. In any case, he said Kaufman was very polite and nice about everything, which I bet he was.)

But I think Kaufman was also hatefully drawn towards McKee because he must have recognized, in some way, somebody with the same concerns, no matter how distorted. Kaufman’s screenplays create incredibly complicated, logistically-difficult-to-realize scenarios as elaborate vessels for fundamentally bone-simple self-loathing and morbidity. Realizing them takes money, so he didn’t really have a choice about what industry to play in. (Whatever my reservations about Kaufman’s project, he absolutely wasn’t a frustrated novelist or playwright trying to translate Pirandello or John Barth into film form—he definitely thinks “cinematically.”) His screenplays are textbook in some of the ways encouraged by screenwriting classes: there are no loose ends and there are definitely plot plants, and act structure is followed. (Jonze’s non-showy direction is very technically on point, but I do think he misses a trick when Charlie and brother Donald go to spy on Meryl Streep’s Susan Orlean. There’s a reference to Dressed to Kill earlier—earnest on Donald’s part, sneeringly received by Charlie—and when they pull out the binoculars to spy on her, that’s the moment to go full visual De Palma and bring it home. If it’s not in the script, it should’ve been on-screen!) Despite Kaufman’s insistence that he simply couldn’t figure out how to adapt the book, the scenes that just focus on the source material are quite good, to the point where I kind of just want that movie instead of this complicated mess. I suspect it’s not that Kaufman couldn’t write that movie, it’s that his ongoing interests weren’t accommodated for in the source material and he had to find a way to cram them in.

Across his movies, Kaufman repeatedly returns to men in total flopsweat mortifying themselves in front of women, which can be exhausting. Watching his failed flirtation with Judy Greer here, I cringed so hard I think I missed a reaction shot of her just because I had to cover my eyes. Even when I was 16 and attendantly prone to tons of self-pity/-loathing, I did feel like I could simultaneously really relate to Charlie (I couldn’t) while also feeling all this was a bit much—still, it’s impressive (and depressive) how quickly this could snap me back to teen angst. When Charlie meets with Swinton’s agent, he goes on a rant about how he doesn’t want to approach this material: he doesn’t want to impose false drama or for people to learn lessons, he doesn’t want to bastardize the material’s quiet beauty. He’s sweaty and manic, a nightmare caricature of a disgruntled writer, as he admits later to his crush. Watching him now, I got a different NYU flashback, to a screening of Beau Travail with Claire Denis in attendance. A student stood up and gave very much the same spiel, which is much less plausible when coming from an undergrad: he wanted to make something real and true, uncompromised by formula, and did Denis have any advice on how not to dilute his vision? She was unamused, slowly explaining that her first responsibility is to her financiers, and if she doesn’t get them their money back she doesn’t get to keep making movies, so if your budget isn’t realistic relative to your ambitions you need to adjust accordingly. It’s some of the best practical filmmaking advice I’ve heard—although, no matter my reservations, I’m kind of glad it sometimes seems like no one ever told Kaufman this.

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