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Seeing the Unseen: Charlie Kaufman’s 2020, Antkind and I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons in I'm Thinking Of Ending Things (Photo courtesy of Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX)

“My thinking is silly. My memories are preposterous. My ideas are laughable. I am a pompous clown. I can, on occasion, become aware of this. There are moments of clarity that I find all the more humiliating because I can see myself as others likely do, but I cannot control any of it. The pathetic, comical thought process continues, almost as if a script is playing out. Almost as if I myself am a puppet, defined by some external force, written to be the foil in some strange cosmic entertainment witnessed by someone somewhere. But who or what? And why? And also how? And when?” (Antkind, pg. 306)

This year, writer-director Charlie Kaufman broke his streak of irregular productivity and released two new projects: his debut novel, Antkind, and a feature film for Netflix, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Both film and novel received mostly positive, respectable notices, but the negative reviews were all of a similar, familiar pitch: He’s self-indulgent and solipsistic, stubbornly committed to highlighting his neuroses in self-flagellating fashion to the point of alienation or tedium while erecting opaque narrative artifices to keep audiences at arm’s length. His preoccupation with mortality indicates an inability to be fully present in life. These anxieties, designed to garner audience sympathy, nevertheless suggest a core narcissism at the expense of others, not to mention issues plaguing the larger world. 

These criticisms have dogged Kaufman dating back to Adaptation. but have gained increasing traction since his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, which marked Kaufman’s transition from major studio distribution to the moderately budgeted independent realm. Antkind, as written, is accordingly hostile to a restrictive film industry. Kaufman has said that he “kind of set out to make a book that couldn’t be filmed,” that his publishers frankly told him, “It doesn’t cost as much to publish a book,” and that he needn’t worry about securing a large audience for it. These creative restrictions are first-world problems. In politically fraught times, when a global pandemic and ever-encroaching fascism have stressed an urgent need to fundamentally reshape our institutions, Kaufman’s supposedly insular perspective should feel particularly out of step. Instead, it suddenly feels timely. Consciousness during quarantine has become something of a playground where even the most social, well-adjusted butterflies can easily get lost.

Kaufman has, perhaps predictably, internalized and amplified his critics’ perspective in Antkind’s protagonist, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg. A pompous film critic, academic and avowed enemy of Kaufman’s, he dominates the novel with his interior monologue. His lifelong pursuit—to remember and memorialize a three-month-long stop-motion animated film by a reclusive, elderly Black filmmaker, Ingo Cutbirth, that was destroyed in a fire—constitutes the novel’s “plot,” in the broadest sense of the term. Various impossible incidents befall Rosenberg; others happen to figures from his hypnosis-induced recollections of the film. Roughly 150 pages in, Rosenberg negatively compares Kaufman’s oeuvre to Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, strenuously arguing that he is a “monster unaware of his staggering ineptitude,” who puts his characters through “hellscapes with no hope of them achieving understanding or redemption” because he lacks humanism in his soul. Then, a bird defecates on Rosenberg’s head. Subsequently, any time Rosenberg makes broadside personal critiques of Kaufman, something disastrous happens, like a bicyclist plowing into his body or (repeatedly) falling into an open manhole. It takes another 400 pages, and a litany of byzantine events, for Rosenberg to realize he’s under the thumb of Kaufman, who authors and directs the abuse.

Antkind is (among many other things) an interrogation of how comedy requires a “victim” whose suffering gives others pleasure. The deterioration of Rosenberg’s life is abstractly funny in the same vein as a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon—the humor comes from the increasingly elaborate and absurd attempts to complete an impossible task. Imagine if we were privy to Wile E. Coyote’s interior monologue as he’s constantly crushed by a boulder or blown up by dynamite, and you get the idea: Coyote getting crushed by a boulder is one thing but being immersed in his awareness of, and aggrieved processing through, being crushed by the boulder, again and again and again, is where the novel’s comedy lies. 

Rosenberg’s plight is entirely sincere even as the situations generating that plight are absurd. His struggle, and internal processing of it, echoes Kaufman’s previous work. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Synecdoche, New York and, to a lesser extent, Anomalisa all feature male protagonists whose inability to achieve some sort of lofty goal, owing to unforeseen yet often self-induced high-concept circumstances, causes them personal suffering. Kaufman’s work thrives on the tension between his protagonists’ entirely human responses to personal failures that are sometimes of their own making and the comical situations that catalyze the failure in the first place. The realities of Kaufman’s worlds are founded in conceptual humor—for example, a portal into John Malkovich’s brain—yet the characters’ desires are simple and grounded: to love and be loved, to appreciate and be appreciated, to fulfill a creative vision and have that vision be fulfilling. Ironically, only the character directly based on Kaufman (Nicolas Cage’s “Charlie Kaufman” in Adaptation.) finds triumph in the end.

Kaufman’s tenure in 1990s sitcom/sketch writers’ rooms on shows like Get a Life and The Dana Carvey Show gives him insight into the inner workings of joke-telling. “The idea of the horror of relentless jokes becomes part of the conceit,” he observed in an interview this year. “It’s endless jokes, mostly at the expense of this one person, and that then becomes like a horror story.” Comedy remains a serious business even in the margins of Antkind. In many of the discrete narratives that make up the novel’s Borgesian structure, Kaufman digresses into the lives of ’30s and ’40s comedy duos—both fictional and real, all riffs on Abbott and Costello—speaking in their patented humorous repartee, except the dialogue is always about plotting murders against other up-and-coming acts. One pair, the fictional Mudd and Molloy, struggle to maintain success when Molloy, who loses his heavy frame and jovial personality after awaking from a coma, decides they should both play the straight man role, a choice that costs them their marriages and careers. (In a lengthy inversion of “Who’s on First?” neither Mudd nor Molloy are confused by the premise.) 

Antkind’s conceptual humor works cumulatively: Rosenberg, under the sway of his developing clown fetish, pursuing a professional female clown whom he calls “Clown Laurie” is only moderately funny; that she’s exclusively referred to as “Clown Laurie” by everyone in the narrative, regardless of whether she’s in clown makeup or they even know she works as a clown, is very funny. The sixth time we return to Mudd and Molloy, talking through their inability to gain traction as a double straight-man act and their gradually more impulsive efforts to regain their fame, is much funnier than the idea itself. Much as with Rosenberg, the comedy in these sections arises only partly from the duo’s outlandish situations. It more often comes from their attempts to cope with it—their frustration, denial and repeated abject failure to fully comprehend.

A major part of Cutbirth’s film is his idea of “the Unseen,” which takes the literal (as opposed to conceptual) form of thousands of puppets he creates but doesn’t film. They are present and have “lived,” but they aren’t captured on film. “It is hard to look at the Unseen, even if you are Unseen yourself…. The Unseen are the audience for the Seen. They are here to watch, not to be watched,” Cutbirth explains to Rosenberg, who he might as well be describing. Rosenberg fancies himself a public intellectual, someone whose judgments on film and culture warrant widespread acclaim, but he’s someone through whom the world moves, to whom things happen—the comic foil to the world’s straight man in a cosmic double act, whose professional obligation to observe and inability to reconcile his grievances keeps him Unseen by others. 

“People like to think of themselves as points moving through time, but I think it’s probably the opposite. We’re stationary, and time passes through us. Blowing like cold wind, stealing our heat,” says Jessie Buckley’s character in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman’s film, based on Iain Reid’s debut novel, assumes the perspective of the Unseen: The entire film resides in the imagination of a lonely, depressed high school janitor (Guy Boyd), who visualizes a younger version of himself (Jesse Plemons) taking his girlfriend (Buckley) to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). We only receive hints of this reality for most of the film—mainly, scenes of the unnamed janitor performing menial labor at a high school, while others ignore him or mock him behind his back, that feel like random digressions from the primary narrative—until Kaufman forces the issue in the final third. I’m Thinking of Ending Things plays like a psychological horror film in which Buckley’s character, the janitor’s invention, realizes she’s being manipulated by a force beyond her control, that her agency is limited by the well-meaning puppeteer controlling her movements. Unlike Rosenberg’s case, Kaufman plays her slow, discomfiting realization for tragedy instead of dark humor.

Before Kaufman gives the game away, Plemons’s character expresses familiar, piercing anxieties. “Sometimes, it feels like no one sees the good things that you do,” he despondently says after Buckley’s character watches him take care of his ailing mother. Later, when they’re back in the car, Plemons rants about the “lie of it all” and lists platitudes that people tell themselves to get through the day, some of which he’s clearly told himself over the years: “That it’s going to get better, that it’s never too late, that God has a plan for you, that age is just a number, that it’s always darkest before the dawn, that every cloud has a fucking silver lining, that there’s someone for everyone….” It’s the rhetoric of someone who has gone through life as an invisible presence, who has filtered his obsessions and dreams into fictional creations as a way to cope.

In both Antkind and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, time exists on a continuum. Buckley watches as Plemons’s parents age almost at random, seeing them as their spritely young selves and their deteriorating aged selves within the confines of their home. It contributes to her “awakening” to the fact that her world might be temporally fluid because she’s not in control. Rosenberg sees into the past and future, and can often transport himself there as well because he’s a vessel for pettiness and the victim of a hidden hand. Yet, both Buckley and Rosenberg express thoughts and ideas that are entirely their own, even as they’re circumscribed by omniscient authors. It’s no coincidence that Kaufman’s work frequently features puppets—John Cusack’s frustrated puppeteer in Being John Malkovich or the literal stop-motion animated 3D puppets of Anomalisa—because of the obvious writerly metaphor for control of movement, action and emotion. Their fears and hopes come from a sincere place. That they can’t be entirely fulfilled is at the core of the tragedy.

Kaufman complicates Antkind’s premise by partly characterizing Rosenberg as a broad caricature of someone so defensively anxious about appearing politically incorrect or “un-woke” that he relentlessly otherizes marginalized people in his attempt to be enlightened. He uses “African American” instead of Black, regardless of context; e.g., “African-American face,” and brags about having a famous Black girlfriend to anyone who will listen, up to the moment she leaves him. He uses the “thon” pronoun to minimize, and ultimately erase, his gender but does so mostly to elevate himself and “correct” perceived grammatical and syntactical issues that arise with “they/them” pronouns. All of these choices predictably blow up in his face because of his transparent neediness for approval. His awareness of contemporary identity politics only serves him poorly because it heightens his arrogance, validates his insecurities and thinly disguises his prejudices. Essentially, Rosenberg is a satirical target with a pulse, someone we’re supposed to laugh at for his foibles but simultaneously sympathize with, if only because we mostly see the world through his eyes. Kaufman never asks us to excuse Rosenberg’s plight, which is frequently out of his hands anyway; instead, he asks us to understand his panic in response to it. There are lengthy passages that detail Rosenberg’s fears of death and being unloved and losing his mind that are plainly moving because they’re universal. Self-loathing might beget self-sabotage, but the former isn’t any less painful or real because of the latter. 

Kaufman is aware his world view isn’t especially “relevant” in our current landscape. His New York Times profile by Jon Mooallem, timed to Antkind’s release and published in the midst of nationwide protests, directly addresses this elephant in the room. Mooallem relays to Kaufman his editor’s concern that the “baroque interiority” of his piece feels out of sync with the times. Kaufman, though mildly annoyed by the idea that the piece or his work would have been timelier two weeks earlier, admits that it all might be irrelevant.

This critical fixation on “relevancy” frustrates me as someone who values art beyond its perceived political or social utility, but especially when it’s lodged against someone like Kaufman. I live with a constant hum of self-loathing and fear of not living up to real or imagined expectations. At all times, I manage a detrimental internal monologue and do my best to ensure it doesn’t frequently spill out into the real world so as not to alienate others. No other contemporary American writer-director has committed to communicating the ugly realities of internal distress, and I feel farthest away from my colleagues when they suggest that this is merely obnoxious self-pity instead of a sincere inquiry. These real human emotions shouldn’t exclusively be the purview of therapy sessions.

The idea that his worldview doesn’t have purchase in the current culture because of its small scope also doesn’t hold water. Under threat of COVID-19, people have been physically displaced from others: a potent combination of quarantining, social distancing, the closure of public spaces and mass unemployment. Kaufman’s focused interiority, even of the relatively privileged cis-het white variety, has worth regardless of context, but it’s ironic that his modus operandi has actually become somewhat timely—not just for me but possibly for previously unreceptive others as well. Now that the world has forced the legion of Unseen to grow, Kaufman’s dedication to conveying internalized suffering scans as particularly empathetic instead of solipsistic. It’s an act of generosity disguised as self-obsession: delving deeper into himself via characters to reach out to others stuck in the same boat, marinating in dread and concerned with their own impermanence.

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