Leanne asked me to write this little column for her blog. I suppose she wants to keep me busy, creatively speaking, while I figure what to do next now that health problems and increasing outside responsibilities have put my photography on hold for the time being.
Anyway, I have a semi-vast library of obscure DVDs. I’ve been a collector of B-movies, cult movies, and other odds and ends from the world of underground film for decades now. I suppose my ultimate goal of this article is to expose more people to these little-seen gems. But for this, the inaugural post, I’m going with a movie that many of you have probably already seen: Spike Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation.
Adapatation wasn’t a humongous success, but it did garner enough Academy Award nominations that enough people became interested to see what the director of Being John Malkovich could do next. It also raised the cachet of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter for both films who would go on to pen the gut-wrenching romantic touchstone of our generation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
So…point being, a lot of you have probably already seen this film. But for those of you that haven’t…
I love me some Charlie Kaufman. I will make no bones about it. He cranks out brilliant screenplays like a Quentin Tarantino with cripplingly low self-esteem. There are few people in Hollywood anymore for whom I will see everything their name is attached to, but Kaufman is one of them (Kung Fu Panda rewrites notwithstanding). I saw Malkovich, I saw Eternal Sunshine, even saw Synecdoche, New York, probably his most “difficult” film as well as his directorial debut. But somehow, I hadn’t gotten around to watching Adaptation until recently, when I picked up a copy for 3 bucks at my local used DVD store.
I also love me some Nic Cage. God, how I love Nic Cage. He is one of the few actors in Hollywood whose private life is actually more bizarre than his on-screen performances. I mean, have ya heard the fudgesicle story? He’s also very shrewd, and I say that with a straight face. I know he’s made a lot of crap movies, mostly because he has a huge back-tax bill to pay off or something. But at least he knows when to play it up and when to tone it down. I mean, have ya seen Deadfall? He knew the script was a piece of shit that would be lucky enough to even go to straight to video, but I guess he wanted to do a solid for his brother (who wrote and directed that piece of shit). Anyway, all the other actors are playing this ludicrous heist film completely straight, while Cage is the only one savvy enough to say “Fuck it” and just give one of most hilariously over-the-top performances since Vampire’s Kiss.
In Adaptation, here he tones it down to a more human level. In fact, in an unusual turn of self-referentialization (apparently I word I just made up, according to spellcheck), Cage plays Kaufman himself. The film actually opens on the set of Malkovich, where Kaufman (Cage) is lurking in the corners and eventually shooed off set entirely. Kaufman is in the middle of his latest existential crisis, in that he has been commissioned to adapt a book that’s “all about flowers” into an interesting movie. That book, The Orchid Thief, is an actual book written by New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean (played here by Meryl Streep) about an actual man named John LaRoche (played here by Chris Cooper) who “poaches” rare orchids from deep within the Federally-protected swamps of Florida. Thus the film functions as the semi-fictionalization of real events.
Fortunately, Kaufman has a twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), who is crashing at his Hollywood home with dreams of becoming a screenwriter himself. Donald, one of the few characters in the film who does not actually have a real-life analogue, functions as both bluebird of happiness and salt in Charlie’s wound. Donald worships his brother, is always trying to give him advice which Charlie dismisses as banal, overused story devices, and yet, Donald writes an absolutely absurd screenplay about a cop, a serial killer, and a victim who are actually all the same person, which becomes a huge success. Suddenly, Donald is hanging out with the likes of Catherine Keener (playing herself), yet all the while, talking up his severely stunted brother as the real genius in the family.
Eventually, Charlie takes his brother’s advice to attend a screenwriting seminar, even though he finds them distasteful scams which prey upon struggling writers. Though he clashes early on with the speaker Robert McKee (the never not-brilliant Brian Cox), afterwards he solicits him for advice on his script over a friendly beer. McKee sympathizes with Kaufman’s ordeal, but insists the audience won’t care if a movie is boring as long as you “wow them in the end”. Which of course runs counter to Kaufman’s original intent; in his initial meeting with the movie exec (Tilda Swinton) who hires him to adapt the book, Kaufman expresses his passionate intent to stay true to the book, not to make it all Hollywood, not to “cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons”.
Kaufman (the real Kaufman) excels at this, weaving subtle profundities into his works without smacking you over the head with them. Even the title, Adaptation, of course works on several levels; not only about the adaptation of book to film, but the way nature adapts to changing events, and the way we as humans struggle to follow suit.
Ideal viewing condition: when you’ve had to take a “personal day” off work because your head is messed up