Day 96: Charlie Kaufman and the Confidence of Genius: the Acceptance of the Absurd through Strenuous Realism and Stark Portrayals of the Human Condition

E.C. Fiori made a good point today about the value of criticism in the modern media saturated society. In light of this, I’ll attempt to demonstrate what that might look like.

*Art above by peterstrainshop

Since the turn of the century, there has been something of a trend in films that spans genre: the use of internal worlds as the physical setting for the film.

We’ve seen it be the setting for horror movies for years (confirming a theory of mine that horror almost always leads the way in terms of film trends, but it has at last made the jump to action, sci-fi, comedies, and dramas. Beyond the mere setting or plot device however, I’d like to focus on the Romantic Dramedy category, since they must trade in emotion and memory as is inherent to the genre.

I’ll begin with a declaration: Charlie Kaufman is a genius. Hyperbole? Maybe, but let me make my case.

Over the past ten years there have been two films, both celebrated, that attempt to show the entire course of a relationship through non-linear storytelling the way we remember our own. The first is 500 Days of Summer. The second, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

500 Days of Summer is, I believe, a great movie. It thrills in using every tool in the genre box to tell it’s story, switching from comedy, to drama, to musical, to documentary, to music video as it fits that moment in the relationship. When seeing it in the theater I was hooked right at the credits, and would be very proud if I was the writer of it.

But for me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind excels beyond others. Today I’m going to focus on one aspect of it. And it springs, from the confidence of genius.

There is a scene, right in the beginning of the film, where Joel is giving Clementine a ride, and she is asking him if he is a stalker. He replies that she spoke to him first, and she comes back with this:

Clementine: “That’s the oldest trick in the stalker book”. Let’s pause.

As a writer, how would you have the conversation continue from here? Joel is extremely introverted and closed off. He is starting to like this girl, and the ball is in his court.

I can tell you what I would do: I would have a call back. I would have Joel say “Do they stock that at Barnes & Nobel?” which she mentioned she works at just a few minutes before. She would reply that it’s a bestseller, or she saw him buy it, and the snappy banter would continue.

Instead, Charlie Kaufman has Joel say this:

Joel: “I gotta read that one.”

For anyone who has written anything with dialogue, the temptation to skew towards the memorable or (potentially) quotable is almost irresistible. If you’re writing dialogue, chances are you love dialogue- why wouldn’t you have Joel say something that people are going to remember and want to say in their own lives?

He doesn’t have to be suave either, you can give Joel something in character to say that is much more dialogue driven: instead though, Charlie Kaufman gives him a punishingly boring line. It achingly boring, and almost a wasted opportunity.

Until you realize just how brilliant it really is.

The film is filled with moments like these, with people not knowing what to say, and fumbling with expressing how they feel. Your co-worker just admitted he stole a client’s underwear and is now dating her? Share an uncomfortable laugh. Protagonist is skeptically wondering about side effects of wiping the memories of failed relationships away? You could answer his question about brain damage with a scientific explanation about how all memories degrade in time and the process just focuses and accelerates it.

Instead, almost tenderly, Charlie Kaufman writes this line from the doctor: “Well, technically the process IS brain damage.” It isn’t some big corporation bent on destroying love, it’s a mom and pop private practice.

Why is this brilliant? For one, it makes the acceptance of the idea of memory wipes much more palatable. Any screenwriter can make up a sci-fi premise, but selling that premise as part of a real world and not a sci-fi one is nearly impossible. Kaufman makes it look natural.

And more importantly because at the end, at the cathartic moment where we see if love conquers all, we don’t get snappy one liners, or a voiceover, a neat resolution, or a call back. You get this:

Clementine: “You’ll find things wrong with me and I’ll get bored of you because that is what we do.”

Joel: “…okay.”

Clementine: “…okay.”

The script has been so well structured and woven together that this simple acceptance is like a grenade going off in our chests.

And if I was a genius, I wouldn’t have to resort to a simile. I could just tightly weave together a story about people, have every single one be familiar and raw, and end it all replaying a faded memory we’re suddenly so glad to have.
-Jack Delaney

Day 94: A Coronation Interrupted, A Hundred Days of Solitude, and The Celebrity Vote

        Ninety four days of a Trump presidency has had the expected effect. Staggering incompetence in every area, international and domestic faux pas at every turn. No nuclear war, which more and more is the yardstick for failure. Modern generations seem to have forgotten that fact that with thermonuclear war, we’re all in the trenches. Major population centers are exactly what they aim for.
        But I’d like to take a moment to return to the end of last year, when Trump won the election no one expected him to. In a way, Trump has never acted out of character. He has yet to “pivot” towards a more rational, “presidential” way of governing, instead being the brusque, uninformed cartoon we’ve known him as for decades. Campaign or President, that is the man.
        No, the person who failed was Hillary Clinton. My use of the word “failed” and not “lost” is crucial here, because I don’t think the 2016 election should have been a contest. This still isn’t a popular opinion among democrats, and I can’t figure out why. What has confirmed my suspicion is the book (first of a tidal wave I’m sure) from two Hillary Campaign staffers: Shattered.
        It is, of course, the story of a campaign going awry, complete with an increasingly tight circle of access to the queen herself, now confirming the “American Emperor” analogy as applicable on the right and left. There were loyalty tests, both for those in the campaign and in congress, and a hilarious amount of frustration at Bernie Sanders.
        What shocked me though, was the complete failure of Hillary to come up with a reason for running for president. It seems like the simplest undergraduate poly-sci major piece of advice to a candidate: “have a message”. Give people a reason to vote for you.
        And yet, this is exactly what “I’m with her” Hillary failed to do. It almost became a running joke inside the campaign, the best they were able to settle on being “It’s her turn!” When they spoke to democrats, they were pleased to find most of them agreed that Hillary wasn’t “evil”. Jesus. Trump was a godsend, allowing them to focus on his weekly scandals instead of addressing the fact that there was no reason for Hillary to be President.
        The real lesson of this election was the peril of a race between two celebrities. One a reality tv star, the other the most famous politician on the planet. Just as Trump’s celebrity fueled his rise and victory, it was Hillary’s celebrity in her own party that doomed her, the circle of advisers too tight, the alienation from the average American too great.
        If there is something that has irked me over these past 100 days, it’s the betrayal on the part of democrats in confronting Hillary’s persistent inability to be elected. Their failure is now ours. 1367 days to go.
-Jack Delaney

Day 20/21/22/23:The Battle not Fought

The current power of the right is their insight that today isn’t a peak but a valley and your children’s tomorrows are unknowable but there is little positive potential. The Democrats boilerplate the public: “education”. A post union silver bullet. One that fails to address both the current Education system failures and the dawning of a new employment age, one in which well paying work is drifting away. The Democratic leadership and public intellectuals push that tomorrows are going getting better if you move thousands of miles and relearn everything. People save the thousands of dollars and do it all the time. Some can’t. Either way their vision entails the deaths of thousands of communities for those individuals to struggle as lower middle class against the rising rents in today’s cities. For those communities, they need a narrative where they survive. Automation is not slowing. Democrats need to solve the future with bold and wide action. They need to live their proclaimed values. Run companies that pay equal both in diversity and in hierarchy. Welcome others as much as they want to be welcomed. We don’t need the government to make us good people.
-E.C. Fiori

Day 72: Donations Don’t Give Experience

Please see Day 15 for my thoughts on DeVos and school choice.
Today I want to talk about the disastrous confirmation hearing DeVos gave yesterday. It is one thing to hold a controversial view but another to push a viewpoint without basic knowledge of the subject. 
As I have mentioned before I am an American with disabilities. My medical condition doesn’t interfere with my job duties but I wouldn’t have been able to graduate high school without IDEA. It allowed me to receive an education that accommodated my physical challenges. I was lucky to be in a school district that truly supported their special needs students but I know not all kids are as lucky.
That DeVos doesn’t understand that IDEA, a 40 year old federal law exists while trying to be in charge of its enforcement is disturbing. Her boilerplate answer of states and “locales” rights to most questions leaves not an impression of a true conservative but an ignorant one who cannot defend their own arguments. Tim Kaine’s criticism that people should have to move states to receive a fair education is a valid counterpoint to a moorless statement that she repeated like a parrot in response. She would be in charge of ensuring critical thinking and analysis is being successfully taught. 
This isn’t about if money should be able to buy influence. This is about a system where money is equated to intelligence. That stems from the modern concept of the meritocracy. Just because people have resources the act of having doesn’t make them smarter or more deserving to be heard. Actions speak louder than dollars to both capability and understanding. Letting DeVos control American education because she wants a pet project moves us closer to a Banana Republic. 
-E.C. Fiori