Charlie Kaufman Has No Idea How to Write Women as People
In the filmmaker’s new movie, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things,’ he’s still using women as props for neurotic men
For the past 20 years, Charlie Kaufman has been making movies about the same guy. If you’ve seen a Kaufman movie, you know him: white, approaching middle age, with shabby clothes and hair that looks like he insulted his barber’s mother. He doesn’t smile easily, or shave often, or look like he sleeps too well; he’s got an intellectual profession (playwright, experimental puppet artist, screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman) so you can tell the weariness and lack of good cheer are probably meant to convey how hard it is to be an intellectual. Reviewers will use the word “neurotic” to describe this man. A lot.
This man, the archetypal Charlie Kaufman Protagonist, is unhappy about a lot of things. He’s unhappy about death, and society, and the unknowable nature of the self. He’s unhappy with the unreliability of memory, or the instability of the self, or the incapacity of art to convey truth. Mostly, though, he is unhappy about his girlfriend.
Kaufman is a capital-G Great Writer, one of the greatest we have working for the screen. No one else could write so many classic movies about the same guy. Yet there is a coldness to his work, and particularly to the way he writes women — who are often literally fantasies, or memories, or projections, or symptoms of a man’s discontent, and rarely full, human protagonists in their own right. The way these women so often turn out to be inexplicable or imaginary might be a dazzling reflection of the postmodern condition, but it might also be a reflection of a culture in which women are rarely accorded full humanity at all.
In a Charlie Kaufman movie, the universe may be cruel and indifferent, but it usually sends women to do its dirty work.
Kaufman’s latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is a breakup movie (all Charlie Kaufman movies are breakup movies) based on a novel by Iain Reid. I will spoil nothing, except that it’s a story in which a woman is unknowable, perhaps even to herself; where the shifts and fluctuations in her character…