Charlie Kaufman’s New Work Asks What White Men Have to Offer
In "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" and his novel "Antkind," the director is still centering pitiful white guys, but it hits different now
Charlie Kaufman, the mind behind Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York, is best known as the architect behind some of the greatest mind-bending social dramas of the 21st century. Marrying cerebral concerns with formal conceits that defy categorization, Kaufman has become a distinctive voice in American filmmaking. But as his work attests, he’s long agonized over his own creations, each new screenplay an uneasy proposition about the very value of what he’s trying to accomplish. With his first novel, Antkind, released earlier this year, and his latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, now available on Netflix, Kaufman has gone one step further. He’s offered a twinned vision of the anxiety around storytelling by and about straight white men.
To look back at Kaufman’s work is to see a slew of films with distinctive metafictional frames that all but hope to break cinema from the inside—but also a continued examination of what writers who look like Kaufman can offer the world. His interest in making narrative impossibilities a central concern of his work, both formally and thematically, continues in Antkind and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. In both cases, though, Kaufman has made explicit something that was bubbling underneath the surface in his previous work: he presents a dizzying picture of a story that becomes ever more unhinged precisely because its anchors—his straight white male protagonists—can no longer center themselves in the stories they’re trying to tell without running the risk of annihilating themselves in the process. In their own ways, novel and film alike are intellectual exercises about what kinds of stories white men can tell these days—to others, and more tellingly, to themselves.
Antkind centers on a film critic intent on making a name for himself after witnessing (and accidentally destroying the only print of) what he terms the greatest film ever made: a three-month-long stop-motion animated film by an unknown Black filmmaker, 90 years in the making. At once a satire of self-serious cis white straight male film critics and a meta-comedy about doppelgangers, cinema, and dreamscapes, Antkind is quintessential Kaufman. As in his films Synecdoche, New York and Adaptation, the plot of the novel twists and turns on itself to the point where it’s unclear whether what you’re reading is the plot of a film being retold, the narrative of a dream, a flashback memory being remembered, or, perhaps, quite implausibly, all three at the same time. In contrast, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (based on Iain Reid’s novel by the same name) has a decidedly simple premise: Jake (Jesse Plemons) is taking his girlfriend Lucy (Jessie Buckley) to meet his parents for the first time. Only, as her voiceover confides in us at the start of the film, she’s actually thinking of ending things.
As you read and watch, Kaufman’s 2020 creations slowly unravel in ways that feel familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed the fantastical world of Being John Malkovich and the playful, time-bending sensibility of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As Antkind’s protagonist B. R. Rosenberg tries to recall (via hypnosis, naturally) the months-long film he destroyed, the distinctions between what he dreams, what he watched, and what he’s remembering blur together. By the time we see him in his dreams—in which he’s become a professional novelizer, being recruited by a time-traveling future “Brainio” filmmaker hoping to get him to write a novel about the death of “President Trunk” that she can then claim to have adapted in her present—it’s clear Kaufman’s fanciful novel is a kind of Rubik’s Cube we’re not really meant to solve as much as obsess over, sometimes in utter frustration, others in gleeful awe.
In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, meanwhile, though the setup seems plain as day, there are hints early on that, this being a Kaufman vehicle, not all is as it seems. When Lucy thinks to herself that she’s thinking of ending the relationship with Jake, Plemons reacts as if he’s overheard her. By the time the couple reach Jake’s parents’ house, every shot demands you do a double take to reassure yourself that Lucy (or is it Louisa? Or perhaps Lucia?) isn’t wearing a new dress, that the house isn’t suddenly decorated differently, that Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) isn’t suddenly younger (or much older and in bed dying?), or that the acerbic family comedy you thought you were watching didn’t just become an absurdist Beckettian drama where time has an elasticity that makes watching it an enervating affair. The film’s sense of reality becomes all the more mercurial when it goes full Oklahoma! in its final musical moments, eventually suggesting that Jake and the older high school janitor we keep seeing in intercut scenes are one and the same. Oh, and that Buckley’s voice over, as well as her entire character and maybe their entire family dinner plot, may be just a figment of Jake’s imagination.
To enter Kaufman’s fictional worlds has always felt like an opportunity to live in the pliable mindscapes of his many sad sack protagonists. He’s long probed the frustrations of white men who wished they could be more (think Being John Malkovich’s unemployed puppeteer, Adaptation’s “Charlie Kaufman” and Synecdoche, New York’s theater director). Here, though, Jake and B.’s grievances resonate quite differently—perhaps because both Antkind and I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrive at a time when such self-flagellating premises risk sounding tone-deaf. Kaufman, as usual, seems less interested in eliciting empathy for these men than in unpacking the pity—self- and otherwise—that surrounds them.
Given their outlandish tone and their winking self-awareness, it’s difficult to get a grasp on whether Antkind and I’m Thinking of Ending Things are mocking their characters, their fans, their critics, or even their own creator. It’s possible they’re mocking any number of these, depending on what scene you’re in and your own position toward the insidious vision of white male creative authority novel and film are so eager to deconstruct. B., for instance, is constantly griping over how his insights as a cis white straight male critic are currently undervalued despite his superior intellect, an issue Kaufman problematizes when he reveals what B.’s work is all about: his Harvard dissertation, “Temporary Mobility Practices in the Indigenous Australian Population as an Analogue of the Experience of Western Film Viewers,” and his upcoming monograph, “At Last, I Am Becoming Gender and Transformation in American Cinema,” clearly suggest that he is animated by a constant attempt to take up space best served by other critics. Even his use of “B.” (a nod to noted queer film historian B. Ruby Rich) makes him disingenuous, eager to mislead others about his gender.
Kaufman may relish the ability to constantly cut through whatever argument you think he may be making, but there’s no denying there’s a probing fascination with the self-immolating impulses of these men who face a world that’s left them behind, that’s ignored them, that now perhaps has no use for them. Jake’s attempt to create a new plot for himself, one that finds him taking his beautiful girlfriend to meet his parents, is a failure from the moment of conception. Even in his subconscious, he emerges as a pitiful figure. In the end, he’s left singing Jud’s song “Lonely Room” from Oklahoma!, which frames him not just as a loner but as a disturbing figure whose love of a woman exists alongside a penchant for violence. There’s a toxicity to his entire creation, which, as in Antkind, pushes the plot to constantly get distorted away from readers and viewers alike, as if any examination of the centrality of white men in 2020 would necessarily require a loss of the objectivity that surrounds their stories.
To enter the mind of an aggrieved white male in 2020 is, as Kaufman makes all too clear, an uncomfortable and exhausting exercise. Antkind’s 700-plus pages can feel interminable, the very definition of taking up too much space, even as its narrator keeps making light of the way its protagonist is literally shrinking out of sight. Likewise, the many formal twists of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which ends with an Oklahoma! inspired ballet, a cribbed A Beautiful Mind speech, and an animated pig (yes, really) feel equally obnoxious. They’re both maddening in the way, perhaps, all of Kaufman’s work has always been. But the difference here is how untethered from any semblance of reality these stories leave us: they’re both intricate columbariums to the stories we used to tell (about a boy and a girl, say; or about a man in crisis) that embrace the collapse of storytelling altogether. It’s a bleak outlook that feels defiant and despairing in equal measure; an infuriating—not to mention ambivalent—answer to the question of what stories about white men can look like today.