Kaufman’s attempt to out-Fellini Guido Anselmi is welcome following the more derivative Adaptation, and though it doesn’t move you nearly as much as Eternal Sunshine it speaks a greater degree of emotional truth by avoiding sentimentality. It’s certainly not for everyone. Switching postmodern devices scene by scene, those who limit themselves to conventional narratives will find themselves quickly bewildered, soon infuriated. When Samantha Morton is shown round a house that is literally burning (“The sellers are very motivated now”) in a seeming non sequitur satire, Kaufman isn’t poking holes through the world he’s constructed – he’s destroying it, to mold it into something else.
We greatly desire life simplified. In much the same way we’re taught binary oppositions as children, we are relentlessly driven to narrative – whether in journalism, literature, the movies… Boy meets girl, and at the end they get married. Horatio Alger’s hard work bringing restored riches. Steven Gerrard’s excellent display rewarded with a goal. It is an often harmful but ever-present process of mediation.
SNY is the furthest I’ve seen an artwork push against it, though Zodiac is a greater success and more centred on it. Kaufman, however, is firmly interested in the human mind, which remains the most fruitful subject for artistic endeavour, especially using cinema. With its protagonist’s giant project, casting actors into the various roles of people he’s known, we see our inner projections – an expression carried further than in Eternal Sunshine when different layers of ‘reality’ overlap, as in the mind, as in the much misunderstood Sucker Punch.
It would be a disservice to call Kaufman’s film a masterpiece, or use any phrase with connotations of perfection as Ebert did when he declared it the best film of the 00’s. The director’s discomfort with acclaim is visible in the text: it occasionally goes beyond self-parody and into self-torture. Threads dangle in defiance of “good storytelling”, which may as well be an oxymoron with regards the film’s aims. With 8 1/2, Fellini made a film about himself in an attempt at finding truth through honesty. Realising that this version is mediated, he seeks honesty through exposing the mediation. Kaufman continues the trend, progressing – as with the image given by the film – with warehouse within warehouse. Of course the effort is in vain, but it exposes so much that we work to hide. It is essential.