Kaufman By the Woods on a Snowy Evening: I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Am I having this thought? Is anyone? Is everyone?
Please? I’m thinking of ending things. From a marketing standpoint, it’s certainly provocative. Like most Charlie Kaufman films might be, this is a story of romantic suicide.
Now does that mean the death of a specific romance by self-inflicted emotional wounds, or a swooning send-off to the binds of identity itself? Such things are less clear, at least upon first sight through swirling snow.
The first three seen are Jessie and Jesse, and then the bulking back of some observer, elderly but then - briefly - young and familiar, from a window far above the street gazing down at young love. But that figure is soon lost as the young woman climbs into the young man’s car and a long, cold journey begins. Some might see the twin J casting as a joke, but it could be a message, or perhaps just a flickering neuronic spark in this dying brain of a film. At first we are in the head of the character played by Jessie Buckley, red-haired and enigmatic, with a rubber band smile about to snap, an unspoken vocalization about to obliterate everything in range. She is our narrator, as if out of a novel, and this mind must be her own. Yet it’s Jake (the other Jesse, this one Plemons) who seems the prototypical Kaufman “hero”. Shy, neurotic, riding a fine line between kind of cute and rather creepy with a scatter-brained intellectualism, he’s the type who might briefly woo a girl like the one next to him - out of his league but maybe, just maybe, curious enough.
As her narration soon makes clear, that curiosity is a waning crescent and things may soon end after this morbid jaunt to Jake’s parents’ farm. It’s the darkness that lingers in the gravelly backend of Buckley’s delivery that first makes one uneasy. Ending…what, exactly? Certainly her relationship with Jake, but isn’t there the hint of something else?
This opening act car ride is brought to an end when she recites a poem she has recently crafted called “Bonedog.” We’ll later learn, sort of, that this is actually a creation of the poet Eva H.D. Maybe some recognize this right away. Clearly not cool enough, I didn’t. However, it is only the first of many quotations that slowly seep into the story and the mouths of our characters in moments both inelegantly copy-pasted and surreally apt. This aspect emerges from the transfiguration of author Iain Reid’s original novel into Charlie Kaufman’s carefully framed and cut film. As you may know, Kaufman has adapted before, fragmenting another’s memoir through himself. This time, though, it is as if he attempts to refract it through the greater, collective Self. Everyone, that is.
Like Jake responds to his unnamed girlfriend, now just along for the ride after her grim recitation: “I felt like you wrote it about me.”
We cling to quotations. Or, at least, I do. I’m assuming the same of you. The darkness inside our heads briefly illuminated by the thoughts of others, desperately seeking flashes of outside insight to guide us to some imagined other side. A little break from our own patterns, a moment of something like truth. You like that too, don’t you?
Of course, all it really takes is a jerk of the wheel to tailspin us back into our usual mental cycles. Past, present, and future swirl together so quickly that we can never gain purchase on where or when we truly are. In the process, that beloved quote may just integrate, out of sight, deep into the well of the mind. Sometimes I wonder if that’s a self-defense mechanism, that spinning and integration. If that’s the point. To know where you are exactly is to face what you are and will never be. So, dream, dream, upon the mind screen. Take those overheard words and observed images and blend yourself an identity. We are a collection of what we have heard, to quote Oscar Wilde, to quote Jessie Buckley’s character, to quote Charlie Kaufman’s script.
But what about two people? Two collections meet each other like galaxies collapsing into one another in an eons-long waltz. We want two because the other can approve of us, sanction our choices and failings and successes too. Yet another mind is light years away, and any attempt to bridge that gap will always be tinged with uncertainty. Could we all just be one another? Copying and pasting bits of us over the anonymous other, talking and loving and fucking collages of ourselves?
In this film, Buckley’s character realizes she is not herself. Or rather, that she is also someone else. Her journey is one of an imagined person undergoing an existential crisis. As this young woman with many names moves down lonely Oklahoma roads into a time blanched farmhouse and back again, she realizes she is trapped in some sort of endless routine in the mind of a greater self that simply cannot let go.
This Greater Mind haunts everyone in the film. Jake, the most direct representation of this umbrella entity, seems to be the ego, bruised, battered, and bundled up, but Kaufman characterizes the other aspects of this tortured human thought pattern too. The Young Woman’s burden is to understand this, perhaps over and over again. Forgetting who she is. Remembering she is no one. Remembering she is so many people.
At the farmhouse, Jake’s parents both eagerly await the young couple’s visit, but also keep vanishing around corners and into rooms, aging out of sequence with the night’s progression. Jake does not want his girlfriend venturing into the basement, because that is where families keep things locked away. It is also a pretty obvious pit of Freudian and Jungian despair, repressed and color leeched in some infernal washing machine on spin.
The meeting of the parents is a lot like tossing a load of personal items into that mechanized maw. An exposure of potentially dirty laundry. Ritualized vulnerability. It is the welcoming of another into the domain of childhood, the forge of all that shaped us. Yet what of the parents looking down at their child, now paired and matched across the dinner table?
What of them? We’ll never know. Only guess and probe, wondering what exactly it is they think of the decisions we’ve made. Hoping they are both proud but not too proud. If they’re too proud, our inherent vice will be all too visible. That’s what lies behind Jake’s disturbed look as his mother (Toni Collette) tries to pry the couple’s meet-cute from the Young Woman.
But she’s not his mother, not really. Like this ego-Jake and that Young Woman putting on her best show about who she is, the Mother also belongs to that higher, constructive mind - little more than a filter through which that Mind's deepest insecurities are expressed. How proud she is. How afraid she is that she is not very proud at all.
“Perspective.” Earlier in the film, both Jess(i)e’s (Jessi?) utter the word simultaneously. During dinner, David Thewlis’ Father tries to decipher that very matter in an aside with the Young Woman, who now identifies herself as a painter (once a physicist and a poet, as well). He cannot exactly figure how it is that perspective is expressed without another human in sight. A landscape painting means nothing at all without a person in frame. Who else can you project yourself onto? The Young Woman suggests the person outside the frame, looking in. Shift in your couch seat. Laugh yourself as the Father laughs off such a possibility.
Then remember the Father is losing his memories. The father who did not understand his young son’s passions can no longer understand anything at all. The mother who so triggers her son’s deepest fears about himself loses her mind and will to live. And Jake, the son, stuck there with them through all that pain. Unlike the Young Woman, he does not notice the strangeness of this evening in his childhood home, or more that he chooses to ignore it. But he is trapped with the souls he felt trapped him…and his Young Woman, the observer he has created from spare parts of a lifetime of desires. A witness to see the good things he had to do for these aging souls, out of sight from the rest of the world. The soul he created to accompany him on these journeys into the mind’s deepest night. His fire in the hearth. Humans call it hope, and this film does not seem to hold it in very high esteem.
That is the rising threat, as the Young Woman sees how she is lost alongside this man she no longer or never even loved. The storm is real and chains on the tires will only keep her on a track that seems endless and without any hope of ending. Follow the rules, as the Mother warns the Young Woman with a sickly smile, and remain a fantasy.
One question to answer. When the Young Woman picks up her phone throughout the film, fielding calls that arrive from the many names Jake places upon her, an old man’s voice gives her this directive. Finally, the audience exclaims, a goal! Don’t get too excited.
Josephine Decker, perhaps the new maestro of wet, hot American madness, wrote of Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich and the concept of American surreality in a column for the Criterion Current. If you may be so kind as to allow me a quote from her: “One of the most haunting things about the movie is that there’s a logic to the madness and to how its world works, and that’s very different from the poetic logic you find in Bergman or Tarkovsky.”
Now further down the road in his career, Kaufman’s psychic geometry has shifted into murkier equations. The Mother names it when she references the Young Woman’s career in “quantum psychics”. The brain is no longer mapped in this film. That portal in the office floor, that tumbling slide that only led back into one’s self, even that cannot be assured. When you pop out on the other side, you might no longer be yourself at all.
This is Lynchian strange we’re dealing with now, a psychic dread that descends upon the couple as they pull away from Jake’s parents and back into the storm. That framing of the road, seen spotlighted only a few meters ahead at a time by car headlights before being eaten away by the darkness, could that also be a quotation, from Lynch’s identity bending Lost Highway?
Camera work is a language in itself, written here by holy man DP Łukasz Żal, and phrases can be reframed and repeated like any self-respecting meme. It doesn’t really matter if it’s conscious or not. As Jake and the Young Woman surprisingly discuss on their late night return, Guy Debord’s 1960s' cultural screed Society of the Spectacle pretty much forsook us all to self-aware lives of replication, dominated by spectacular displays of reality that really offer nothing of the sort. Doomed, as Jake soliloquizes, because we are infected by a virus that traps us inside our heads. Or is that just the excuse of those who allow themselves to be consumed? Who may, in fact, desire such entrapment?
When Jake slides closer to vulnerability and a responsibility for one’s own thoughts, the Young Woman takes her chance. She begins to vocalize that mantra on repeat, her narration, her desire to bring this dynamic to a close…
But the ego responds in kind, pulling off the road to stop for ice cream in midst of apocalypse. A sugar rush of impulse closes the gates, and the Young Woman’s voice must again be replaced by the quotations and filing systems of this unseen, Greater Mind: a rant by Pauline Kael, a bemused acknowledgement of Jake’s David Foster Wallace reference, and inevitable acceptance of one more pit stop on this never-ending journey home. Onward toward the high school, that Hughesian magnet of youthful glory and resentment alike. This is fully a horror story now, without physical threat, just existential inevitability.
Awareness, though, is a hard thing to tamp down. The unconscious rises up, represented by spitefully blonde faces who once sneered at us, by outcast loners who shared that same skin blemish of shame, by glitches in the matrix that replace the Young Woman so adored with the actress an old janitor watched one afternoon, eating lunch alone in some digestive-organ pocket of high school silence, in a film apparently made by Robert Zemeckis.
As this film moves into its final movement, it comes across a concept often exploited in the treacle of Zemeckian Hollywood: the hugging of one’s inner self. But no! One cannot confront the complexities of the mind and identity through some mush-mouthed monologue out of Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind or a sentimental song from Rodgers and Hammerstein!
Or maybe one can.
Those who hope to be original are just as doomed of the opposite as anyone less consciously engaged in the act of creation. The film critic protagonist of Kaufman’s recently released novel Antkind is also obsessed with perspective, an untalented hack so desperate for his own originality that he is continually confronted with more and more evidence that everything he creates is nothing but reproduction. Some thematic similarities between Antkind and this story are so striking that one wonders if Kaufman realized this too, that in the course of composing his 700-page epic he was horrified to discover another novel thinking up his same alley alley. So he optioned it, developed it, and made it his own, a frenzied gesture that he understood this connection and hopefully transcended it.
Whatever the case, Kaufman also decided to take the blood-splattered, metaphorical climax of Reid’s book and toss another metaphor or two in there to top it off. After the Young Woman loses Jake and finds the old janitor in his stead, she is finally able to speak her own truth. What is she but the fantasized recollection of a man who once saw her in a bar? She was with her girlfriend, no, it was her boyfriend, Jake was just a creep, no, not even that - a non-entity like those she passes on the street everyday. Whatever she was to someone else, whenever she was, she was absorbed without permission. Aren’t we all?
Instead of murder in a janitorial closet, Kaufman turns this final reckoning between the components of a person’s mind into dance straight out Jake’s beloved Oklahoma! and then into a sequence that extensively quotes A Beautiful Mind (not just dialogue, but camera framing too). This alternative fantasy, like a demented Oscar ceremony crossed with a high school play, is set into motion when that old janitor, seemingly the Greater Mind that presides over all of our characters, falls unconscious in his truck outside in the snow. The pretense is gone. Only pure fantasia remains. If this mind is dying, it becomes a series of dissolving quotations that are somehow still laced with profound attachment. Deeply incorporated patterns of meaning, that’s all a self really is. One question to answer.
Can we be forgiven our flights beyond ourselves, instead of being shot down in the snow?
Haven’t we all considered another story? Another road. Another self. And doesn’t that bring something to mind…a poem, perhaps, lost and reshuffled into our head-decks from early English, by that blockbuster Laureate success who may himself have the sickly sweet fragrance of Zemeckis about him? Whose poem, peaceful and sentimental on the surface like a lingual Christmas card image, might just disguise darker psychological depths? They don’t call it English 101 for nothing. Prepare to meet your makers, children. Sixth grade or not, death comes for us all.
And after all this, is my making that connection between two quotations an original act? Meaningful in any way? Worth the time it takes to link such ideas in chain? Worth the time to read? For all but the last point I can say with some certainty, sure, why not? One question to answer. They are only words in the mind, water vapor in cold morning air. I sometimes like to watch them dissolve.
Let go of your fantasies, but forgive yourself for them too. Keep wheeling it down those roads or be subsumed by the quantum blizzard of other lives. At that crossroads, we are all the same.
Jack Bentele is the film and TV columnist at Kingdom of Pavement. For more about Jack and our team, visit our About page.
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