Through a Movie Screen Darkly

Charlie Kaufman fights self-reference with paradox in an effort to escape his own screenplay.

Matthew Kirby

Let’s start with the obvious. On the surface, Adaptation appears to be an airtight film, one that criticizes itself for every plot device, every convenient alligator, every self-obsessed detail and every aggravating twin. It is like Ouroboros, the old Gnostic symbol of the serpent devouring its own tail—perpetual motion, life through self-consumption. To draw the circle tighter, the symbol of the self-devouring serpent is itself included in the film.

All of this is well understood, already the subject of reviews and meta-reviews (like A. O. Scott’s in the New York Times, which includes the reviewer in a self-referential loop that takes its cues from the film—a smaller circle that merely mirrors the larger one). Yet the movie haunts us, literally frightens some of us, in a way that the commentary does not.

But nothing is airtight. If the universe is really a terrarium, we haven’t bumped into the glass walls yet. At least we haven’t accepted them. Neither does Charlie Kaufman or his film. Kaufman (the character) is always seeking to break the circle of self-reference that keeps him from adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief. Orlean herself is portrayed as undertaking the search for the other—that grounded object or person that she might love without concern for reciprocity. She thinks she has found it in Laroche, a man so emboldened by his own desire for an elusive plant that he seems to need no human companionship, no love. In this sense, Adaptation is a paean to the transcendent. Yet the weight of the characters’ expectations, which fall on one another like dominoes, eventually rests on the petals of a delicate flower: something that does not labor or spin, but only grows.

The fact that Charlie Kaufman (the character) cannot figure out how to weave biological facts about the ghost orchid into his screenplay is important. For him, the flower is a stumbling block. Its ease, delicacy, and dependence on the whim of nature represent all that he himself is not—and all that he is not achieving in his screenplay.

For Susan Orlean (the character), the flower is literally and figuratively a drug. She desires desire itself. In a world of convenience and leisure, can one want something so thoroughly as to make oneself vulnerable to it? This is a major modern conundrum. But the addict will give you a quick answer.

For Laroche, the orchid thief, the ghost orchid turns out to be one in a series of obsessions. Laroche is like many of us, immersing himself in one set of material datum after another as a way of coping with the pain of life. Perhaps his is the most American stance on desire: to sublimate it to a ceaseless poring over new technology, new hobbies, new collections. He was at the wheel during a crash in which his wife went into a coma and his mother died. Since then, one obsession has followed the other—each one a miniature universe that protects him from the agony of the world at large.

What about the ghost orchid itself? The symbolic value of flowers is double-edged. Flowers are beautiful, rare, elusive—the embodiment of desire. In short, they are precisely what the modern person wants and expends a great deal of effort, money, and hours in the gym to become. Flowers mock us because they simply and brainlessly grow, whereas we toil under fluorescent lights and bitch and moan.

On the other hand, flowers are the symbols of destruction. Everyone knows that the flower of youth implies the inevitable degradation of old age. Flowers are defenseless against the mower blade, the tramp of the boot, the paw of the dog. They wither in drought and burn up under the sun. Yet flowers are essentially like us. Beyond their double-edged nature, they have one overarching characteristic: reliance on that over which they have no control. (No control in the human sense of the word. Of course, plants do have one method of control, one way they avert destruction: Adaptation. By their beauty the lilies of the field attract pollinators. By an act as simple as slowly, incrementally turning towards the light, a houseplant saves itself from destruction.)

The flower is therefore an odd symbol on which to build a story about the human desire for transcendence. Humans seem to seek the other frantically, as if not really believing that it exists or not believing that we have any part in it. Rather than incline our heads toward sunlight, we would harness the power of fusion on which the sun operates. As in the myth of Prometheus, humanity advances by active theft rather than by passive reception of what is offered. Yet the promethean fire doesn’t operate the same way on earth as it does on Mount Olympus. The gods dwell in the realm of the infinite and have infinity for fuel. We dwell on earth and have only ourselves. When we control, rather than simply receive our daily portion of the divine fire, we consume ourselves. Ouroboros is not the symbol of nature or of the universe but of man.

Charlie Kaufman’s story is useful to us because it is a promethean story of going out into the world to capture transcendence. Rather than simply turning toward the light, he would run towards the light full tilt with his eyes shut tight. He wants to write a screenplay in which none of the characters resolve anything, yet he desperately desires resolution in his own life and is a character (essentially the only character) in his own screenplay. He leaves the platonic cave of Los Angeles and ventures out into a world to which he is stubbornly blind. Is this not our own conundrum? We do not see because we do not open our eyes. We do not open our eyes because we are not convinced there is anything out there to see. What hope is there for people like us and Charlie Kaufman?

Donald Kaufman and Charlie Kaufman have each written a screenplay in which every character is the author. It’s no secret that they are also characters in such a screenplay. Whether Donald’s death is literal or Charlie’s is metaphorical does not matter. It is only the death to self, the soul cradling its dying counterpart, the body, in its arms, that could end such a film or answer such a conundrum.

Just as the adaptation of a flower is the fruit of many crushed petals and snapped stems, so our growth comes out of death. The idea of a person dying and paradoxically continuing to live is as old as the world and certainly as old as Hollywood. Obiwan and Yoda in Star Wars, Tyler in Fight Club, maybe even Gandalf in The Lord of the Ring wrestled with death and came out changed. Socrates, Saint Paul, and Buddha each contemplated this mystery. Only death has the power to transcend the mirror of self-reference through which we now see darkly. Only a death to self coupled with a mysterious continuance of life can break the circle of Ouroboros, that old snake bent on suicide and permanent destruction.

posted by editor ::: February 09, 2003 ::: philms :::