Self-absorbed film critic B. Rosenberger Rosenberg stumbles on what may be the greatest cinematic acheivement of all time in the apartment of an eldery African American gentleman. But the work goes up in smoke before he can show it to the world, leavig him trying to reconstruct the three-month long masterpiece from memory.
In his debut novel, writer and director Charlie Kaufman never strays far from the medium in which he made his name, exploring the roles of film creator and observer in great detail. With a heavy focus on stop-motion animation, it’s likely that it was gestating in Kaufman’s mind while he worked on his superb Anomalisa.
I began reading this wondering why Kaufman hadn’t made it as a film, but as sub-plots become layered on sub-plots, and distinctions between dream, memory and fantasy are blurred, I reached the conclusion that it may be impossible to film, certainly in all its detail. The medium also allows us to get in its main character’s head to an even greater extent than Being John Malkovich.
Like Synecdoche, New York this mammoth story morphs from dry real-world humour to something bordering on a fantasy epic as Kaufman takes us further from the real world and deep into Rosenberg’s psyche. It’s his funniest work to date with hilariously dry lines througout. But it also shifts in mood to the almost bleak, as Kaufman seems to enjoy afflicting his main character with humiliation on humilitation.
It wouldn’t be Kaufman without a sizable dollop of self-reference – his pretencious and conceited film critic hates Kaufman’s work, but is effusive in his praise for obscure experimental films, and, bizarrely, the oeuvre of Judd Apatow. Yet in spite of this it doesn’t feel like he’s settling scores with real-world critics (indeed, with his well-received oeuvre there are few scores to settle), rather uses the character to explore philosophy of film, comedy and of life itself.
There’s a sense that B.’s hatred of Kaufman is there to draw a distinction between their views, a kind of disclaimer to avoid other film makers thinking Kaufman hates them, or Judd Apataow thinking he likes him. And there’s also a lot of Kaufman in B., at least what we assume to be Kaufman from his previous film. Neurotic and pensive, Rosenberg waxes philosophical about everything from insects on his windshield to falling into manholes.
The relentless torrent of unpredictability may grow wearing for some, and at over 700 pages it could afford to be shortened without losing much impact. But by constatnly reinventing itself, maintaining its hilarity even as it slides into darkness and packing in ideas on top of ideas, it draws you in and holds you like the three month long film at its core. In spite of the range of events that happen, it never feels incoherent, and represents a highly ambitious and original debut from Kaufman – hopefully the first of many.