How to Be Someone Else: Transgender Themes in the Work of Charlie Kaufman

[This essay discusses the endings of several Charlie Kaufman films, including the new “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”]

Twenty years ago, Charlie Kaufman began his screenwriting career with Being John Malkovich, the story of lonely puppeteer Craig Schwartz and his discovery of a portal that transports anyone who enters it into the body of actor John Malkovich. One of the chief joys of the film is in its many unexpected turns, one of most delightful being when, shortly after Craig’s initial discovery, his wife Lotte decides to go through the portal out of curiosity– only to enjoy the experience so much that she comes out of it telling Craig that she wants to become a trans man.

For many audiences, Lotte’s sudden declaration may distract from the fact that her desire to experience life as the other gender is shared by Craig. This is something that Craig only expresses in his private fantasies, enacted through his puppets; it is revealed to the audience that his obsessive attraction to his disinterested coworker Maxine really stems from his deeper desire to be Maxine. Once the viewer understands this, his troubled relationship with Maxine makes more sense; the tragedy, for Craig, is that the portal leads into a male body as opposed to that of, say, Maxine. Thus the tension we see between Craig and Lotte over the second half of the film is fueled not merely by his envy towards her blossoming relationship with Maxine, but also his jealousy that the portal is allowing her to experience a gender fulfillment it will not allow him. Gender insecurity in Being John Malkovich is not confined to Lotte’s arc; rather, it permeates every crevice of the film.

I discovered Being John Malkovich at a time when I had not yet come to terms with my identity as a trans woman; nonetheless, the film left a strong impression as one of the first films I’d seen that addressed the concept of gender discomfort so directly. I began to search for similar themes in the rest of Kaufman’s body of work, and was intrigued to find that it is a subject he willingly returns to time and time again. The freedom Caden Cotard experiences when he adopts the role of the maid towards the end of Synecdoche N.Y. recontextualizes the film as Cotard’s struggle with the immense burden of his own male ego. In the unfairly neglected Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the male protagonist grapples with the suggestion that his mental instability is due to his mother forcing him to dress as a girl in childhood.

But of Kaufman’s early works, the film which gives us the most to work with in terms of trans symbolism is Human Naturehis least discussed effort. Its low standing in the Kaufman canon is somewhat understandable: following the success of Being John Malkovich, producers felt more comfortable giving Kaufman more free rein, resulting in a movie which feels as if it was directly filmed from the original draft. Thus there’s a chaotic quality to it that his more polished projects lack, which allows us an unfiltered window into Kaufman’s mind. The unrefined approach lends Human Nature a somewhat abrasive quality, chiefly due to the film’s willfully sophomoric handling of large existential questions combined with its emphasis on the grotesque. Patricia Arquette plays Lila, a woman with a rare genetic condition which causes her to grow hair all over her body. In a flashback, we see her at age 13, looking down at her hairy chest and breaking out into tears. This could not be a more obvious allegory for how a trans woman feels reaching that age and confronting the male body she is trapped in, and the trans coding of Lila is only enhanced by the many scenes in which she is shown shaving in secret, or wearing a wig and makeup to become (in her own words) a “real girl” for her boyfriend.

Lila is caught in conflict: social conditioning causes her to hate her body, nature beckons her to embrace her primal ancestry (primates are a recurring visual motif for Kaufman). This conflict is aggravated by her relationship with Dr. Bronfman (Tim Robbins), who may as well be a human embodiment of the forces of social conditioning. Kaufman’s main symbol for these forces in the film is table manners, a preoccupation of Dr. Bronfman’s due to the absurd degree of importance his parents placed on them in his childhood, though he repeatedly denies their level of influence over him. In Kaufman’s eyes, perhaps we are all Bronfman, continually refusing to accept how molded we are by our surroundings. 

I emphasize the theme of conditioning here because of its centrality to the trans experience. Accepting your true identity as a trans person means grappling with the identity you must leave behind, an identity constructed around a role mistakenly assigned to you (though such descriptions of the trans experience, which is itself infinitely varied, should be seen as mere generalizations for illustrative purposes). Human Nature opens with Lila calling her body a prison – familiar terminology for trans individuals. For Kaufman, though, it is not just the prison of the body that must be escaped, but the prison of the ego. This is not only about the trans woman escaping the male ego, but also the larger existential problem of solipsism; we are trapped by the limitations of subjectivity. This cosmic loneliness reappears time and time again, in Adaptation, Synecdoche N.Y., and Anomalisa. We need not ask ourselves whether Kaufman’s concerns are purely existential or merely about gender, because it is both. Self-examination in terms of gender forces self-examination in existential terms, just as Kaufman’s presentation of the self as a prison carries far more emotional weight for a trans audience.

But regardless of the extent to which Kaufman’s existential quandaries are bound up with his characters’ gender discomfort, he never goes so far as to allow them to transition. Being John Malkovich punishes Craig for his cross-gender desires by giving him what he wants in the most nightmarish way possible: thrusting him into a female body he is unable to control. Lotte is not a trans man, just a confused lesbian. In Human Nature, Lila resigns herself to imprisonment. These early works seem skeptical that the escape from the self these characters crave is possible; they seem to be in denial that transition is an acceptable solution. Twenty years later, I’m Thinking of Ending Things deals with the consequences of that denial.

Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

Without an understanding of Kaufman’s relationship with these themes, his latest film may seem relatively opaque, especially considering the many layers of ambiguity he uses to soften the tragic revelation contained within its finale. The surface narrative concerns a young woman, Lucy, joining her boyfriend Jake for dinner with his parents at their farmhouse. Things become more surreal as they progress, hinting that most of what we see is within the protagonist’s mind. The events of Lucy’s evening are interspersed with brief cutaways to an aging high school janitor, perhaps the reality in contrast to the rest of the film’s dream; in the end the dream descends into chaos, and disintegrates as the janitor dies. If this plot structure sounds familiar, it is because it is one of many films that can be viewed most clearly as a “death-dream”, a journey undertaken by the dying soul of the protagonist as they wander through a subconscious landscape formed from their most significant desires, fears and memories.

Kaufman gives us many reasons to believe that the janitor is Jake, making Lucy’s evening an aging Jake’s dream of his younger self bringing home a girl to his now-deceased parents. Why, then, is the evening from Lucy’s perspective and not his? Perhaps the entire meaning of the film hinges on this choice in presentation. Lucy’s narration suggests that a primary reason for her visit was a desire for approval, and this is a significant clue. As in Being John Malkovich, the romantic attraction to the woman is once more a mask for a desire to be the woman: Lucy is Jake’s inner female self, whom he never could be in life. Jake’s fantasy of bringing her home to his parents provides him with a safe and familiar social situation in which he can present to his parents the woman he desires to be, so she can gain their approval. The title I’m Thinking of Ending Things can refer to both suicide and a breakup; for Lucy, it is both. Jake never allowed himself to be Lucy, and so for Lucy, Jake and his life are a prison to be escaped. Since Lucy could not be free in life, she now anticipates freedom in death. The film’s core fantasy is one in which this violent separation from Jake’s life is softened into a more palatable metaphor, a romantic breakup.

The tragedy of Lucy’s resignation to life as Jake brings us back to Kaufman’s preoccupation with conditioning: the person Lucy resigns herself to be is merely the product of social conditioning she received from her parents. Even the resignation itself is a product of the same desire for approval which motivates not only Lucy’s fantasy of her evening at the farm, but also her fantasy of a ceremony where she (as Jake) receives an award for sacrificing everything to maintain the illusion of Jake for the sake of her parents and community. This is one of the film’s most poignant observations: staying in the closet truly is sacrificing everything. We see Lucy’s self-sacrifice reflected in a lifetime of decisions which continue that self-effacement. Since going out and living life means living life as a person she does not enjoy being, she shrinks into a life of the relative invisibility afforded by minimal activity. As Jake’s continued existence is founded on continually ignoring Lucy’s needs, she distracts herself from her inner life by attending to the needs of those she seeks approval from: her parents. She never develops a life of her own, instead remaining in the farmhouse to watch them grow old and die. The custodial job becomes the ultimate embodiment of embracing minimal activity, service of others, and social invisibility, and even the environment of the high school serves to mirror her stagnated personal development.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, viewed as a cautionary tale of trans regret, is an emotionally devastating experience– but it must take an axe to the face of the audience in order to communicate the seriousness of its tragedy. A large part of its devastation comes from Kaufman’s subtle suggestion that Lucy could not have chosen otherwise. A view of the self as the product of conditioning allows Kaufman to expand his usual theme of the inescapability of the self into the inescapability of one’s circumstances. We do not move through time, as Lucy says; rather, we are stationary and time moves through us. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a meditation on regret, a fantasy of a path in life not taken which is itself a haunting reminder of its impossibility. Once more, the trans themes and the existential themes converge, though we have only begun to unravel the questions this new Kaufman masterpiece asks in both areas.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “Being John Malkovich” are now streaming on Netflix.

Julia Rhodes is a video essayist and fledgling film critic from Long Island, NY. Her other work includes writing for Vague Visages and operating her YouTube channel Essential Films.

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