Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter
Last week I went on an accidental Charlie Kaufman binge. Accidental because it wasn’t until watching Synecdoche, New York and Being John Malkovich back to back that I realized they were directed by the same person. At that point I was on a roll so I went ahead and continued with Kaufman’s newest film, an adaptation of the novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I wouldn’t recommend a binge like this, partially because all that melancholy building up in your system can’t be good for you, and partially because you start to notice patterns – and not always good ones.
I do like to watch movies and even the occasional “film” but I don’t think I really know enough about film history and culture to be a “film person.” I did consult a film studies grad I matched with on Tinder for this, so hopefully there’s some weight behind what I have to say here. Not being a “film person” means I don’t know many people who write and direct the kind of films I like, which are surreal, beautiful, cryptic things. This leads me to dig deeper and deeper into the directors and writers I do know which are pretty much all white straight men. This is fine if I don’t think about it but the more I watch the more I t h i n k about it.
Which is where I ended up after watching all these Kaufman movies. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that pretty much every one of his films has some version of a manic pixie dream girl who is fun and quirky and more or less in love with the sad-sack depressed artist protagonist. And weirder than that, most of them tend to have reddish curly hair.
Clockwise from the top left we have Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich, Jessie Buckley in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Samantha Morton in Synecdoche, New York. I like Kaufman’s style a lot. He blends the surreal with the mundane to great effect and his honest and heart wrenching portrayal of depression, anxiety, and human emotion is moving, but the semi-autobiographical-working-through-your-heartbreak-by-writing-a-film thing has its drawbacks. Kaufman’s women characters seem to have this therapeutic cast to them: they have their own nuances and character developments but ultimately the are The Woman That Doesn’t Understand and The Woman Who Leaves. Kaufman also often writes The Unfeeling Woman, played by Katherine Keener in Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York (Keener’s character in the second film is tellingly named Adele Lack), and by Meryl Streep in Adaptation. This is a woman who despite being completely justified in wanting to live her own life, is branded permanently by the sin of turning away from the protagonist’s affection.
David Lynch, whom I also love, is his own can of worms. Lynch has his own symbolic language which is loads of fun to unravel, but the way he incorporates women into it raises more eyebrows than I currently have on my body. Specifically, David Lynch likes to show binary opposition (not very queer of you David) by casting a dark haired actress as a foil against the primary blonde actress.
Here we have, from top to bottom Lara Flynn Boyle and Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee playing both Laura Palmer and her cousin Maddy also in Twin Peaks, Judith Anna Roberts and Charlotte Stewart in Eraserhead, Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mullholland Drive, and Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern in Blue Velvet. Like, I get it, it’s all cryptic and symbolic – there are points where a dark haired character will put on a blonde wig and vice versa but it’s also pretty fetishistic. Like in most cases both foil characters are in love with the same man, usually the protagonist, and the dark haired character usually has an air of erotic foreign-ness and is ALWAYS subservient to their blonde counterpart which, if the racism bells in your head weren’t already going off that should ring them.
I could read any number of sexual fantasies and Freudian bullshit into these choices from Lynch and Kaufman, but I think it ultimately boils down the fact that these are two heterosexual men putting every single artistic brain cell together to figure out what women are. I imagine them at their typewriters being like “do women with different hair colors have different personalities?” “Are women that aren’t attracted to me inherently evil?” “Can a woman be anything but white?” Seriously it’s time for the Cast A Black Person Challenge boys. Even the lesbian plotlines in Mullholland Drive and Being John Malkovich are shot for the pleasure of the male viewer, the latter being literally watched from the sadboi protagonist’s viewpoint while he is trapped behind the eyes of a young girl like some kind of torture porn. For me, it’s all just a couple shades away from “And then she breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downwards.”
This brings me back to my central issue: I don’t really know many directors, and in an industry that continues to be dominated by white dudes I’m not sure what to do about it. So if you find yourself in the same boat, here are some films and other things I’ve found by folks who aren’t men:
- Natasha Lyonne is just so fucking amazing. She has this short film Cabiria, Charity, Chastity I watch all the time. It stars Maya Rudolph speaking made up Italian and scratches my every itch. I guess it’s better when you get all the film references she’s making but I still love it as an ignorant plebian. Also Russian Doll SLAPS if you haven’t already watched it.
- Janelle Monáe has been here writing “emotion pictures” for our eyeballs for a full decade. Dirty Computer still rocks my world a year and a half later.
- Solange Knowles, who is excellent at literally everything she does, put the director’s cut of When I Get Home on YouTube and it makes me want to move to Texas which is not something I would say without a really good reason.
- The Wachowski’s have been making the queerest existential sci-fi your brain can even handle, Sense8and Cloud Atlas are sexy and humanist and inspiring. People also have been re-watching The Matrixas a trans allegory, and though I haven’t personally done that it sounds like a worthy pursuit.
- I’ve mentioned her here before but I love Niki Lindroth von Bahr. You can watch her short film Bath House for free.
- Rebecca Sugar is an icon and you should just watch Steven Universe without asking any questions okay?
Happy watching! Here’s a pic of David Lynch with Bonnie Aarons on the set of Mullholland Drive that always warms my heart: