Last Friday, my friends and I got together for our fourth Cage Rager, a celebration of the life and work of Nicolas Cage centered around a night of movies and ‘za (pizza). This particular night, we viewed Trespass (2011) and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call (2009), both of which proved to be quality Cage experiences.
For me, the Cage Ragin’ was continued today when I watched Adaptation, a film written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (and apparently by his fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman) about a fictional version of himself (portrayed by Nicolas Cage). If you’ve never seen a movie written by Charlie Kaufman, you’re really missing out on some imaginative writing, the quality of which is matched only by the level of its own absurdity. Also, if you’re a Cage Hater, you’re really missing out on some great acting, the quality of which is matched only by the level of its own absurdity.
The film had me from the very beginning. At some point in the movie, a screenwriter of repute tells a crowd of eager students (a reluctant fictional Kaufman among them), to never use voiceover, that it is a cheap and easy way to tell the audience what your characters are thinking. I don’t necessarily agree with this notion: this assumes that your characters have a clear understanding of themselves and their own thoughts, that there can be no subtext behind one’s own thoughts. Charlie Kaufman proves, through the fictional portrayal of himself, that this needn’t be the case, that a person can be confused and frustrated at his own thoughts, and that even when we know what someone is thinking, there is always something going on in the background of one’s mind.
Recently I’ve been doing my own research into writing fiction (which you can see from my post of Andrew Stanton’s TED talk). I think that gaining the ability to tell a story will help me get in touch not only with my ability to write, but with my ability to create as well. This film provided me with some insights into the world of storytelling and writing that I found quite interesting.
Finding Ourselves in the Things We Make
Fictional Charlie Kaufman is trying to write something normal, something that departs from the usual absurdity of his other works. To this end, he takes up the project of adapting a book into a movie. This particular book, an actual, extant book, is about flowers. Much of the first half of the film deals with Kaufman’s inability to adapt a book that is just about flowers into a movie, at least without resorting to artificiality and contrived, Hollywood plot lines; when asked about what it is that he’s writing about, he merely responds, “It’s about flowers.”
But a theme that I picked up on, or perhaps bullshitted, was the notion that the things that we create, from the most mundane to the most exciting, become more than just those things. Whenever we do anything, the world is infused with a little bit of ourselves, adding character and meaning to a world that has no character or meaning on its own. Both Susan Orlean and Charlie Kaufman were writing about flowers. But by the end of their work, they had realized that they weren’t just writing about flowers: they were writing about themselves, about people, about the human condition itself. We are the flowers.
What I in turn realized was this: it’s never just about flowers. It’s never just about what we see or hear or feel or think: there is always something beneath the surface of our experiences, the true subject of our curiosity and wonder lying just below. That something is ourselves, the thing that gives weight to all the things we see and hear and feel and think, to existence itself. A good story is as much about ourselves as it is about the characters or plot.
How to End
Stories usually follow characters through a particular adventure which has a clear beginning and ending. But what happens after the ending, after the characters walk off into the distance, hopefully having changed in some significant way over the course of the story? Presumably they don’t just die or disappear, and that things, mundane or extraordinary continue to happen to them. It doesn’t seem right to take characters, developed throughout the story in the hearts of the members of the audience, and have their stories end with a cut to black and a credit roll. But then how does one ever end? The trick, I realized, is to not end at all.
Telling a good story is telling a story with no end: you simply stop telling the audience what has happened. A good ending is not an end in and of itself, but the beginning of a story that is left to the audience to imagine. Life doesn’t just stop after particularly climactic events: it continues on and on. Even after death, the story of the world plays on, the cogs ever-a-turning. We are all looking to the future, and if we have any love for the characters of a story, we are looking to theirs as well. There will always be a story after the one you have just told. A good ending ensures that such a story exists.