Concerning ‘Formalism’, ‘Cognitivism’ And Charlie Kaufman

In this paper, I will apply the film theoretical perspective’s of ‘formalism’ and ‘cognitivism’ in examining the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman. I will assert that the content of these particular perspectives are methodologically useful when approaching Kaufman’s films, and that, consequently, by regarding these theoretical perspectives, one will be better equipped to understand Kaufman’s material. I will maintain a phenomenological approach throughout the paper, focusing specifically on how film is experienced, rather than what film supposedly is or is supposed to do.

I will begin with an overview of film theory, followed by a description of how film theory progressed from the once ‘classical’ period to the modern ‘post-structural’ period. Subsequently, I will provide descriptions of ‘formalism’ and ‘cognitivism’, the two concentric film theoretical perspectives of this paper. I will then divert my attention towards the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman; first, by describing the man and explaining how his films are connected, and, secondly, by examining the salient topics within the films. After that, I will compare the philosophical notions of Kaufman and his films with the philosophical notions of ‘formalism’ and ‘cognitivism’.

From the beginnings of film theory in the 1920s, and throughout the classical period ending in the early 1970s, theorists have debated about what film is, what it can be used for, and why it is valued. Because of the many various perspectives, film theory must, of principle, be descriptive; film theorists, therefore, may only describe what film can do, and cannot suggest what film ought to do. In this way, film theorists have ventured to describe film from their particular viewpoint while defending and advocating the importance of that view. As a result, film theory has not progressed linearly; instead, film theory has developed concurrently through constant negotiation, revision, and cultural and historical implication (different film theories have been prominent in different places at different times).

In the beginnings of film theory, the perspective of ‘realism’, a theory which claimed that film was merely representation, and that it served only by imitating nature, dominated. Later, particularly in the 1930s with Soviet cinema, theorists became aware of film’s capacity for more than mere reproduction of reality; they realized that film could, and usually does, alter reality and give a different impression than nature, and, therefore, it could create experiences that nature could not. From this realization emerged a variety of theories about essence and form. Through application of these fundamental notions of realism, essence, and form, a multitude of structural theoretical perspectives, such the auteur and semiotic theories, developed over the following forty or so years.

Around the late 1960s, the American counter-culture produced a variety of films and film theoretical perspectives which questioned the traditional, structured formula of the classical film period. Many of these films were consciously anti-structural and almost all of them asserted that films could have multiple different interpretations. Rather than limiting the viewer to the story, post-structural films function to alienate the viewer and antagonize the previous limitations of the structured film. Among the various of ‘post-structural’ film theories include those of cultural studies, reception studies, perception studies, postmodern studies, feminism, and queering.

One particular post-structural theory is about post-structuralism itself. It asserts that post-structuralism develops in three successive phases. The first phase is the simple psychoanalytic phase that suggests that post-structuralism begins with the identification of the ‘self’. It is a physically self-reflective phase that focuses on self-image and personal identity. The next phase is the complex psychoanalytic phase where physical self-identity transforms into mental or spiritual self-identity. It is a self-reflective phase focusing on the mind, soul, or human condition. The third and final phase is of ‘deconstruction, synecdoche, and excess’. This phase suggests that reflection and awareness of reflection persists perennially, without ever reaching satisfaction, or a particular, focused end. This theory complements the formalist and cognitivist theories which I will relate to Charlie Kaufman’s films- all of which are undoubtedly ‘post-structural’.

‘Formalism’ emerged in the late 1920s and early 1930s with Soviet cinema. Theories of form suggested that film does more than merely reproduce reality. Emerging formalists, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Epstein, claimed that film could create experiences and give impressions that reality and nature simply could not. In Film And Theory: An Introduction, Robert Stam states that “for Epstein, the cinema is ‘essentially supernatural. Everything is transformed’ (quoted in Abel, 1988, p. 246)” (P. 35). Theorists realized that film need not necessarily imitate reality, tell a story, or represent particular things; in effect, films could be entirely formal. As a result, various kinds of abstract formalist cinema, such as the avant-garde, montage, and pure cinema were developed. In some ways, film became realized as a means of defamiliarization- a way of taking the audience beyond reality.

One major contributor to the advancement of  ‘formalism’ was Rudolf Arnheim who asserted, in the early 1930s, that “vision in general, and film viewing in particular is primarily a mental phenomenon” (Stam,  P. 60). As a psychologist, he realized that, since film is apprehended by the senses, understanding perception is key to film theory. His research based in gestalt psychology led him to believe that viewing film is a mental experience where what is on the screen and what is perceived by the senses search for a common structure.

Another major contributor to the advancement of ‘formalism’ was Jean Mitry, the phenomenologist who wrote The Aesthetics & Psychology Of The Cinema in 1965. In the preface of Aesthetics & The Psychology Of The Cinema, Brian Lewis describes Jean Mitry as being “driven by the ‘Wow’ experience” (Mitry, P. VII). Mitry wondered how film could generate such wonderful experiences. He considered that film has the capacity for encapsulating and transcendent experience, perhaps even mystical experience. In the vein of Noel Carroll, Mitry believed that this aesthetic experience of film had primarily to do with one’s attention to the formal (perceptible) qualities of film.

‘Cognitivism’ is a branch of an ultimate film theoretical perspective known as ‘perception studies’. The philosophical notions of ‘cognitivism’ bear striking resemblance to formalist theories, especially that of the aforementioned Rudolf Arnheim and Jean Mitry (both of whom wrote extensively on perception). Moreover, the cognitivist perspective is compatible with the formalist perspective in considering film to be capable of inducing a transcendental or beyond reality experience in the viewer.

Perception studies began in the 1980s with the theory of the ‘active’ spectator. It concluded that a film does not contain meaning intrinsically, and that meaning is given by the viewer. Moreover, this theory suggested that to understand film theory, theorists ought to pay attention to the spectator, and how they are experiencing the film, rather than paying attention to the film itself. This notion further suggested that perception was the key to film theory, since film is apprehended by the senses before conscious mental interpretation occurs. In his book entitled “Arts & Minds”, Gregory Currie writes that “[viewers are] rationally motivated to make sense of the [film] at each level it presents: sensory stimulus in light and sound, narrative, and higher order meanings and expressions of [semiotics]” (Ch. 8, pp155). Effectively, Currie supposes that how one’s cognitive faculties are functioning, and how one perceptively experiences a film significantly affects how they appreciate, understand, or make sense of it.

The major cognitivist theory applicable for an examination of Charlie Kaufman’s films is that of Slavoj Zizek, who I will later compare with Charlie Kaufman himself. Zizek suggested that the core meaning of a film is impossible to uncover. He claimed that the essence of a film is to allude you, and that the conscious act of trying to find the essence of a film is exactly what keeps you from being able to find it. He suggests this is because film necessarily moves you away from the essence of truth by keeping you constantly thinking and reflecting. Effectively, for Zizek, a film causes one to repeat a process similar to that of ‘self-reflection, deconstruction, synecdoche, and excess’ ad. Infinitum; one can never arrive at a conclusion.

Charlie Kaufman’s films are exceptionally similar. They all concern with a specific type of protagonist, a stand in for himself- an introverted, cerebral, and overly- conscious neurotic. Each of his following films contain this sort of Kaufmanesque protagonist: Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004), and Synecdoche, New York (2008). In each of these films, both the protagonist and the film itself are highly reflective. Moreover, while the protagonists of Kaufman’s films are always anxiously searching for something sublime and revelatory, in none of these films does the protagonist find what they are searching for or realize any exact conclusions; they always concede to the limitations of their own consciousness.

The films in particular which I will focus on are Adaptation, Synecdoche, New York, and Being John Malkovich.

In Adaptation, the Kaufman protagonist (of the same namesake) is a screenwriter struggling to adapt a book into a film. Self-reflectively, he writes himself into the screenplay, making the screenplay about himself struggling to adapt a book. His self-reflexivity persists ad. Infinitum, as there is no end to the amount of times he can write himself into the screenplay. Effectively, Charlie’s screenplay becomes a synecdochal screenplay about himself struggling to adapt a book into a film and writing himself into the screenplay about himself struggling to adapt a book into a film and writing himself into the screenplay about himself struggling to adapt a book into a film and writing himself into the screenplay….

In Synecdoche, New York, the Kaufman protagonist, Caden Cotard, is a theater director trying to create a masterpiece. In an attempt to create a perfectly honest piece of work, Caden makes the play about his struggle creating a masterpiece. In a similar vein to the protagonist of Adaptation, Caden’s self-reflexivity persists ad. Infinatum. Effectively, Caden’s theatrical play becomes a synecdochal theatrical play about himself struggling to create a perfectly honest play about himself struggling to create a perfectly honest play about himself struggling to create a perfectly honest play….

In Being John Malkovich, the Kaufman protagonist, Craig Schwartz, is a puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich. Because he perceives things as if he were John Malkovich, Craig effectively becomes John Malkovich for that certain amount of time that he is in the portal.

In all three films, the structure and style are exceptionally similar.
Charlie Kaufman uses the text as a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ that guides the viewer through the story. In other words, he gives the viewer the kind of experience that Craig Schwartz supposedly experiences, except instead of experiencing the mind of John Malkovich, Kaufman’s films cause the viewer to experience the mind of Charlie Kaufman. The films function as a guide through the mental goings-on of Charlie Kaufman himself, and allow him to literally show the viewer what it feels like to think the way he does. By doing this, Kaufman’s films facilitate the viewer’s mind for a self-reflective search for ultimate truths about the human condition, and consciousness itself.

None of Charlie Kaufman’s films adhere to any structural interpretation of film. Each of them are highly reflective, alienate the viewer, and demand a variety of interpretations. It is of my highest opinion that no two people will ever interpret a Charlie Kaufman film in the exact same way.

Moreover, Kaufman’s films consciously exhibit profound absurdity and confusion. Because his films don’t tend to have precise beginnings, middles, and ends, and because they are often stories within stories within stories, Kaufman’s films create a formalist-like aesthetic experience that goes beyond the scope of reality. In effect, his films don’t merely represent reality, they expand reality and allow the viewers to experience a higher-than-normal state of perception and conscious awareness. In his article Metaphysical Escape Attempts In The Screenplays Of Charlie Kaufman, Colm O’Shea aptly describes Kaufman’s structure as a “homunculi schema” of “controllers controlling controllers ad. Infinitum”. Moreover, O’Shea suggests that this schema is a “self-consuming circle [with] no beginning or end”.

What is more, he states that Kaufman’s films depict a gestalt of the ‘self’ and ‘other’; at once, the protagonist’s attention diverts between considering themselves as agents of reflection, and as objects of reflection. In this way, his films reflect the aforementioned post-structural theory about the phases of post-structuralism. Kaufman’s films literally depict the phases of ‘self-reflection, deconstruction, synecdoche, and excess ad. Infinitum’ with their illustrations of the protagonist’s existential struggle to “escape from their claustrophobic selves” (O’Shea). In addition, his films inspire the viewer to experience this existential struggle of ‘self-reflection deconstruction, synecdoche, and excess ad. Infinitum” themselves.

Moreover, while neurotically experiencing this existential struggle, the viewer realizes, just as the protagonists all realized, that there is nothing to be found, and that nothing sublime, revelatory, or exactly conclusive can ever be attained; at best, one may merely experience a moment of realization which can be ascertained as both the beginning and the end of a cycle of conscious reflection.

For these reasons, I believe Charlie Kaufman’s view about consciousness and perceptual awareness is remarkably similar to that of the ‘cognitivist’ film theories Slovaj Zizek. Not only are they both painfully introverted, cerebral, and neurotic, they both assert that the human condition and limits of human consciousness prevent the possibility of discovering the ideological point of sublime, one-pointed, truthfulness. For Kaufman, and likely for Zizek as well, “perception is reality, and also your prison” (Kaufman).

In conclusion, since the philosophical notions expressed in Charlie Kaufman’s films greatly resemble some of the philosophical notions found in ‘formalism’ and ‘cognitivism’, I believe that the content of these film theoretical perspectives are methodologically useful when approaching them; moreover, it is of my considered opinion that, by regarding these theoretical perspectives, one will be better equipped to understand Kaufman’s material.

Works Cited

Being John Malkovich. Dir. Spike Jonze. Writ. Charlie Kaufman. Perfs. John Cusack,    Cameron Diaz. Film. USA Films & Universal Pictures. 1999.

Adaptation. Dir. Spike Jonze. Writ. Charlie Kaufman. Perfs. Nicholas Cage, Meryl    Streep. Film. Columbia Pictures. 2002.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Writ. Charlie Kaufman.    Film. Perfs. Jim Carey, Kate Winslet. 2004

Synecdoche, New York. Dir. & Writ. Charlie Kaufman. Perfs. Philip Seymour Hoffman,    Catherine Keener. Film. Sony Pictures Classic. 2008.

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Book. United Kingdom: Blackwell    Publishing, 2000.

Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetic And Psychology Of The Cinema. Trans. Christopher King.    Book. USA: Indiana University Press, 1977.

Currie, Gregory. Arts And Minds (Chapter 8: Cognitive Film Theory). Book. University    Of Nottingham Print 2004. Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2005.

O’Shea, Cold. “Out Of His Head: Metaphysical Escape Attempts In The Screenplays Of    Charlie Kaufman” Article. Bright Lights Film Journal. Issue 63. February 2009.


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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