What have film critics ever done to Charlie Kaufman? It’s much easier to appreciate what film critics have done for Charlie Kaufman. Why would someone drawn to meaningless but desperately narcissistic characters who strive in vain to find order in a chaotic world — self-loathing clowns who resent the success of others, reject people without risking judgment themselves, and consistently retreat to the safety of a reality-bending dream world that allows them to be audience and protagonist all at once — want to write a book about a film critic? Answering that seemingly impossible question might be the only honest way to get to the murmuring heart of Kaufman’s blisteringly satirical novel “Antkind.”
“Antkind” protagonist B. Rosenberger Rosenberg isn’t your stereotypical film critic. An outlier in his occupation (clearly!), he’s pretentious and insufferable and lacks his colleagues’ self-awareness. B. enters “Antkind” the same way he does everything else in his life: Beard first. “It lets you know I am serious,” he says in the novel’s opening paragraphs. “It affords me the opportunity to judge you on your judgment of me. Do you shun me? You are shallow. Do you mock me? You are a philistine. Are you repulsed? You are… conventional.”
Kaufman’s 720-page Globster of a novel initially feels like it’s trying to split the difference between Haruki Murakami and Hollywood Elsewhere (and later flirts with the likes of Pynchon and Borges on its way toward settling down as an adventure that can only be described as Kaufmanesque). It’s also about a film critic, and a film critic trying to review a blisteringly satirical Charlie Kaufman novel about a film critic is the kind of exercise that could be the premise of a Charlie Kaufman movie.
However, it turns out that a film critic is the ideal vehicle for the most Charlie Kaufman story ever told; like walking into a restaurant where everyone has Kaufman’s face and says Kaufman Kaufman Kaufman Kaufman until you swear you can speak their language; a book that feels like a natural outgrowth of “Synecdoche, New York” but made without time limits. Funny, unmoored, and self-indulgent in the way that all of its author’s writing has to be in order to survive the agony of its own making and push through the sheer embarrassment of trying to express anything of value in this cruel prank of a universe, “Antkind” thrills as a novel because it would be impossible to make as a film.
That B.’s beard conceals a massive port-wine stain stretching from chin to sternum is largely irrelevant, of course, though this covert detail unbalances the character’s narcissism with a desire to remain hidden from view. He’s a humanoid pane of one-way glass who demands to be noticed, but refuses to be seen. He is Kane. He is Caulfield. He is Kaufman. He is a cheap parody of my noble profession, sketched with all the integrity of a caricature that a mouth-breathing tourist might commission in Times Square.
We’re talking about someone so pompous that he considers himself an expert on every subject that crosses his mind (“At Last, I am Becoming: Gender and Transformation in American Cinema” is but one of the 75 monographs he’s written), who named his dog Au Hasard Balthazar (italics included), and so paranoid that he thinks Armond White is spying on him with an insect-sized drone, even though everyone knows that the old luddite can barely figure out how use the Netflix account he got to watch “Sandy Wexler.”
Unlike most of us who share his calling, B. only passes judgment on things in order to deflect from his own desperate need for approval, a hunger so intense that it shades even the most transactional interactions. The first person he meets in “Antkind” is a bored young Black cashier at a roadside fast food joint, and B. — desperate for her not to think of him as “some privileged asshole racist Jew northerner” — tries to break the ice by asking if she’s familiar with “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm” director William Greaves, who was Black as well. African American. Much like B.’s African American girlfriend, who is Black, and semi-famous, and whom you might recognize from a popular ’90s sitcom or the picture that B. keeps in his wallet for whenever he wants people to know about his Black African American girlfriend. (“Antkind” beats its jokes into the ground so thoroughly they eventually splinter into tunnels, but the punchline about B.’s girlfriend is worth the hard labor it takes to get there.)
B. also needs this cashier to know that, in an act of defiance against the tyranny of white male critics, he reduced his byline to a single letter so as not to wield his penis as a cudgel. B. needs her to know that he refers to everyone with the neutral pronoun “thon” in order to ensure completely equitable treatment. Most of all, he needs this woman — whose name B. obviously never bothers to learn — to know that he isn’t Jewish (a common misconception, if only because anyone who devotes their life to the Tikkun olam of film criticism is naturally assumed to be one of God’s chosen people, but infuriating to B. all the same. Not that he’s anti-Semitic, of course! He just isn’t Jewish and would sooner die than have anyone think otherwise.).
Things start looking up for B. once he arrives in the Sunshine State to research the (real) 1914 short “A Florida Enchantment,” about a woman who ingests a magic seed and transforms into a cisgender man. He rents a room and discovers that his temporary neighbor — one Ingo Cutbirth — is actually an 119-year-old Black man in white face who played an unseen extra in the very film that B. has come to research (his job was to sit beneath the camera and serve as its point-of-view).
Even more exciting is that Ingo’s on-set experience seems to have sparked a lifelong obsession with cinema, and he spent the century that followed making a film of his own: a three-month-long stop-motion opus of outsider art that digests the past, reprocesses the present, and clairvoyantly peers into what’s ahead for our species. B. is the first person to ever watch the movie in its entirety (refusing to stop even when Ingo drops dead at some point during the screening). The experience is rapturous. Transformative. The kind of culture-shaking discovery that critics can only dream of making.
“I have stumbled upon the greatest filmic masterpiece of perhaps all time,” B. tells his editor during a breathless phone call. “Include future time. I feel confident. And I didn’t just add future time to be hyperbolic. There is a reason.” His editor sighs: “Not again.”
Editorial input be damned. It is his divine purpose to present Ingo’s movie to the masses, and deliver unto them a piece of art so profound that someone might deserve a Pulitzer just for being the first person to recognize its value. Alas, the reels spontaneously combust in the back of B.’s rental truck on the drive back to New York, and the critic is almost burned to death in his futile efforts to rescue the nitrate from the flames. When B. wakes up in some flyover hospital, he discovers that he’s only managed to salvage a single frame of Ingo’s film.
B. refuses to be deterred. With the help of a Manhattan hypnotist, he will remember the rest of Ingo’s film and be able to preserve it for the good of mankind. The sessions are helpful at first, but the line between reality and fantasy starts to blur (if you can believe that!) as the movie B. saw is fed through the faulty projector of his own mind’s eye. As anyone who’s seen “Being John Malkovich” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” might predict, the steady drip of surrealism that seeps into the lower compartments of B.’s life begins to flood the hull. (Kaufman offers all-too-lengthy descriptions of Ingo’s masterpiece as it streams through B.’s degraded memory, with the giddiness of someone who knows they won’t have to show their work.)
It only spirals from there. B. becomes obsessed with a woman named Tsai, eventually taking a high-powered job at Zappos so that he might be able to intercept a pair of boots she returned and stick his face in them. He develops a raging clown fetish, ends his friendship with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, and becomes unstuck in time as he sinks into the sprocket holes of Ingo’s masterpiece: His memories of the movie become impossible to disentangle from his day-to-day existence.
Some parts of the ensuing slipstream make perfect sense (as when Donald Trunk demands that Disney make him a waxy robot clone from the leftover parts of the “It’s a Small World” display, so he can proudly watch it masturbate in the White House and know what it’s like to love someone other than himself), and others are a bit more fantastical (B. winds up in a post-apocalyptic cave full of flying Donald Trunk robots he wants to fuck, much to the concern of a hyper-intelligent ant from the future named Calcium).
At a certain point — possibly before he meets his suave and ultra-successful doppelgänger, but definitely after “Antkind” has threatened to become an unchecked monolith of self-parody — B. starts to suspect that he’s trapped in a Charlie Kaufman story. It’s not just that his life feels like “Synecdoche, New York” on steroids, or that no other writer so reliably defenestrates small, impotent men while basking in the unknowable splendor of the fairer sex. It’s also that B. plummets into an open manhole every time that he starts trashing Kaufman’s work.
That’s a feeling to which I can relate, even though I’ve never trashed Kaufman’s work. Sure, I skimmed over the unbearably tedious “Antkind” chapters devoted to an Abbott and Costello-like comedy duo named Mudd and Molloy, reflexively made Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Inception” squint in response to some of the book’s more questionable asides on gender and privilege, and threw my DVD of “Human Nature” into a landfill as a mitzvah to all of the people who made it, but I still understand B. when he says:
I have come to the conclusion that I am ridiculous. The mishaps. The open manholes. Even the fire that ruined Ingo’s film and my life. But perhaps more horrific are my thoughts. My thinking is silly. My memories are preposterous. My ideas are laughable. I am a pompous clown. I can, on occasion, become aware of this. There are moments of clarity that I find all the more humiliating because I can see myself as others likely do, but I cannot control any of it. The pathetic comical thought process continues, almost as if a script is playing out. Almost as if I myself am a puppet, defined by some external force, written to be the foil in some strange cosmic entertainment witnessed by someone somewhere.
And, as I re-typed that excerpt, I remembered that I was paying a visit to the snow-covered beach from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” when I learned that my dad had terminal cancer. What is writing if not falling into open manholes? Even the best of us plunge into the occasional sewer, and B. might say that it’s just an occupational hazard. (Perhaps you’ve read his monograph on the subject, “Iron Manhole: The Marvel-ization of Modern Spectacle and the Risk of Film Critics Trying to Cross the Rhodes.”)
One thing Kaufman understands about my profession is, to some extent, many of us think of the movies we cover as little more than glorified writing prompts. To Kaufman’s mind, that might be the only honest way to do the job. “He would prefer,” Jon Mooallem wrote in a recent New York Times profile, “if film critics prefaced their negative reviews by disclosing that they’d just had a fight with their spouse, or: ‘I don’t like this guy because I don’t like the way he looks.’ Because those things are true, he said. Our thoughts and feelings are true. They are facets of the world at whichever moment we attempt to describe it.”
I suspect Kaufman also recognizes that positive reviews pass though the same filter, and moods are hardly the only thing to affect them. Not in a “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he reviews ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’” kind of way, but even the most empathetic among us are stuck inside ourselves (a Kaufman motif that stretches from “Malkovich” to “Anomalisa”). At first, B.’s absurd practice of watching every movie he reviews seven times in seven different ways (including backward) might strike some as a churlish potshot at Roger Ebert’s four-star review of “Synecdoche, New York,” but the further you delve into “Antkind,” the clearer the punchline becomes: No matter how many ways a critic watches a film, it always fundamentally pass through the same prism.
The phenomenon applies to healthy people as well as critics. Something always transforms the art before it touches us, and Kaufman is more attuned than anyone to the egocentrism that keeps us from perfectly understanding each other. Its agonies and… well, ecstasies might be a bit strong, but let’s say its wistful fragments of grace.
And maybe that’s why Kaufman loves movies so much, and why he’s so fascinated by the weird subset of mole people who watch them for a living. From “Being John Malkovich” to “Anomalisa” and perhaps the forthcoming “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” his films tell the story of an isolated man struggling to get out of his own head and/or body, often literally. To escape the dull infinity mirror of the human mind. To open up to others and yet still remain thonselves.
Every Kaufman script is about the search for solid ground amidst a cruelly fluid existence — about the kink that develops in our necks as we rubberneck for purpose while running headlong toward the same oblivion we emerged from at the start. As Millicent Weems said in “Synecdoche,” “This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.” Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. So why do we feel so alone? How do we all see different things when we sit in the dark together and stare at the same screen, and how fucking hilarious is it that film critics (of all people!) think they’re able to solve those riddles for us?
In Kaufman’s wildly imaginative and yet hyper-literal way, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg’s fantastic journey from Ingo Cutbirth to the end of time uses that last question to answer the others. As “Antkind” suggests in both the specific and the abstract, film critics are pathetic. No more pathetic than anyone else, maybe, but uncommonly devoted to bumping our heads against the low ceiling of the human condition until we think ourselves tall. Seduced by the nubile flesh of a medium that still feels young enough to be mastered, film critics stare at images that never age and strain to create order from chaos by obsessively making lists, as if living in darkness makes us more qualified to appreciate the light.
We live in the dark, but are desperate to be Seen. We shudder at the toothless chain-gangers who laugh uproariously at the end of “Sullivan’s Travels,” laughing uproariously at Mickey Mouse, but secretly wish we could laugh along with them. We are the voices whispering in Kaufman’s head whenever he tries to write. We are Kaufman himself, only poorer and less special, and maybe all the more Kaufman for that. If we didn’t exist, he would have to invent us.
I once asked Kaufman if he recognizes his influence in other people’s films, to which he replied: “I’ve seen critics say ‘This is a Charlie Kaufman-type movie, and so-and-so made it.’ And it’s like… why do they get to make Charlie Kaufman movies and I don’t? I think about that all the time.” With “Antkind,” he’s found a way to make something so distinctively Kaufman-esque that no one else could ever hope to copy it, even if they see too much of B. in themselves (perhaps you’ve read my monograph: “A B. in My Bonnet: Why Kaufman’s ‘Antkind’ Sometimes Feels Like It’s Stranger than Fiction”).
On page 609, B. has a breakthrough:
It occurs to me that I am also half a comedy team. Except in my case it is unwillingly and I do not know who my partner is. The universe? I am the perfect buffoon for this time — the arrogant idiot — and I do not like it at all. I envy Molloy his transformation. But of course Molloy exists in the world of fiction, the only place where transformation is possible, even required, for we as a species need our hope, our character arcs. We need to be assured that this, too, shall pass.
‘I have finally learned to love!’ Molloy shouts down to me, as he flies by again overhead.
Even after reading more than 600 pages of nonsense, we can’t help but wonder what Molloy discovered in space, or inside a mountain full of Donald Trump fuck robots, or wherever the hell is happening in this book. We can’t help but wonder where Molloy is taking all that love he’s found. Incredibly, the 111 pages that follow show us the way with the same undertow of hopeless grace that galvanized “Eternal Sunshine,” “Adaptation,” and everything else that’s hatched out of Kaufman’s mind.
B.’s journey becomes more relatable as it grows increasingly demented. We are all trying to make sense of a world that is more of a caricature of itself every day; we all want to grow faster than we forget ourselves; we all fall down manholes and try to make something out in the darkness on our way down. “Look,” Ingo says to B., “you saw then what you could see then. After, you remembered what you could remember. Now, you see what you can see now. This is what I call the human condition.”
We are all film critics now, Kaufman laments. Life is mortifying that way. But please, enjoy this free promotional t-shirt for the 2015 Bill Murray vehicle “Rock the Kasbah.” It’s one size fits all.
“Antkind” is now available wherever books are sold.