Charlie Kaufman BAFTA lecture [Part 5]

December 19th, 2011 by

On September 30, 2011, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman gave a lecture at a British Academy of Film and Television Arts event. I thought his presentation offered such wonderful insights not only into Kaufman’s world view, but also the very act of creativity that we should go through the entire thing on GITS. Today: Part 5.

This is Harold Pinter: ‘A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that, the writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb, you find no shelter, no protection, unless you lie. In which case, of course, you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.’

It’s weird to be a human. We get to think about things, we get to wonder. It seems like quite a privileged position in the universe. And I wouldn’t give it up for certainty because when you’re certain you stop being curious. And here’s the one thing I know about the thing you’re certain about; you’re wrong.

Of course this is a paradox, how is it possible to know that you can’t know anything? It isn’t, it’s just a theory. And I remain open to being proven wrong. This is also Harold Pinter – I like Harold Pinter: ‘There never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art, there are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.’

That’s the end of that, because I’m going to go on now and I didn’t want you to think it was Harold Pinter anymore. Now this is me for a while. I think. Yeah, it’s me for a while. A manifesto is a valuable thing; it is everything else anyone tells you about; how to do things, something to react against. It gives you a focus, a framework with which to say, ‘Why?’ This is also true with any psychological or emotional insight you might have or might read or see expressed.

It’s always a mistake to settle on any explanation for anything, because whatever you settle on you will be wrong, even if you’re right. Everything is ephemeral; everything is in a constant state of flux. Thinking past any conclusion you’ve drawn will reward you with a more complex insight and a more compassionate world view. This is something I’m constantly trying to learn and re-learn.

There’s another quote that I like, this one’s a little long, but I think it’s good. It’s by a guy named John Garvey: ‘I am increasingly convinced that the need to be right has nothing whatsoever to do with the love of truth, but to face the implications of this means accepting a painful inner emptiness; I am not now what I sense somehow I am meant to be. I do not know what I feel from the bottom of my heart, I need to know. The beginning of wisdom is not to flee from this condition or distract yourself from it. It is essential not to fill it up with answers that have not been earned. It is important to learn how to wait with that emptiness. It is the desire to fill up that emptiness which leads to political or religious fanaticism.’

Think about your reaction to me, think past it. Why do you have that reaction? Why do you react a certain way to certain things? What does your reaction have to do with your wants? How does it correlate? How would your reaction to what I’m saying change if I were older? Younger? Female? A different race? British? What does it mean about you, that it would change? What does it mean about the subjectivity of your opinions? What if I was me but had a different demeanour? What if I was more confident? Less confident? What if I was more effeminate? What if I was less effeminate? What if I was drunk? What if I was on the verge of tears?

Think about all the assessments, all the interpretations that occur with each interaction. Think about all that you bring to each encounter. Multiply that by all the people here. How much is going on in this room and how do we weave that into a movie?

The challenge of multiple points of view forces us to come up with solutions, to throw away conventional approaches. Movies tend to be very concrete in their construction of events and characters. It’s a tricky medium in which to deal with interior lives. But I think it’s really a great medium for it. Movies share so much with dreams which, of course, only deal with interior lives. Your brain is wired to turn emotional states into movies.

Your dreams are very well written. I know this, without knowing any of you. People turn anxieties, crises and longing, love, regret and guilt into beautiful rich stories in their dreams. What is it that allows us the creative freedom in our dreams that we don’t have in our waking lives? I don’t know, but I suspect part of it is that in our dreams we are not constricted by worry about how we will appear to others. It’s a private conversation with ourselves, and if we’re worried about it, this becomes part of the dream. I think if we were better able to approach our work this way, the results would be different.

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

To watch the video of Kaufman’s presentation, go here.

To subscribe to the BAFTA newsletter, go here.

To the best fansite dedicated to Charlie Kaufman, go to Being Charlie Kaufman.

HT to @Brentwgraham for the link.

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