The fumbling screenwriter


Here’s a blogpost to overturn my last (sad) blogpost. I have listened to a lecture by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovitch, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation…) and found it extremely uplifting. I strongly recommend it. Here’s how he starts up:

I’ve never delivered a speech before, which is why I decided to do this tonight. I wanted to do something that I don’t know how to do, and offer you the experience of watching someone fumble, because I think maybe that’s what art should offer. An opportunity to recognize our common humanity and vulnerability.

Not long ago, I sang at an amateur night. Every other Friday at the Cantina Vocaal, in Amsterdam, you can show up with your music sheet and give it to the house pianist, who will decipher and play it on the go, while you sing in front of an audience composed mainly of amateurs like you. Some singers are quite good, most are pretty bad. You can live your dream of singing in front of an audience without being made fun of like they do in the playoffs of those singing shows on TV. And while sitting in the audience waiting for your turn, you get to see all those amateurs nervously go stand by the piano and sing.

Here’s how this connect to Charlie Kaufman’s lecture. Those performances were truly moving. Being out of tune as you sing My Funny Valentine and swing your arm in the air like a jazz diva might – that is beautiful. Sitting in the audience, those of us who can go beyond laughing or looking away from the cringing situation, are rewarded with a glimpse of “our common humanity and vulnerability”, like Kaufman puts it. Professionals offer their hard-earned skills; amateurs offer themselves. As I go back to that night and remember those fragile performances, my own nervousness and my daring, I feel great warmth; I am warm with the memory of something precious, experienced within myself in communion with others.

The opposite of this is something like, say, the Superbowl half-time show. This year there was Katy Perry on a mechanical lion, followed by armies of dancers and hectares of screens. You may admire the monument of logistics and craftsmanship that such a show is. But you may also feel buried in clock-work efficient, state of the art, million-dollar worth, clutter.

Kaufman talks about this in his lecture – the danger of craft. I do not mean to say that only innocent, amateurish, out-of-the-market things can move me or fulfill the “mission” of art – allowing us to meet one another in our nakedness, Kaufman might say. But yes, craft in itself fails to impress me and, more importantly – because I am not here to say how you should be impressed – I have found in this idea of the irrelevance of craft a path to pursue my own work. I will accept to fumble; I will put myself in the position to fumble. I will not sell my skills – I will offer myself.