5. The Janitor

Iain Reid thinks we should have empathy for the janitor, but Charlie Kaufman goes beyond that. He believes we should admire him. It’s not an easy position to reach. There is a menacing quality to the janitor. We see him as someone who is watching, interfering and potentially wishing harm on the girlfriend. On a first viewing, we don’t know why he keeps popping up at various locales.

Kaufman admires the janitor, who is a far more explicitly menacing character in the book, because he is a creator. He is inventing this love story in his head, likely influenced by a past experience, but it is never frozen in time. The actors are updated as the times change and as the janitor takes in more influences that further shape the story.

We rejoin the action with the girlfriend describing what she likes about Jake and their relationship. This happens in the context of the janitor going about his work. He is essentially doing two jobs, the physical work he does for a living and the mental artistic work that feeds his soul. The monologue ends with the girlfriend recalling Jake telling her that he feels invisible. The janitor works lonely classrooms and hallways against this narration. Jake’s invisibility will stay with him throughout life.

The scene cuts to Jake, who has some white film on the right corner of his mouth that the girlfriend noticed and he becomes embarrassed about. I discussed the film with friends recently and one theorized (hat tip af) that it referred back to their rabies discussion. The white film appears in Reid’s book as well, something Jake often has in his mouth in early mornings before showering. I think Kaufman just wanted to find a way to drop that in and did it somewhat out of context here.

Jake then asks if she’d like to listen to something. In Reid’s book, they pick up a country station that plays the song “Hey Good Lookin’” which reappears in the story’s finale. Kaufman has bigger plans for both the song and the finale, however, and had them listen to “Many A New Day” from “Oklahoma!”

The girlfriend says she didn’t know he’s a fan of musical theater. Jake answers that he’s not, then rips off a list of 19 musicals he knows by heart. But, Jake says, he knows “Oklahoma!” best and then slips into the janitor character to explain why: that the school performs it every few years “for obvious reasons.”

He doesn’t actually say school, he says they, and the girlfriend is puzzled about it, but he ignores her question and doesn’t snap him out of the janitor character. He goes on to talk about seeing kids years later in supermarkets and working jobs around town, no longer class stars. The movie cuts back to the janitor watching a rehearsal of the show as he works, watching a girl he clearly admires who seems annoyed to see him in the audience as she sings “many a new face will please my eye.” The couple then discuss how the character is protesting too much, everything is not ok with her.

The scene ends with the couple agreeing that road trips help you get out of your head and change your perspective. I wonder how many road trips the janitor has actually had in his life — is this scene a reference to the last real one he ever had? Has he spent the rest of his life stuck in the perspective of his own head? If so, he’s done a remarkable job creating characters that allow him to continue a road trip-like discussion all within the confines of his head.

In our next scene tomorrow, the girlfriend will suddenly transform into a poet and spend a few spooky moments staring directly at the camera.

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