6. Gazes and Verse

It doesn’t take long for Kaufman to transform his version of the girlfriend from someone who isn’t a “metaphorical kind of girl” into a full-blown poet. That is almost certainly not an accident. By putting her rapid transformation into an artistic genius so close to a scene where she denies that side of her, Kaufman makes it easy for us to start questioning what we are seeing and hearing very early in the film. The character is clearly more than she is letting on. Are we to take her pronouncements ironically? Is there some false modesty to her? These are the kinds of things he intends us to start thinking very early in the movie. Even the oft-repeated phrase “I’m thinking of ending things” starts to take on new meaning.

When watching any movie, it’s important to pay attention not just to the words, but also the visuals and this section of the movie includes some very interesting glances from the two actors. I’m going to go through this scene twice, first just paying attention to the characters’ eyes, then paying some attention to the text. It starts with the girlfriend gazing out the passenger side window at the blowing snow on farmland. It builds on the word “perspective” that both said right as the scene begins. The girlfriend looks both appreciative and pensive as she looks out on the landscape. She then closes her eyes when she thinks about how her mind has been foggy of late.

When the camera cuts to Jake, he is looking straight at the road, but then glances over to her to ask if she likes this type of landscape. She returns her gaze to him, then back at the window, then straight ahead to declare that she likes melancholy vistas. Jake looks ahead as he says “it’s the poet in you.” The girlfriend sheepishly agrees, gazing down. She then turns her head back to Jake. He asks if she’s been working on something. Stammering, the girlfriend looks straight ahead, but down, unsure of herself as she answers. Jake is looking straight ahead as he encourages her to recite the poem. As she’s deciding whether to recite or not, she mostly looks ahead, unsure whether to keep her head up or down, but then gives Jake a quick glance as if to cede to his will.

We then get one of the most interesting glances of the film — a stern, nearly angry look from the girlfriend into a camera peering through the driver’s side back window. It’s as if to say, this poem is for Jake, not for you. (Alternative interpretation: perhaps she’s staring at the Janitor, getting him to back off and let her own this poem if just for a while.) Who is you? Is it the janitor or is it us? She appears to pull away while holding the stare, indicative of her convincing us to lay back and give her the space to recite her piece her way. As the girlfriend begins to recite, she’s in a highly neutral pose — midway between straight ahead and at Jake, and also midway between staring straight ahead or towards the floorboard. She maintains this neutral stare until the camera cuts to Jake, who is staring straight ahead, as a good driver should.

The next shot comes from outside the passenger side window, and the girlfriend appears to be maintaining the same eye focus and posture. After a quick cut to Jake, whose gaze has just returned from a glance at her, we get a shot of the girlfriend through Jake’s side of the front windshield, with her still maintaining the neutral gaze. All of this gives the sense of her being in a trance as she recites, like they are the words of another channeling through her. Jake is shown in the next cut, his left hand on his head, still looking out at the road and snow. Then it’s back to the front windshield view, the girlfriend still in a trance. It then goes back to Jake, who suddenly starts to veer away from that straight ahead look while his head and eyes slowly move directly into the camera’s sight. He begins to stare directly at the camera on his side window. It’s then back to the girlfriend through the front windshield, still neutral, yet tears start falling from her eyes. Then she turns her head, the trance broken, and moves her gaze a bit to the right, still somewhat down. This sets up the next shot that looks out on the snow and slowly pans to the girlfriend, now staring directly out at the landscape, saying “anyway.”

The welling tears become more pronounced at this point. A major trickle goes down her face as she says the phrase “keep getting older.” We cut to Jake, looking straight ahead. It feels like the mannerly thing to do, to not dwell on her tears, to briefly look away. When we return to her, the camera is close up on her face through the passenger side window, obscured a bit by interior fog or outside ice. But then she says the words “x-ray vision” and gives us look of blank terror, straight ahead into the camera. The tears are gone. This is a fierce, forbidding look. As she begins the “house of bone” bit, a chilling smile comes across her face.

The camera returns to Jake, still staring ahead. He mutters “wow.” The girlfriend answers curled up, seemingly spent from the performance, in a little half ball leaning into the side door. She slowly begins to sit up straighter, her head bobbing into view. Jake then turns to her and tells her how much he loves it, with some quick cuts back and forth between their obscured faces. He looks ahead and declares that the poem sounds like it was written about him. We return to an obscured look at the girlfriend through that haze again, where she mouths a platitude about aiming for universality. Jake looks ahead and says “it’s like you wrote it about me.”

We then get a really fascinating look from the girlfriend. Still in the obscured, foggy side window view, she returns her gaze back out the window, then for a split second looks straight at the camera as if to tell us “no, I didn’t fucking write it about you, you self obsessed slob.” But she doesn’t say that. Instead she returns to “I’m thinking of ending things …”

To me, this is the most remarkable scene in the movie. It’s evidence of how much Charlie Kaufman has grown as a filmmaker, which I define as something more than a script writer. He’s still not the movie’s greatest visual stylist, but he knows the tools he has at his disposal to tell a story with emotional power and he’s grown comfortable using them.

The words, of course, are critically important too. “Bonedog” is the work of a contemporary Canadian poet named Eva H.D. which is in her book “Rotten Perfect Mouth.” When I first heard the poem, I envisioned it as a male poem from a writer in the 1950s or 60s, but I was surprised to find out just how wrong I was. It was published in 2015, raising once again the surprising way that the Janitor keeps up with new artistic works in the culture. It’s almost as if he’s gone looking for material to infuse into his main characters through the years to give them the up-to-date depth he requires of them.

The poem is the Janitor’s most lovely connection to his girlfriend character. Perhaps that gaze out the side window wasn’t to the viewers of the movie at all. Maybe it was a gaze at the janitor, an appreciation for the way he has given her this piece, clearly intended to help explain his life and his feelings, and making them connected in a way that does not require Jake.

This gives important new resonance to the “I’m thinking of ending things” phrase. It no longer comes out as a suicidal wish, but rather a hope that the girlfriend can break out of this story where she is Jake’s supporting character and find her own agency, drive and meaning without him. She has forged her own direct connection to the janitor, that will play out in another lovely scene toward the movie’s end where she embraces him as if he’s her father.

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