Arts, Movies

Charlie Kaufman’s Short Film ‘Jackals & Fireflies’ Falls To Unvaried and Strained Poetry


Similar to the rest of his work, decorated surrealist director Charlie Kaufman’s Jackals & Fireflies is almost impossible to encapsulate in a few words. 

A surface-level synopsis would identify that an unnamed woman (Eva H.D.) gets up from bed and travels through New York as she shares her observations, feelings, and questions about her surroundings and herself. Although the film shows the quotidian life of a New Yorker, Kaufman and Eva add their poetic perspective to it.

Jackals & Fireflies brings poetry to life. 

“You tell me, every once in a while I have this half notion—no one knows me,” recites H.D. in Jackals & Fireflies. “So what am I worried about? Like I’m howling around this body like a costume. ”  

Jackals & Fireflies, a 20-minute short film that premiered in New York’s IFC Center on Feb. 9 and was published on YouTube on Feb.12, is Kaufman’s latest project. 

Kaufman has long proved that he is one of the most innovative and original writers and directors of his time with films ranging from Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to meta layered Adaptation and eerily animated Anomalisa. Despite being a mainstream director, he experiments with art house film techniques, multi-narratives, and surrealist ideas, which make his movies stand out from the rest. 

With Jackals & Fireflies, however, he proves the versatility of his talent. 

Jackals & Fireflies was recorded entirely with a phone and uses an extensive poem as its screenplay. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin said the project began when Kaufman approached him with the idea of shooting a film on a Samsung device. 

Through filming solely on the Samsung’s Galaxy phone’s “Pro Mode” camera function, Kaufman works to show that art can be done with many or few resources available. 

“When I think of Pro Mode and how it can support young filmmakers, I feel a lot of confidence because it uses the language that young people are acclimated to—using phones—and it can give the opportunity of being able to strive and create and maybe be introduced to a creative instinct that they may have,” Irvin said in “Samsung’s “Behind The Scenes of ‘Jackals & Fireflies.”

Throughout the film, the viewer follows a female protagonist, played by the poet herself. 

“I turn death towards me like an enormous sunflower,” H.D. begins. 

H.D.’s existential, blunt, and sometimes cynical way of expressing herself feels familiar to Kaufman’s fans. Kaufman is known for his in-depth exploration of identity, disconnect, and self-awareness. The short film addresses all of these themes and celebrates the trivial details of life as the narration repeatedly shifts from being pessimist to being absurdist. 

The film has a slow pace that contrasts the setting of the hectic city, allowing the viewer to contemplate the people, places, and objects that they’d usually walk past in a hurry. In this way, the cinematography of Jackals & Fireflies shows the everyday, underlooked beauty of New York—and the world.

The viewer hears H.D.’s nonstop thoughts for almost 20 minutes. Although the viewer can see restaurants, bars, people, and many buses, the protagonist’s internal monologue is what dominates the screen. The viewer sees the world through her eyes and hears the world through her ears, as every now and then she repeats overheard conversations out of sporadic curiosity for the lives of the millions of people around her. 

“‘I need a support system,’ woman at 8th Street says,” H.D. says. “I consider offering my services.”

The artistic choice to make other characters an extension of the protagonist’s imagination, rather than characters of their own, mirrors the idea of solipsism Kaufman explores in his debut film, Synecdoche, New York. But most of all, this short film echoes his most recent movie,  I’m Thinking of Ending Things, in which H.D.’s poetry was also used. 

Kaufman is bold to continue making movies that leave the viewer wondering: What did I just watch? After the negative reception of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, many would think the eccentric filmmaker would try to stick to the conventional rules of cinematography. But Kaufman stays true to himself. 

The extended poem in Jackals & Fireflies loses the audience in between its metaphors and complex phrases and gains it back with occasional phrases that stand out, either for their extreme simplicity or their extreme bizarreness.  

Kaufman forces the viewer to dissect the material he provides in a thought-provoking way. Yet the little material he provides to ground the viewer makes the film, at times, feel like a puzzle waiting to be solved, rather than a piece to be enjoyed. 

Perhaps this is what Kaufman wanted—to make viewers uncomfortable with their unattentiveness to the seemingly monotonous. 

March 1, 2023