The Universe According to Kaufman
By DAVID CARR; New York Times
CHARLIE KAUFMAN, the director of “Synecdoche, New York,” is not trying to be difficult. Then again, when you consider that he make a movie with a name few can pronounce built on a plot that no one, including him, can fully explain, maybe he is.
But that is less the point of the movie than a by-product of the kind of stories he tells. Mr. Kaufman has a persistent concern with truthfulness, and in “Synecdoche,” which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, he is willing to treat time as a piece of taffy, clone characters and punish expectations in an effort to get at something authentic.
As the Oscar-friendly writer of “Being John Malkovich” (nominated), “Adaptation,” (nominated) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (won) Mr. Kaufman has already earned a significant amount of acclaim. Driven by the concept of a synecdoche — roughly, a part representing the whole — he takes one man’s fear of irrelevance and drapes it across a vast landscape of human concerns. He wrote this movie in the belief that Spike Jonze, his longtime collaborator, would direct. But Mr. Jonze was busy, and Mr. Kaufman decided — with Mr. Jonze’s enthusiastic assent — to direct a film for the first time.
“Synecdoche” (sih-NECK-doh-key) is not exactly a starter movie, reflecting the awkward work of a first-timer feeling his way. After seeing it at this year’s Cannes film festival A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Kaufman managed to create “a seamless and complicated alternate reality.” From a cinematic perspective it is a ferociously realized piece of work that will have people talking for years. Among the things that they will be chattering over? “What was that about?”
In barest terms the movie is the life story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director who puts on prosaic, soul-killing plays in, you guessed it, Schenectady, N.Y. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), leaves him, condemning him on the way out as a small, timid man who will never do anything meaningful.
Moving to Berlin and taking their young daughter with her, she begins painting work that brings her international acclaim, while Caden falls apart, his body betraying him with mysterious ills. Certain he is dying, he tells his therapist, “I’d like to do something important while I am still here.”
Well, wouldn’t we all? In Mr. Kaufman’s work the desire to make something pure, something important, is not an academic matter but a primal and essential activity. And there is frequently a porous membrane between the struggle on screen and the struggle to get it there. “Synecdoche, New York” shows gears grinding all over the place.
In Caden’s case, after some money comes into his life, he moves to New York and finds a warehouse in which to build a sprawling simulacrum of the city where a collection of actors lay bare the mundane, sad facts of the human condition. In this movie, authenticity is frequently exposed through tricks: houses burn of their own accord, years pass in the blink of an eye, and Caden is all but subsumed by the world he is trying to make, becoming both God and vassal of his own creation.
The layers of meta pile up at the feet of the filmgoer like so many discarded tubs of popcorn until the lights go up. (For a taste of what you’re in for, the movie’s Web site, synecdocheny.com, captures the mood, if not the sprawl, of the often-comic undertaking.)
On the telephone in San Francisco just before an all-night flight to Spain, Mr. Kaufman was happy to talk about anything, except what his film “means.”
“I’m not someone who is going to explain the movie. I want it to be something that people interact with personally,” he said.
Later, perhaps sympathetic to the task of a writer trying to describe something that is beyond his ken, he sent a text message:
“Not only is Caden’s play a synecdoche, but so is every work of art. There is no way to convey the totality of something, so every artistic creation is at most a representation of an aspect of the thing being explored.” And then, perhaps in anticipation, he added: “As for the part about this project mirroring Caden’s, I can certainly see the obvious parallels, but I am not Caden. Perhaps he represents part of me and in that sense, he is a synecdoche of me.”
It is only natural to implicate Mr. Kaufman in his own story, if for no other reason that “Adaptation,” another story about the effort to create something artificial that is still authentic, includes a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman as a character.
“I like creating artificial realities, fake realities, so making a movie may or may not be a good fit, but it is what I do,” he said, back in conversation on the phone.
Mr. Kaufman, 50, plays for keeps in part because at the age of 30 he was staring down a prosaic, somewhat doomed life. After making several short films at New York University he relocated to Minneapolis and was working in the basement office of the circulation department at The Star Tribune. “The people that I worked for were nice, but I had to be there first thing in the morning to answer calls from people whose newspaper arrived wet or didn’t arrive at all. It was cold, I had to take the bus, and I was getting to an age where it looked like it might be what I was going to settle for.”
He decided to take a stab, a very serious one, at being a television writer. In 1990 he moved to Los Angeles and landed a job on — wait for it — “Get a Life.” While working in TV he also wrote “Being John Malkovich,” which was directed by Mr. Jonze and nominated for three Academy Awards. Mr. Kaufman’s reputation as a wildly inventive screenwriter was secured. But watching “Synecdoche, New York” will test audiences in a way none of his other films have.
Being John Malkovich Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, agreed that “Synecdoche, New York” will not be for everyone, but said that Mr. Kaufman has certain box-office advantages.
“Critics will take to it, as will young audiences who see Charlie Kaufman as their generation’s avant-garde director, their version of Wenders and Fassbinder,” he said. “Plus, this movie is chock full of movie stars.”
The transition from writer to director can often be an intimidating leap, especially on a set brimming with some of the best actors around. In addition to Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Keener the cast includes Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson and Samantha Morton. Mr. Kaufman has a reflexive distrust of celebrity — “They’re famous, and I’m just me” — but when it came time to enrolling people in telling a complicated story, he enjoyed most every second of it.
“I take my work very seriously, and there is this stupid system in place that suggests that the director is the auteur and that the writer is just this secondary along for the ride,” he said. “It’s less about trying to be successful than just saying that I am a smart guy, I have a good idea, and I know this script better than anyone, so I am going to take on this movie. It could have been a failure, but that wasn’t really what I was thinking about.”
Anthony Bregman, a producer of the film, said there was little doubt that Mr. Kaufman was completely ready to direct.
“Charlie is quiet and shy in a way, but he is a formidable person,” he said. “I have never seen him shrink from a fight or controversy.”
Mr. Jonze, who is another of the film’s producers, had little doubt that his friend and longtime collaborator would find a place to stand on his own set.
“Charlie went to film school,” Mr. Jonze said, mentioning Mr. Kaufman’s time at N.Y.U., “but what really matters is that when he was on the set and started asking questions, he knew that he had the answers. For actors he writes about general things in very specific ways, creating characters that are real and believable, and they love working in his movies.”
Like, say, Mr. Hoffman: “I was sitting across the table with him at dinner, and he was telling me about this guy Caden who had just turned 40 and had a child and found that life was suddenly moving very, very quickly,” he recalled in a phone interview. “I’m sitting there having just turned 40 with a kid, and I had no trouble connecting with what he was talking about. He is a real writer, someone who has the compassion and truthfulness to never settle, to never stop asking questions.”
Mr. Kaufman has historically created stories that explore deeply interior spaces, often those between someone’s ears. In “Being John Malkovich” he tested ideas of identity by diving into the brain of one man. In “Adaptation” he allowed a writer’s solitary struggle to leave the page and explode out into the world. And in “Eternal Sunshine” he created a world in which the experiences that mark us can be erased.
“Synecdoche, New York,” is a significant departure from those films in that the chaos of the mind is externalized through Caden’s art — pieces of which come to overtake him. He ends up in the odd position of casting someone to play him and finds a man, Sammy (Tom Noonan) who has been stalking him for decades. “Hire me and you will see who you truly are,” Sammy suggests. And just when it seems as if Caden, and perhaps Mr. Kaufman, might end up buried in self-analysis, Millicent Weems (played with regal authority by Ms. Wiest) assumes his role of director and takes custody of his masterwork.
It is the kind of movie where the actors not only need to know where their marks are and the blocking that will ensue, but where they are in time and space in a completely alternative world. It sounds complicated, and it is, but as Ms. Keener, who also starred in “Being John Malkovich,” described the work, “It was like being in on the beautiful, visceral secret.”
Near the film’s end Caden is confronted by a sea of Post-it notes that stretch toward the horizon, each signifying a part of a larger whole. He takes in the expanse and says, “I don’t know why I make it so complicated.”