Film Reviews

Charlie Kaufman Embraces Synecdoche

There will be no more polarizing film released in 2008 than Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter and mind-fucker Charlie Kaufman, heretofore known as author of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Though there is a very good chance Kevin Smith's latest, reviewed above, will place a close second.) Synecdoche, which has already opened in New York and Los Angeles and makes its Dallas debut on November 7, has garnered both love-letter raves and fist-pounding condemnations.

Scott Foundas, whose review will appear in these pages next week, writes of the film—in which Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays a playwright whose self-examination detours into labyrinthine fantasia—that it's "a two-hour, loop-de-loop thrill ride." Owen Gleiberman, in the new Entertainment Weekly, is less kind in his D-plus review, damning the work as "Woody Allen trapped in a Debbie Downer nightmare."

Kaufman was at the Hotel Crescent Court last week, and in person, he is the last person in the world one could consider polarizing—frail, neurotic, honest, sweet, tortured and in need of a hug, yes, absolutely. In advance of Synecdoche's Dallas opening, then, a brief Q&A with the filmmaker about his gut-wrenching fable about art, mortality, love and construction that may be the best film you will see all year. Unless you think it's the worst movie ever made.

It's been very interesting to read the reviews and see how the film has impacted other people. Tony Scott in The New York Times said he thought it was very, very funny, whereas I sat through the last hour of it in tears. I'm very intrigued by how it affects and touches other people.

Or doesn't, or makes them angry. There are a lot of people who get angry in a very personal way, so it seems, toward me about the movie.

What do you mean?

They're angry. I'm, like, pretentious or I'm full of shit, you know, those kind of things. That feels kind of interesting to me. Hurtful sometimes. I don't particularly like reading that stuff.

Why do you read them?

I don't know. I shouldn't. I told myself I shouldn't, and I've been told by people in my life that I shouldn't over and over again. The problem is—I'm sure there are a lot of problems—but one of the problems is that I spend a lot of time working on a computer. And a lot of time working on a computer means a lot of time not working on the computer, and so I'll just see what's there, you know?

Synecdoche is such a profoundly personal work that I would think that you would want to put aside others' interpretations of it and let it stand on its own.

I do. But even admitting this is sort of what I'm trying to do in the world, and I'm not going to try to present myself as something I'm not. I'll do my work and I'll do it sincerely, but I also get my feelings hurt and check online to see my reviews, and that's just the way it is. I feel like that's right.

In previous films you can feel a barrier, and I think that barrier might be a certain cleverness that comes about. This feels very unfettered in terms of its entry into an emotional place.

I did that intentionally. I felt exactly the same way. We had these screenings, and Jon [Brion, who did the score] was coming to the early screenings, and sometimes people's reactions were really hostile. Jon said one night after [a screening], while we were standing in the parking lot, "I think I've figured it out. I think it's that people were expecting a Charlie Kaufman movie, and a Charlie Kaufman movie has that moment where you go 'Ah! That's the trick!'" And I didn't give that to them, because I wanted people to be with this guy who was moving toward the end of his life, and there is no trick to it.

The film contains a line about how none of us are extras, but we're all leads in our own stories. And that's the loneliest feeling in the world. I think that's a really profound thing for the film to deal with—and for you to deal with in terms of making the film, because you are absolutely alone from the beginning of the process to this process of promoting the movie. I assume that informs everything about the film and your reactions to it and your reactions to other people's reactions to it.

It does. It's a fairly vulnerable feeling for me to have. I go through a lot of different stages of acceptance of it and distance from the movie and being OK with it. Or being freaked out or angry because someone says something in a review that feels like it completely misrepresents the movie or me and not having a voice to respond to it and knowing you can't really respond to it anyway. Then I worry: Why do I want to respond to it? Because I really do want people to have their reaction, and it's upsetting to me that I don't want them to have it. I guess it's all just being a human being and being conflicted about every single thing in your life.

The full Q&A will appear next week on Unfair Park, the Dallas Observer's blog.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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