The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

All the World’s a Stage in Synecdoche, New York: An Interview with Charlie Kaufman

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageWhen I left the screening of Charlie Kaufman's latest film, Synecdoche, New York, I was confused and frustrated, more so than I can ever remember being.  Although I had loved Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I just did not like this film.  Oh well, I thought, at least I have the opportunity to talk to Charlie Kaufman about it.  Maybe after the interview, I’ll be able to understand what it was about.

Yet when one of my fellow interviewers poses this very question, Kaufman replies firmly, “It was about what you think it was about”—which, unfortunately, didn’t help me much.

Synecdoche focuses on Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a local theater director who discovers that he may be afflicted with a serious illness.  Around the same time, he is awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant and, in his desire to create something true and real, decides to produce a play based on his life.  The result is a continually evolving play that grows to resemble Russian nesting dolls in its pursuit of the ultimate meta-narrative: you have the real people in Caden’s life, the actors who play them, and the actors who play the actors playing those actors.  If it sounds confusing, it is.  It’s also the easiest part of the movie to explain.  As the film progresses, it becomes more surrealistic in nature, losing all sense of time and space in the process.  It dwells in dream logic, so you’re never quite sure what is real and what is not.  Characters age at different rates, so it's hard to tell whether a week has passed or a year.  One character lives in a house that's on fire but never burns down, and nobody seems to find anything strange about this.  Another character shows up in cartoon form before he is introduced in the film.

I get the sense from Kaufman that this lack of easy explanations was intentional.  “[The movie] was designed as an interactive work.”  He says the film was an attempt to understand what it’s like to be a human being.  “The world is inexplicable. […] If there was a way to imagine the world from another point-of-view, it would look completely different.”  He also wanted to explore the concept of time and its passage.  “I don’t know that [time] really exists other than our brain’s way of understanding change.”

Synecdoche marks Kaufman’s directorial debut.  Directing, he says, was a totally different job than screenwriting, much more interactive and social.  But it was a challenge he liked, because it allowed the work to become more “idiosyncratic.”  “There’s a quality of genericizing that happens with more voices,” he says.

He is drawn to the idea of layers, of films that allow you to bring your own thoughts into them and consider them in a more in-depth way, as books do.  “Movies tend to take you off to very cliched conclusions, and that’s not interesting to me.”

This topic sets Kaufman off on a bit of a rant.  He rails against creating movies solely to give the audience what they want, a la Transformers—which, he admits, he hasn’t seen.  He notes that there had been a big push from early audiences to bring one of the characters, who had disappeared early in the movie, back at the end of the film.  But he stuck to his guns, and the character remains absent.  “It’s a very common way to make movies, to feel out what people want and give it to them.”  But this, he says, is “creating a culture of alienated, isolated people.”

I ask him, half jokingly, whether he is anti-focus group, but he considers my question in a serious light.  He admits that focus groups were used for some of his previous films, but not for this one.  Instead, the movie was only screened for small audiences of trusted friends and associates.  “Focus groups are good to find out certain things you don’t know that people don’t understand,” he says, pointing to material eliminated in editing cuts as an example.  But he does not think they should be used to compromise the filmmaker’s vision—which, in Kaufman’s case, is an esoteric film contemplating, among other things, life and death, the inconsistency of time, how art relates to life, and the real versus the surreal.

In the end, I think this is why I could not enjoy the film the way I did Kaufman's previous efforts: like Caden’s unwieldy play, Synecdoche bites off more than it can chew, asking lots of questions but providing no real answers.   And with the movie’s surrealistic leanings, the audience doesn’t even have anything concrete to sink its teeth into; time, space, and even the characters themselves are victims of the ever-present dream logic.  Although I have always enjoyed the way Kaufman’s previous works have mixed the ordinary and the fantastic, this movie seems surreal just for the sake of being surreal.  I remember reading Gertrude Stein in high school and thinking that she must have spent way too much time with her buddy Picasso—she seemed to be trying to translate Cubism, a visual genre, into literature.  Kaufman seems to do the same thing with a different artistic movement as his muse: with its recurring clock motif, Synecdoche is one melting eyeball away from being a Salvador Dali painting.

Though I do not relate my criticisms to Kaufman in the interview, I get the sense that he understands that Synecdoche will not be for everyone, that something so idiosyncratic may not be commercially viable.  “I am not making a product,” he insists.  “There is stuff to come to here, [but] I feel like it’s worthless if I explain it.”

But in the end, movies are products, as beholden to their audiences as any other medium.  Films must be made with their audience in mind, because despite everything, the audience is still the filmmaker's bread-and-butter.  An artist—be it writer, filmmaker, or anything else—often gets too close to the material and cannot see the forest for the trees, the problems inherent in their own work.  (As a writer myself, I know I cannot.)  Things like focus groups are not only useful for continuity errors and editing mistakes; they can show you how an audience is interpreting a film—and whether they’re reacting in the way that you want them to.

That’s not to say that filmmakers should only give the audience exactly what it wants, or that the only worthwhile films nowadays are big-budget blockbusters.  But there has to be some kind of happy medium between artistic indulgence and audience expectations.  I suspect, however, that Charlie Kaufman and I would locate this point in very different places.