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Being Charlie Kaufman
Not long ago, I was exiting a preview screening of Synecdoche, New York, the much-anticipated directorial debut from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) when an older gentleman who had also been in the audience turned to me and asked, “Did you understand that?” As I had to admit–I didn’t.
Any attempt at plot synopsis requires ridiculous oversimplification, but here goes: the film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director who devotes decades to trying to stage an ambitious play that mirrors the events of his own life on a massive warehouse set with a cast and crew of hundreds. (Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hope Davis also star.) As in Kaufman’s previous films, narrative norms are quickly dispatched–chronology and causality among the first casualties–and the movie soon takes on what can only be called Kaufman’s particular brand of magical realism. The film is showing at the Toronto Film Festival this week, and opens in theaters in October.
Now, I’m not usually a big fan of the production notes that studios hand out at advance screenings unless I’ve got time to kill before the lights go down. But as I was struggling mightily to figure out what exactly I had just seen, I eagerly sought out the notes for explanation. Clearly, Kaufman anticipated such baffled responses, and if you read his notes closely enough, he’s provided a ready-made defense of his film:
1. If you’re confused, says Kaufman, it’s supposed to be funny. “I think the movie is fun,” says the director in the notes. “It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean?’ Who cares. It’s a burning house that someone lives in — it’s funny. You can get more than that if you want to.”
2. If you’re confused and it’s not funny, just roll with it. “Let me make it very clear that this film is not a dream, but it does have dreamlike logic,” says the director. “You can start to fly in a dream and in the dream it’s just, ‘Oh yeah, I can fly’ –it’s not like what your reaction would be in the real world. So everything that happens in this movie is to be taken at face value, it’s what’s happening.”
3. If you’re still confused, watch it again (please). Kaufman doesn’t even pretend that a filmgoer might “get it” on first viewing, and he argues that the film’s obscure jokes and references make for a more satisfying second, or third, viewing. “I want the film to be different the next time you see it, and not a repeat,” he says. “My approach is to make films that allow you to discover new things upon multiple viewings.”
4. If all else fails, at least you come away having learned a new word. “When I named Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind everybody said nobody would ever remember it,” he says. “But what’s cool is that the title is really easy to remember now. Everybody who knows that movie knows the title. And if this movie gets the proper amount of response, then people will be able to pronounce it and everyone will be able to know the word synecdoche–which is a good word to know.”
Film still courtesy of SonyClassics.