Charlie Kaufman's Own Introspective on Making Sense of Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut titled Synecdoche, New York arrives in limited theaters this weekend and is bound to confuse the hell out of moviegoers everywhere. Some may call it brilliant, others will call it chaotic complexity, but at the very least it will be base of countless cinematic discussions for years to come. I just saw it for a second time this week and still couldn't make much sense of it. So to try and clarify Kaufman's intentions as well as attempt to take a deeper look at the themes of the film, I thought I'd turn to Kaufman himself. This all began with a simple question: What does the burning house mean? Kaufman's answer, unfortunately, only seemed to make it all so much more confusing and complex.
Before we get too far into this, I think it's appropriate to start with the basics. What does "synecdoche" actually mean? The word is a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part. In relation to the film, "synecdoche" is referring to the main character's eventual decision to build a scale model of New York City within a warehouse to put on a stage production of his entire life. But that's only just the beginning. Kaufman's actual intention was to write a horror film screenplay for Spike Jonze to direct. As time went on, the project fell back out of Jonze's hands and into Kaufman's, who decided to direct it on his own. So how exactly did a horror film turn into this? "My process is to start by thinking about something and see what comes," explains Kaufman. "I prefer to explore notions rather than write toward a predetermined end. This gives the story a chance to grow as I learn more about my subject."
I'm sure anyone who is interested in this has seen the trailer, and read the plot synopsis, but neither of those really explain what Synecdoche, New York is actually about. It's a film that deals with death, illness, despair, loneliness, relationship problems, metaphysics, and heartbreak. "It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it's funny in a weird way," Kaufman asserts. What is noticeable throughout the film is that most of what is happening to Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) are things that Kaufman himself is terrified of, which ties this back to the notion of it being horror. It is indeed funny, but also so complex and expansive (as Caden starts to put together his play) that, in my own opinion, it starts to become less of what it's attempting to be about and more of whatever you make of it yourself.
Exploring Kaufman's interest in storytelling furthers also allows us to start understanding why he chose to make the film so open to interpretation. "I'm interested in dreams and how we tell stories to ourselves in dreams," Kaufman explains. "Let me make it very clear that this film is not a dream, but it does have a dreamlike logic. 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. It's okay that it doesn't happen in real life—it's a movie." Every new statement we add to this only seems to make things worse, but that's how it work with Kaufman.
So let's get back to the root of it all - the question I asked that started my further investigation. "You don't have to worry, 'What does the burning house mean?' It's a burning house that someone lives in—that's funny. You might get more out of it if that particular metaphor speaks to you, but you don't need to. Hopefully the movie will work on a lot of levels and people can read different things from it depending on who they are." Kaufman's real intention finally is revealed, but that doesn't help answer my question at all. In actuality, Kaufman doesn't want it answered. Instead, he wants me to either take away whatever I want from it or look at it as something that is just a part of the film and not question it any further, like in a dream. Those who have seen the film may finally start to understand how that can be done.
At this point I've done my job - I've given you a glimpse into the mind of Charlie Kaufman and introduced you to some of the dynamics within Synecdoche, New York. The next step: see the film and start some discussion. You'll be even more confused trying to figure it out before you've even seen it. It's a good film, there's no question about that, it's just a matter of interpreting it (if you so choose) or at least making some sense of it. To leave you with one last little bit of wisdom to go into the film with, I'll turn to Kaufman one more time (via this Q&A on Variety). "What it means to me is irrelevant because when I write this stuff and then made the movie, it was for you, it wasn't for me. No seriously, your interaction with the movie is really all that matters. Some things will resonate with you and some things won't, but that's going to be different for different people and that's exciting to me, so I thank you."