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."
Reader Feedback - 13 Comments
A friend of mine was able to hang out with Kaufman not too long ago after a screening of this film...I was so jealous I have always enjoyed Kaufmans writing and stories on screen...what I love about the films he is involved with is there is always something new to discover every time you watch it...it may not make sense but it definately makes an impact...
Maxx on Oct 22, 2008
Kaufman said at the DC Q+A that film gets a wider release on November 7th.
Fuelbot on Oct 22, 2008
This post has missed the entire point of the film. Synecdoche, New York isn't confusing or complex at all. It's frustrating, because you want it to be plot-driven and moving toward a specific end-point, but that's not what life is. Charlie Kaufman has spoken on numerous occasions about, much-like his character Caden, making film truthful and brutally honest. It doesn't get much more brutal or honest than this. It's simply what you make of it. What does the burning house mean? Um, it's an externalization of Hazel's passion for Caden. Good enough? We're so busy seeking answers that we've completely missed the point. The film, like life, isn't about the answer: it's about the questions. It's about the journey and the moments that make up that journey. That life moves by at a rapid pace within the film with no "3 months later" title card is simply Kaufman trying to present life as what it is: a series of moments. At 10:45, this is what you're doing. At 3:14, this is what you're doing. It's how those little moments inform the whole or how some people get so lost in the big picture they completely miss those little moments (hence, Caden's revolving door of relationships). In that case, synecdoche moves past simply being the title of the film (or referring to events within the film) to the very way we interpret the film. It is drama on an epic scale. When you get to the funeral, the one with the Priest's monologue, if you aren't moved or invested by then it's time to leave the theater. A person in the theater actually muttered "Amen" when the scene was done. While this film won't pull in Dark Knight figures, it is more close to real life than anything I've seen. I'd take that over Chris Bale in a rubber suit with a terrible voice any day.
Fuelbot on Oct 22, 2008
Great post Fuelbot. I totally agree, life is frustrating. And I prefer movies that don't present me the ending on a silver plater. I like being able to leave the theater and say "well, what next" those kinda thoughts. One reason i love kaufmans writing. Kaufman and Mamet are the two people in film i would love to meet and have dinner with.
Red Buttons on Oct 22, 2008
Well, he certainly presents a different approach to convey his message, I'll be checking this out.
tzarinna on Oct 22, 2008
Well Fuelbot your entire argument was made null and void by the fact that you called Christian Bale, Chris Bale. Moron. Fine, the argument was good but still, at least say his name right at the very least.
Itri on Oct 22, 2008
Great post Fuelbot... It sounds like Kaufman succeeded in affecting you which is what he said the movie was about to begin with...I don't think Alex missed the point of the movie with this post (considering his words come directly from Kaufman), but you missed the point of the post by watching the movie and trying to mold it into something you could understand. I just can't wait to see what I get from it...I'll let you know if it's different from your take.
Peloquin on Oct 22, 2008
Itri - Moron? You think I don't know who Christian Bale is? Or that anyone breathing after this summer doesn't know who Christian Bale is? Seriously. Could I have possibly been speaking of another Chris Bale? When you've seen Laurel Canyon or Little Women or, god forbid, John Singleton's SHAFT and show that you know him beyond Batman or American Psycho, then you can call me a moron. Peloquin - I won't say it's the whole point of the movie but speaking with Kaufman after the film that was exactly his intention: audience members molding the film into something they understand or that relates to them. I didnt mean to say he missed the point of the film, but the burning house question, while entirely understandable, is kind of annoying at this point. I just wish audiences went beyond the surface.
Fuelbot on Oct 22, 2008
To your point, about audiences going beyond the surface, isn't the idea that the viewer take away his or her own interpretation? So then...is frustration a recurring theme in your life, and does that influence your interpretation of someone else's interpretation, which makes you frustrated? At this moment, I'm posting a response, and I don't even know why. Two minutes later, i will leave this page and probably never come back. One day I will die. Between now and then, I will see this film and probably enjoy it.
Karni on Oct 22, 2008
He mentioned that Emily Watsons character name is a play on another actress that people are always confusing her with. He mentioned that in this movie he made a deliberate decision to not have that moment in the film where people go "now i get it".
Me on Oct 22, 2008
Don't forget harsh times, 3:10, swing kings. And the always rewatchable reign of fire. God i love dragons. But great response to itri. Fuelbot. This community needs a better class of posters.
Red Buttons on Oct 22, 2008
I'm trying to go see it this saturday at the Ft Laud Film Fest. I'm a huge fan of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind - and after watching the trailer for Synecdote - I'm excited for its bittersweet meloncholy yet inspiring existentialism wrapped in a thick layer of confusion. :]
Nick Sears on Oct 23, 2008
Heres the interview with Bob Edwards he did earlier this week. He talks about his love for David Lynch and wanting to meet him. http://www.bobedwards.info/ftopic809.html&sid=d931bbaf2d49ae560e7d59f19f51a9d3
Me on Oct 25, 2008
Sorry, no commenting is allowed at this time.