I'm probably not going out on a limb here, but I don't think there's a screenwriter working today whose work enthralls me more than Charlie Kaufman. Since seeing Being John Malkovich in 1999 – and nearly wetting myself during the Mertin-Flemmer Building orientation video – I've been captivated and inspired by the way he uses the medium to blend imaginative concepts with powerful emotional impact.
In his debut as a director, Kaufman tells the tale of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a local theatre director who begins to sense his mortality when he is struck down by a wave of physical problems. Meanwhile, his flawed relationship with wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter of miniature canvases, comes to an end when she goes to Germany with their young daughter for an exhibition and doesn't come back.
After an abortive relationship with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a box office assistant at his theatre, Caden is suddenly awarded a MacArthur 'Genius Award'. With the money, he hires an huge derelict hangar in New York and plans to stage an unprecedented theatrical production that will capture the truth about human existence in every detail.
As you'd expect from Kaufman, the rules of storytelling are soon pushed to their extremes. Like Caden himself, we're surprised to find that years have passed in the blink of an eye. As the grand theatrical project gets increasingly complex and the director ages, the film beautifully captures the way time seems to pass much more quickly the older you get. When a cast member asks Caden when they'll be performing before an audience, we are shocked to learn that the work has been in development for 17 years.
A further layer of complication is added when Caden casts actors to play himself and the film's other central characters in the play. This thread is at the heart of the film, as Caden tries to analyse his life through the drama. However, things become more complex for the director when the lines become blurred between his fictional creations and their real-life inspirations.
The film buckles slightly towards the end under the weight of its 'Chinese boxes' structure, but its emotional impact remains devastating – particularly when Caden and Hazel resume their relationship late in life.
Some of the confusion could reflect the single-mindedness of Caden's artistic pursuit: while we are given glimpses of tanks on the streets of NYC and the project comes to a bloody end in the face of an unspecified future apocalypse, we focus throughout on the increasingly shambling figure of Caden – a bravura performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appears in just about every scene of the film and captures perfectly the weight of time as Caden ages.
The screening at the Curzon Soho was followed by a Q&A with Kaufman and Morton. The writer-director said that audience confusion was always a potential problem given the complexity of his narratives, but added that for him, the process of writing involves setting himself a difficult task or a problem and then having to solve it: if the script isn't a 'problem', then he feels he's not really doing anything.
He described Synecdoche, New York as a 'sad funny film' rather than a 'funny sad film', saying that he viewed it throughout as a comedy – albeit one that deals with the themes of ageing, mortality, loneliness and disappointment.
He also spoke about the feel of the film, saying he wanted to capture the visceral impact of dreams, which can defy logic but still have a strong emotional impact on the 'viewer'. He said that we all have our own personal mythology, which makes the imagery of our dreams so powerful to ourselves but not so meaningful to others. In the film, he succeeds in making the terrain of Caden's world work like a dream and then leading the audience into it, so they feel the full emotional impact of the character's heart-breaking experiences.
Roger Ebert has said of Kaufman: 'It is obvious that he has only one subject, the mind, and only one plot, how the mind negotiates with reality, fantasy, hallucination, desire and dreams'. In this film, he also highlights the importance of choices – how at any moment we could make a decision that will have ramifications for the rest of our life.
My natural urge now would be to read the script and give it more of a left-brain analysis, but maybe that's not the best way to approach a film like this; while it's not flawless, Kaufman has created a compelling and immersive piece of cinema that deserves repeated viewing rather than cold critical dissection.
Complete 2.5 hour interview for Wired magazine (MP3, in five parts)
Creative Screenwriting podcast - Q&A with Kaufman re Synecdoche, New York (MP3)
Being Charlie Kaufman - "The definitive information resource for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman", including early-draft scripts