Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Synecdoche, NY - Part II of II

MM’s soul-searching metaphysical Synecdoche, NY experience:


You can do this review, man. There is no script too difficult, right? You can and WILL find a way to get at the heart and soul and TRUTH of this outrageous epic of Charlie Kaufman. You love Charlie Kaufman. You can figure this out. You can find the truth through the process of writing a review. Okay, just relax. Look at it again.

It’s 152 pages. That’s incredibly long. What does that mean? Is this a burning piece of profound inspiration from a great writer? Or is this a first draft from a guy who’s just putting all of his thoughts down on paper? Or is this a matter of unchecked vanity? Has his fame caught up with him like M. Night Shyamalan’s who thinks his shit doesn’t stink when, in fact, his scripts still have to go through the normal process of rewrites until it’s molded to perfection?

Page 1. He forgot to write FADE IN, which is my favorite part of a script. But that’s okay. That’s not a bad sign. You’ll still find a way to love this. You'll get to the truth of it all. It’s Charlie Kaufman, ya know.

The opening kitchen scene is mundane to the point of being almost boring, which is surprising, disappointing, and yet confidence-building, because you know that there is a master design behind it all. I think this might be just a normal point of entry for everyone into what will be a very crazy story. There’s dual dialogue, which you don’t see often from pro writers. A radio talks about a luncheon in downtown Schnectady that I don’t think we ever see. There’s a subtle undercurrent of standard fare marital unhappiness between Caden and Adele. She talks to some woman on the phone. We see Adele wipe the bottom of their 4-year-old daughter, Olive. There are green smears on the toilet paper. Do we really see that? Ew. Caden isn’t feeling well. He seems distant from his family, lost in his own world. He cares more about his own illnesses, his career, the news he discovers about people dying than he does about the daily life of the people right in front of him.

He visits dentists and doctors and they all give him worrying news that he isn’t well, although no one knows exactly what the problem is and they all tell him to keep coming back for more tests. There's a freak accident in a bathroom. A trip to an emergency room. Caden notices people screaming. The doctor’s concerned that there’s a deeper problem in him and asks about his bowel movements. You get the sense that this could be the beginning of the end for Caden. He visits an Opthamologist. He endures an MRI. He’s constantly checking his stools, and we, too, are forced to view the many strange incarnations of Caden's feces. Once, it’s “dark and loose,” later it’s “black” and even “grey.” He pees in a sink. His urine is “amber.” Is there value in showing amber urine and grey poop in film? What can it mean? Is it to get a laugh? Or is it about trying to show us physical manifestations of Caden’s inner turmoil? Or is it about showing poop on film?

He's a director of plays and there’s a girl in the box office who wants to have an affair with him. Her name is Hazel. Later, she sees a run-over dog on the road. She actually goes to look at it more closely. It’s a bloody, gory mess. Yet, it’s barely alive. The head moves. She bends down to pet it and says “You’re not going to make it, baby.” I think perhaps, it's an overt reference to Caden himself. It’s a grotesque moment, is it not? It’s horribly ugly, but it has meaning, doesn't it? Should we condemn Charlie for many other moments like this one in the film where we are forced to view stomach-churning ugliness that has meaning? She takes it in. We later see it sleeping in a box in the corner of her apartment.

Caden takes the phrase “passive protag” to new heights. He does nothing but be so self absorbed about his problems and his illnesses and his play-directing that he neglects everyone around him. He fails to fight for the child that Adele takes away from him. He never makes decisions - he only caves in to pressure. He’ll agree to sleep with certain girls only after they practically throw themselves at him for days on end without a care in the world about the fact that he’s married and trying to be faithful. But he caves in anyway, and when the sex is over, he cries like a baby and ruins the affair. In fact, he does this on more than one occasion. Doesn’t this kind of behavior turn off audiences? Why should they care about this man who is so weak? But this pattern continues – after crying and ruining affairs, he flips emotionally and suddenly commits to the girl of the moment and begs her like a child to take him back, which they won’t do. He’s always fighting for the wrong girl and never once fights for his own daughter. By constructing a character that goes against everything every screenwriting book ever told you to do, has Kaufman done something right? Is it always necessary to love the person you’re watching in a movie? By seeing someone make all the wrong choices and lose those things that are most precious to him, do we not benefit so that we will hopefully make the right choices?

But that is only one aspect of Caden’s arc. We see him plummet into an obsession about his death, about death itself, and we also see him become enveloped by his own fears and paranoia about his health and his feces and the end of his life. The world around him slowly transforms from reality to a world of the absurd where you see people living in burning houses and other strange occurrences like that moment when the Salvation Army Santa spastically clawed at his beard and revealed a tortured blue face and then he gasped for air and died. And as the world transforms into the bizarre like a slow-moving wave, all of the imagery points to only one thing, that Caden finds himself surrounded by death and decay everywhere he turns – people are dying or committing suicide or friends of friends pass away or his own parents pass away and we see many funerals. And like a slow-moving wave, I find myself deeply saddened by it all. Why put an audience through so much sadness? Is the world so happy right now that we have to pay to be reminded of all this gloom? Is it really admirable and praiseworthy for an artist to do nothing more than to be a bit creative about shit and death? It’s not even the fact that it’s sad that bothers me but that it’s just repetitiously chronicled without any redeeming emotional lift in the end. It is like watching a man fall to his death and there’s no hope for any new development except that he continues to fall, and no ending except that he dies. Pre-destination may be useful in theology, but as a narrative strategy, it’s a bit self-defeating, isn’t it?

Yes, Caden reacts to this and does something about it. We find that he’s a theatre director who had put on a strange play that became a megahit. He’s given a genius grant and he decides that he should write one final play that’s big and true and tough. And he puts his own screwed up life into the story and tries to find truth through that process and put that truth into his art. He has an actor play him and other actors play the women he screwed and there is some whimsical confusion about art imitating life imitating art imitating life.

And none of it satisfies me because it comes across as not redeeming (in the sense of the redemptive power of film art) but as self-absorbed, self-congratulatory, self-promoting, and I really hate to say it, but vain in an even more perverse way than when he literally put himself into in the movie Adaptation. Didn’t he already cover the “creative process” in Adaptation? Why do we have to go through this again? And is this really the best approach to Caden’s story? Instead of him channeling all of his anguish and self absorbed problems into a play, shouldn’t he be actively trying to fix the problems in his life? Isn’t that where we find truth about life in films? When the Greeks put on tragedies, was it always their solution to escape into art and put on more plays? I mean, come on, Charlie. I love you, but tell me - is this really about story and characters and themes or is this about Charlie Kaufman showing the world how brilliant Charlie Kaufman can be? Or is this simply about Charlie Kaufman struggling to be inventive and original and so he finds himself forced to go to peculiar extremes to outdo Charlie Kaufman?

God, ya know, I feel like I’m almost there. I think I’m getting closer to the truth. Yet, I still can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know how to convey this core truth in the review. I just have to keep writing. Let me ask this question - how is it that this story went from real to the bizarre? At some point, in the 120s or 130s, the novelty of the concept wore off and I was just waiting for the ending and the answer to what was really going on, which I never got. I think I have an idea. I think, perhaps, in Kaufman’s mind, Caden is a man already dead, a man living in a half-world between stasis and anti-stasis and he’s just trying to make sense of his life, which saddens me all the more, because Caden's view is on the one hand entirely selfish and on the other, when he finally looks outside of himself, he ONLY sees a world that's full of death and ugliness and his solution is to crawl into his artwork.

But you know, even that answer doesn’t fully satisfy me. I have to get to the core truth of this story…

Oh my God...

I see it now.

I know what to write. It’s


Laura Deerfield said...

Sounds like he's testing, to see how much shit people will swallow from the "genius" screenwriter.

Which, well, he probably finds amusing.

GimmeABreak said...

In a number of TS threads, I've "accused" Kaufman of being vain and self-indulgent. This does nothing to convince me my opinion's incorrect.

MM, Your retelling reminded me of almost every Woody Allen film ever made and I didn't like them either.

Anyone who's ever changed a baby's diaper is familiar with the various colors and consistencies of shit. Anyone who's ever in love or married knows about heartache. Anyone who's ever worked a hated job just to keep food on the table can describe a mundane, unfulfilling life in excrutiating detail.

Sorry, Charlie. I go to the movies to be enlightened, entertained or educated. Why would I waste $10 and 2.5 hours being reminded of the worst parts of my own life and being made privy to yours? No, thanks.

Joshua James said...

Oh. Dude.

Mystery Man said...

Laura - you could be right. I have no idea what to think...

Pat - In a sense he is. At least with so many other artists, like a Kubrick, they applied their talents toward an exploration of the world. With Kaufman, it's always about Kaufman's world.

JJ - Hehehe... This was meant to be a somewhat mirrored reflection of his script, ya know? It's not the way I always review stories.


bob said...

It's still about the poop. I won't see a movie about colored poop. Like Pat said, babies make the strangest colored poop anyone could ever imagine, but do I want to see a movie about it-NO!

Charlie Kaufman has the chips to get this script made. If you or I wrote it, it would never ever see the light of day. If he wants to make this movie and the audience buys it, so be it. But I wonder if he thinks his name as the screenwriter will sell tickets. I hate to say this, but rarely will a screenwriter be the impetus for the public flocking to a movie.

Guillermo said...

God, I hate this shit (oh, that was a obvious pun, wasn't it?)'s why I couldn't be a script reader. Reading words on a page and trying to imagine them as pictures takes real vision--maybe this is one of those scripts that won't really come to life until after the film is fleshed out by actors. And maybe the various shades of poop is some sort of colorful metaphor for all the crap that characters deal with and is a foreshadowing of all the bullshit Kaufman will hear from bloggers and film critics and he just wanted to give them some shit to talk about...

Or maybe Kaufman just doesn't care about any of that crap and wrote a script that means something to him and he hopes that it'll translate to the screen...

Or maybe I'm the one full of shit who doesn't know anything at all.

I, of course, am hoping Charlie is right.

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

But I wonder if he thinks his name as the screenwriter will sell tickets. Lawrence Kasdan was an auto-go for me, but he's the only "modern" one. Charlie came close, though.

I've loved a crapload of his stuff, but not enough to sit there and watch him produce the crapload. Shaking my head over this one. Unless it turns into a surreal Eraserhead-type-flick, I'll take my pin money elsewhere.

Mim said...

Ann, you hit the nail on the head. In tone, it reminds me of those angst-ridden, existential plays of the 50's and 60's, but I don't think it will play with modern audiences.

This goes to show you that screenwriters should never become so famous they can be recognized on the street.

James said...

Thanks for the perfect ending to your post MM :)

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one that felt the same way about this script.

This is more for the people who have read it... but...


The biggest fix would be to axe off the first 60 pages or so. Get rid of 2 or 3 of the love interests. (Looking at who has been cast, I doubt that will happen). And focus the story.

The most interesting concept (you know the thing that almost borders on a premise) is:

Caden tries to write a "real" play so he ends up casting people that will play himself in it. And they are better at being him, than he is...

That is the bread and butter of a Charlie Kaufman script. He builds some great gags from this concept. But he never builds any story out of it.

It also comes at page ~110 or so (I haven't read it in awhile... but it was deep in the script) And isn't developed at all. A page one rewrite with that as the core of the film would be $$$.

Mystery Man said...

bob - I probably won't mind a movie with poop in it. That didn't bother me as much as all the death. That really got to me, and it made me sad. Charlie is a true master craftsman. I do love his work. But so many stories by pros and aspiring writers alike are completely misguided because the WRITER'S motivation is wrong, and here I have to question the Charlie's motivation. This could've just been a fun creative exercise for him and it's just a fluke that it comes across as being self-congratulatory.

guillermo - I'm hoping, too. I'm hoping that he trims down the overwhelming sadness, the 20 or 30 pages of overkill and give us something really beautiful.

ann - that's a really good point. Do screenwriters sell tickets? I see a lot of films because of the writers but generally, you're right. That would make a good post. I've got to write that down. Hope you're refreshed from all partying. By the way, I love Kasdan. Don't know what to think about him redoing Clash of the Titans, though.

Mim - the days of rock star screenwriter are certainly over. but at the same time, I think it helps for writers to do a lot to get their names out there in any way they can.

James - Great comment. I should've said that Kaufman has a sensational concept, no question about that, but it felt like it got away from him because of the death and shit and weighty gloom. On the flip side, I was thinking of a trim of at least 30-40 pages. I liked the contrast of normalcy in the beginning and craziness in the end, but it felt to me that it really dragged after page 100 or so. The concept lost its novelty, overstayed its welcome and went on too long unnecessarily. Get to the ending quicker would be my advice. There are a lot of trims in the beginning that could be made, too. I agreed with you about trimming the number of love interests. Was it really necessary to have that Claire subplot? When he cried a second time after being with Claire, I just wanted to slap him. Anyway, thanks for that comment, James.


Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Oh let's see. Twenty-six years, two children, traumatic family deaths, a failed marriage and success as a novelist and I still haven't forgotten the nightmare that was that movie. I want my money back!

My sister and I called it Clash of The Titties. Please say it ain't so. No, Lawrence. No! Don't do it.


Should I just stick the fork through my eye now? Or wait and see what he does with it. I could forgive The Bodyguard. But this...

MM, I am quite recovered, thank you. Or rather, I was before you dropped that little bombshell. My career took an interesting turn at this con and I couldn't be more thrilled.

I'll watch for that post on screenwriters selling tickets. At last, a movie topic I can opine on from a personal, completely unprofessional and outsider perspective! Oh wait. I was already doing that ;)

PS--second attempt word veri: alkkokd. And no, that didn't happen at conference at all. Unfortunately.

Mystery Man said...

I loved Clash of the Titans! I still think it's great fun. I can't help myself. Seeing it now, it slips into camp quite often, but there are quite a few aspects about it that's intelligent.

We could have a Clash of the Titans party, ya know. I look great in a toga.


"alkkokd" is a VERY dirty word in certain Scandinavian countries.


Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Okay, then.

How's about we get into our togas, pop a cork then you show me the funny, campy parts and I'll show you the parts that made me slowly lose the will to live.

Whoever has the shorter list has to be the other's slave.


But either way you have to tell me, or show me, what alkkokd means. Google told me nothing.

Mystery Man said...


And I'll just have to show you.



shecanfilmit said...

Put that way, the script sounds like David Lynch-lite. Mulholland Drive is, after all, about the split second right before death where you review your life and reconstruct it.

Great review!

Mystery Man said...

Is that what Mulholland Drive was about? Thank God I've found you so you can explain these things to me.



Anonymous said...

Wow. You've all astounded me with your meek arguements. Of course Kaufman is writing from 'his own world'. Isn't that what artists are expected to do? It is THEIR piece of work, after all. I've read the script also, and I think there's alot to be said about it. It definetly needs a revision. However, I do believe after a few fix-ups this could be an incredible piece of art which is truly imitating life. kaufman attempts (and succeeds spectacularly) at capturing what life i REALLY like when our bodies start to shut down. Yes, there is alot of feces, mucus, blood, urine, etc. But that's what life is, is it not? I think Kaufman is trying to demostrate in an accurate way what he fears will eventually happen to him, and all of us. I know first hand about the ugly realities of a slow, drawn out death. So, I can say this hits the nail on the head. The extreme anxieties, the paranoia, the mental breakdown which coincides with the physical one, etc. Anyway, I can't wait to see what he does with this. It's sad to see you all so cynical about such a talent. If there were more writers like Kaufman around Hollywood, we would be seeing more thought provoking, labyrinthine, layered (and not to mention incredibly entertaining) writing... which on repeated views reveal more and more. I think that's the work of a fantastically great screenwriter, not a pretentious one.

-David MacKinnon

Anonymous said...

Also, I can't believe you even uttered the name M. Night Shamalabananalan in the same sentence as Charlie Kaufman. Damn.

-David MacKinnon

Mystery Man said...


Well, hello, David. How are you? Good, I hope. Okay, how about we go through this one-by-one.

1 - "Of course Kaufman is writing from 'his own world'. Isn't that what artists are expected to do?" No. Can you imagine what the world would be like if all of the painters only put themselves into all of their paintings? Yawn.

2 - "...kaufman attempts (and succeeds spectacularly) at capturing what life i REALLY like when our bodies start to shut down. Yes, there is alot of feces, mucus, blood, urine, etc. But that's what life is, is it not?" No. That's a part of life and yes, a part of dying, but that's not what life IS.

3 - "I know first hand about the ugly realities of a slow, drawn out death. So, I can say this hits the nail on the head. The extreme anxieties, the paranoia, the mental breakdown which coincides with the physical one, etc." Yes, but that, in and of itself, is not a story.

4 - re: M Night - I was talking about vanity, not writing skills.

5 - Let me just say that I absolutely love Charlie Kaufman. He's written some of my all-time favorite films. And that's why I wrote this review.


Mim said...

David, sorry to rain all over your parade, but making movies is not about art. It's about making money by entertaining the masses.

People who have millions of dollars to spend on a film aren't very likely to think in terms of "art" and only partially in terms of "imitating life." They are looking for larger than life heroes and dramatic situations that not too many people can imagine finding themselves in on a daily basis.

Producers are looking for stories about people who jump off of burning buildings just before they explode, robots from the future sent to kill the savior of mankind, ordinary men becoming God because God is tired of the job, pirates, wizards, and monsters.

Kaufman's script is not entertaining. We've also been debating whether or not we would even consider it art.

I'm a big fan of films about blood and shit. Pink Flamingos is one of my all-time faves, as is the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. But if you're going to put vomit, blood, and shit into a movie, you've got to do in a way that entertains.

When Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade wrote his latest story with his own shit because Dr. Collard had taken away everything he had, that was entertaining...AND it was art. It was about overcoming adversity. It was about laughing in the face of adversity. It was a slap in the face of authority.

And it was about a man playing with his own feces, not wallowing in it.

I'm sure you'll enjoy Synecdoche when it comes to the theater. I have a feeling you'll have lots of seats to choose from.

Anonymous said...


Sorry, i'm exhuasted.. I may ramble on a bit.

That was the point I was trying to make (maybe not so tactfully). That is the difference between a good writer, and a bad one. People who write with only one or two things in mind, such as making money, entertaining the mass public [dumbing down storylines, out of place humour, offensive plot twists when a writer can't think of a decent ending, etc] in my opinion, is bad film. The ones who stand up and defend their work AS art and aren't afraid to write something of substance, without compromise or without playing to the lowest common denominator, are the greatest writers. Now, there are obvious exceptions to this. It's not universal, of course. I just think it's baffling to just accept that film will always be this convoluted process of regurgitated drivel that runs along a specific template, rarely straying from the path. I understand that is not exactly what you mean, but how can anyone attack a writer for doing something different and daring? That's all.


Anonymous said...


Sorry, I just saw your reply.

Ummm. Your 'painter' arguement makes no sense. Why would a painter only have to paint himself just because he is painting from his own perspective? It could be anything in the universe how he sees it. Not necessarily him, himself as a self-portrait. Eh?

Annnd: Of course death and dying isn't just what life IS. Yes, it's a part of it... and yes, it's a part of the movie. It's not the ENTIRE movie, as you well know. So your comment on how just death and dying doesn't make a movie.. I'd have to agree. But, you'd also have to agree there's much, much, MUCH more to the film than that.


Anonymous said...

I now realize 'themselves' doesn't have to mean self-portrait. I also should note: It's impossible for anyone to write/paint/make music completely from their own perspective. Everything's been done before, artists borrow from other artists, influences, citings, etc. It's the quest to try to do this, that is important. Like i said... tired. I'm done now.


Anonymous said...

PS: I love how we're argueing over the exact same thing the main character Caden is struggling with in the film. Creating something of truth and substance vs. the opposite. Interesting.



Mystery Man said...

Hey Anonymous,

Don't know if you're still out there. I'm so very sorry for my delay in responding. I moved went, endured a funeral, and helped another friend move. But you've been in the back of my mind.

Painter - perception is one thing. Constantly putting yourself into your artwork is vanity. Here, I think that Kaufman was self-congratulatory in a way that was just wrong to me.

I would agree with you that there's more to the story.

By the way, I want you to feel free to visit and argue with me as much as you like and keep me honest. We may disagree, but I will be intellectually honest.


Anonymous said...

Anybody want to imagine the meetings which took place wherein Kaufman's script was vetted? How did he get to make this?

dem said...

He's not testing you, and it's not shit. The movie is very much like life. It's dense and full because it takes place during a lifetime. It's surreal because life is like that. Time is an illusion.
Stop with the genius thing. He never called himself that. That's like calling Obama uppity. I mean, come on, just because someone is intellectually curious and open to thinking differently doesn't mean they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Get those blinkers off yourself! Open up!

ck said...

Brilliant film. I loved the most and almost missed the idea that Diane Weist is actually Caden...and Caden's character is only a representation of her (ie..remember all of the references to Caden being gay, the woman in the hallway asking if he were "Ellen?"...when he remembers his mom and him having a picnic..but he's a girl?) All of the things posted here before are minor representations of the larger picture....just like the title means :)