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SCRIPTLAND

Don't freak out -- it's killer Kaufman

Eternally expanding his art, the writer's `Synecdoche, New York' is personally epic.

September 13, 2006|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

Scriptland, launching today, is a new weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters.

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I have the new Charlie Kaufman screenplay on my desk.

I've read it -- no, lived it. I've been moved and astounded by it. And I'm tortured by the dilemma of what I should or should not say about it here. I feel a bit like Frodo palming the One Ring.

The last two weeks have been a grueling cacophony of real and imagined voices -- other journalists, producers, publicists, Kaufman, myself -- trying to convince me either of my righteousness as a journalist or of my complicity in possibly hurting one of the greatest screenwriters in history, a man with a craving for privacy as singular and passionate as his creative vision.

Kaufman is widely and justifiably considered the most inventive screenwriter in Hollywood. He was nominated for an Oscar for both "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," and finally won one (along with Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth) for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

On a personal and professional level, I thought reading his latest script would bring me great joy. Charlie Kaufman is that rare artist who expands the possibilities of his art form. His work is designed to be experienced more than read or seen. His filmed screenplays become beautifully melancholy windows into some of life's most indescribable (and unavoidable) emotions.

But many people, beginning with Kaufman, do not want me to have the script, do not want me to read the script, and without question do not want me to write anything about the script. Words like "super-sensitive," "invasive" and "freaked" have been cautiously leveled at me as I've reached out to those involved with the project to get their thoughts on it.

And what a project. Ambitious doesn't even begin to describe the sublime and scary head-trip that is "Synecdoche, New York." For one thing, the marketers are going to have to borrow from the P.T. Anderson "Magnolia" poster campaign, in which the title was broken out syllabically, just to get people to pronounce the film properly. (It's sin-neck-duh-key, emphasis on the neck.)

For all those who aren't AP English professors, a "synecdoche," other than a clever play on Schenectady, where some of the film takes place, is a figure of speech in which a part is used to describe the whole or the whole is used to describe a part (think "threads" for clothes, or "the law" for a police officer). It's representative shorthand.

Yes, I had to look it up. Several times. And this is far from the only reference or play on words in Kaufman's story that rewards a closer look.

"Synecdoche" nominally concerns a theater director who thinks he's dying, and how that shapes his interactions with the world, his art and the women in his life. But it is really a wrenching, searching, metaphysical epic that somehow manages to be universal in an extremely personal way. It's about death and sex and the vomit-, poop-, urine- and blood-smeared mess that life becomes physiologically, emotionally and spiritually (Page 1 features a 4-year-old girl having her butt wiped). It reliably contains Kaufman's wondrous visual inventions, complicated characters, idiosyncratic conversations and delightful plot designs, but its collective impact will kick the wind out of you.

Spike Jonze, who directed Kaufman's scripts for "Malkovich" and "Adaptation," was once destined to helm this new project, but eventually opted for the Dave Eggers co-scripted "Where the Wild Things Are," now shooting in Melbourne, Australia. This left Kaufman, who's always been deeply involved with the making of his screenplays, to direct it himself. He's currently finalizing casting deals with an eye toward filming next spring.

If this film gets made in any way that resembles what's on the page -- and with the writer himself directing, it will likely gain even more color and potency in the translation -- it will be some kind of miracle. "Synecdoche" will make "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine" look like instructional industrial films. No one has ever written a screenplay like this. It's questionable whether cinema is even capable of handling the thematic, tonal and narrative weight of a story this ambitious.

But, as one character says, "People starve for something of worth." Well, moviegoers will surely be gorging on the power and depth of this film for a long time.

Meanwhile, I feel terribly sick to my stomach.

Going inside the situation room

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