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THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

The critical words? Every one stings

Charlie Kaufman says his films are a piece of his soul: 'I feel very vulnerable.' It makes him ponder quitting.

October 26, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.

Charlie Kaufman, a diminutive 50-year-old screenwriter with a thatch of uneven curly hair, is all but swathed in existential terror. He's in the midst of barnstorming the world, promoting his long-awaited directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York," a rite of passage somewhat akin to a root canal for the famously shy auteur.

You'd think given the originality of his films, such as "Being John Malkovich" (about a puppeteer who discovers a portal into John Malkovich's brain) or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (about a love affair complicated by a memory-erasing machine), that Kaufman wouldn't care what anybody thinks. But he does. Since playing at the Cannes Film Festival six months ago, "Synecdoche" has polarized critics. There's been much praise for what A.O. Scott of the New York Times termed "its seamless alternate reality," yet there's also been sniping about the film's opacity and air of gloom. The film's lack of universal acclaim and the fact that it took so long to find its distributor (Sony Pictures Classics) have left Kaufman jangled and upset.

"I feel very vulnerable," he says, as he waits for lunch in a French bistro in Los Feliz. So vulnerable that he's actually talking about quitting screenwriting.

This film, which opened Friday, "is really personal," he says. "I feel embarrassed for even doing this in the world. I put this thing, that is like me, my soul, in the world, and I just feel like it's trampled. It makes me feel like I don't want to do this anymore. I certainly don't want to try to sell them, but I don't want to make them anymore either."

He insists he's not kidding. "It's not a threat," he says. "It's just me trying to figure out what I'm going to do next. I need a job. I need to figure out what I'm going to do to pay my mortgage."

It's slightly depressing to hear a dreamer like Kaufman speak so prosaically. His name is practically an adjective in Hollywood, synonymous with a comically depressed inversion of reality, where people's interior lives are externalized for all to see. He won an Oscar for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and was nominated twice more. He is one of the few first-time directors to get final cut. Yet even Charlie Kaufman has to eat. He's spent the last five years on "Synecdoche." Even with a cast of actors' actors led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Synecdoche," which cost more than $20 million, may or may not make money for its investors.

The film's commercial prospects weigh heavily on Kaufman, who doesn't want to end up like another visionary, Orson Welles, reduced to hawking wine. "Why am I trying to seduce how many millions of people for this thing to be worthwhile to the people who invested?" he asks, despairing over how the making of cinematic art devolves into "this business crap. Hollywood Oscar watch . . . this thing that people want to rip down because it's gotten too successful. It seems heartless to me. It's not based on anything to do with anyone's heart. It has to do with anger. Everybody is really angry all the time. It makes me angry," Kaufman adds with frustration. "I don't want to be angry."

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Viewers have to piece it together

"Synecdoche, New York" is like a sprawling garden of Kaufman's mind, filled with a jumble of wondrous sights amid human ugliness and a continual preoccupation with death. The film is completely original and memorable -- as long as you like movies that make you think (and haven't had too much wine at dinner).

On the plot level, it's about a struggling theater director in Schenectady, N.Y., Caden Cotard, whose artist wife abandons him partly in disgust for his banal imagination (which seems to consist of a penchant for restaging classics) and takes along their 4-year-old daughter. Unexpectedly freed from monetary worries by a "genius" grant, Caden moves to New York, where he creates a simulacrum of real life in an abandoned warehouse. It's an apartment building housing actors playing Caden and the various women Caden loves in a continual play that lasts for decades. And, oh yes, Caden is perpetually obsessed with illness and dying.

A "synecdoche" is a grammatical term meaning the part for the whole, like referring to headlights to describe a car driving down the road. The title might refer to the constantly mutating theater piece as the physical manifestations of Caden's psychological state. Or the term might refer to Caden, as an alter ego, or kind of synecdoche of Kaufman himself.

Kaufman does not care to elucidate, except to say that, "There's nothing written that's not autobiographical. By that, I mean 'Transformers' too."

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