Monday, July 20, 2009

Charlie Kaufman Would You Like to Know That He Really Does Care About @#$%ing Structure!

Synecdoche, NY has just opened in England, and Laura Barton stopped by Charlie Kaufman's hotel room to help him measure himself for a coffin. "Does he read the reviews? 'Uh. I've stopped,' he says, not remotely convincingly, and immediately contradicts himself: 'I tend to not only read reviews, but also every little stupid thing online. It's a very bad idea, and there's a lot of angry people in the world. And it's weird to absorb all that weirdness.' He speaks like a hen pecking the dust. 'Were you at the screening [in London] last night?' He directs the question to the carpet. 'I was, like, what in the world would motivate someone to shout, "Rubbish"? I speculated it might be the same guy who asked later on, "I've noticed that your movies don't have any structure, and I'm wondering if you are comfortable with your movies not having any structure, or whether you'd rather they had structure..." He said "structure" three times.'"

Kaufman doesn't exactly agree with the contention that he his intricately built scripts have no, ahem, structure. "There's this inherent screenplay structure that everyone seems to be stuck on," he points out, "this three-act thing. It doesn't really interest me. To me, it's kind of like saying, 'Well, when you do a painting, you always need to have sky here, the person here and the ground here.' Well, you don't. In other art forms or other mediums, they accept that it's just something available for you to work with. I actually think I'm probably more interested in structure than most people who write screenplays, because I think about it." At the same time, he is by nature what might be called an improvisational writer. "In the case of Being John Malkovich, which is the first screenplay I wrote by myself, I was trying to take two separate ideas and combine them. So I would see if I could surprise myself, if I could force myself into directions that were unanticipated. It was a conscious decision to try and duplicate that process of writing with someone else, but doing it by myself. But one of the reasons it's nice to have a collaborator is that when things get bad, you can have fun with it, you can make jokes about it."

Of course, a tendency for making jokes about things getting very bad may be part of what has made Kaufman such a controversial figure. On Synecdoche, "I was trying to present a life, with its moments of nothing. There is something that happens to people when they get old, which is that they get sidelined. There isn't a big, dramatic crescendo and then their life is over. They're forced out of their work, the people in their lives die, they lose their place in the world, people don't take them seriously, and then they just continue to live. And what is that? What does that feel like? I wanted to try to be truthful about that and express something about what I think is a really sad human condition." Kaufman was nonplussed by some of the praise he got, from people who had been hostile to his earlier work (and, with Synecdoche< went right back to being hostile to it), for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, because they "said it was the first time that I had expressed any human emotion, or heart, or something like that."

Some of us find Kaufman's work so emotionally affecting that the only way we can account for the accusation that it's too cold is that it's a rationalization formed by people who are made angry by his work because it gets to them in soft, sensitive places where they'd prefer to remain untouched. Kaufman himself doesn't say this, but some of the things he does say make you wonder if he could maybe relate to that. On Synecdoche, he was trying to address his own awareness of death: "I think death is a hard thing to look at, but I can't really not." As for the idea that one needs time and distance to gain the perspective necessary to write about painful experiences, "It's not only that I don't like [that concept], it's that I think there's a dishonesty to it. I've come to that sort of conclusion that it doesn't exist, that distance, ever. It's not real. We tell stories about the world, and our lives in the world, and relationships. It's just a way that the human brain organizes things. You never actually live there. The thing that you're putting in perspective is always over, you know? And the truth is that it's very hard to live where we really are, but that's the only place we get to live. So I'm kind of interested in that, in exploring that."

Related Stories:
Screengrab Review: Synecdoche, NY

In Other Blogs: Synecdoche-Mania

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