By Jeffrey Overstreet
Charlie Kaufman sits at the table in the conference room of the Hotel Monaco in downtown Seattle, bowing his head, all ten fingers in his mop of dark hair. He doesn't say anything.
Neither do I. Neither do the other two journalists at the table, who are recording all this silence for an Amazon.com podcast.
“I'm trying,” says Kaufman at last, “to organize...my response to your question.”
This is why I love interviewing Kaufman. He's never eager to please. He takes conversation seriously, and visibly cringes at questions about celebrity, fame, or superficial matters.
But this morning, he seems actually happy to be in conversation with people who are interested in the earnest questions at the center of his surreal cinematic art. Synecdoche, New York is not only his most layered, labyrinthine film yet—it's also his directorial debut.
In it, a playwright named Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) earns a genius grant, which gives him a chance to put on the production of his dreams. So he begins a work that will swallow up the next few decades of his life—a massive play on a massive stage with a large cast.
The play is a projection of his own life, which he examines in search of enlightenment. The project swallows him up. The more he writes, the more he learns about himself. Those lessons influence his life, so he revises the production. And the cycle goes on endlessly. Cast members who play the prominent people in his life become the prominent people in his life, and then he has to cast other people to play them. His life becomes a play within a play within a play, until he's lost in the maze of his own self-analysis, unable to find anything real.
It's scary, and Kaufman knows it.
Synecdoche, New York began as an endeavor to collaborate on a horror movie with director Spike Jonze. Neither of them were interested in conventional horror stories. “We wanted to talk about things that were scary-scary, as opposed to horror-movie scary,” he says. “So we talked about dying, aging, time passing, relationships gone bad, regret, illness, isolation, and loneliness.... I wanted to make something that felt truthful to me.... I'm trying to put something that's sincere and honest, in a very subjective way, into the world.”
I asked him what he means by the “truth” of a scene. How does he know when he's achieved “honesty”?
“I think it's that I believe [the scene]...or I don't,” he said. “When I'm talking about 'truth,' I'm talking about subjective truth. Because that's the only truth I have to offer. I don't have any larger truth.... I have the authority to try to present myself to the world.”
This drive to capture something honest and true in art is one of the themes most prominent in Kaufman's films. It strikes me as a profoundly spiritual line of inquiry. His films always leave me thinking about the futility of seeking salvation and consolation in a world without God. Kaufman's characters only ever look to each other for help. And they're constantly disappointed.
But unlike other directors preoccupied with stories of human depravity—Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Lars Von Trier—Kaufman never takes his characters into a search for God.
During a public Q&A after the Seattle premiere, I asked Kaufman about his apparent disinterest in questions of a religious nature. I told him I keep waiting for one of his characters to look beyond broken humanity for consolation and redemption. Why don't these characters ever look for God?
Kaufman answered very directly. “That's sort of like asking me, 'Why aren't they lumberjacks?' The answer is, 'Because I don't write about lumberjacks.'”
While the crowd laughed, Kaufman sought to reassure me. “I'm not making fun of you at all.” He explained that it just doesn't occur to him that he might find any kind of love or grace from a sovereign God. “It just doesn't resonate with me. I don't think God is a guy, or a woman, if God exists at all. But other people around me can relate to me in ways that are tangible.... I read a lot of philosophical stuff about religion, metaphysics, and the universe, and I'm really fascinated with it. But my feelings about it are that there's not an anthropomorphic version of someone watching over us who's going to love me. I could be wrong, but that's who I am. And the stuff that I write about is the stuff that I think about.”
He continued, “People want to be loved by other people. I have that experience. People I know have that experience. And I feel like it's universal to have this feeling that says, 'People won't love you if they know you—because being you is shameful.... You're not that pretty inside.'”
No wonder Kaufman's depictions of humanity are so horrifying. In all of his films—Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, even Eternal Sunshine—he leads us to the abyss within the human heart and, like “Mistah Kurtz” in Heart of Darkness, he glimpses “the horror...the horror....”
The only hope in Kaufman's world shines in fleeting glimmers of grace between people who choose to endure each other's darkness for a time. Any search for lasting peace in the miserable prison of our existence seems futile. It's Ecclesiastes all over again.
Isn't faith the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet experienced? I can't help but wonder what a bit of that might do for Kaufman's miserable characters.
I suspect Kaufman would respect that. He'd probably say, “That's your truth. Your experience.” And I hope he'd find me honest.