Synecdoche, New York Trailer
So, about two and a half years ago I was sent the script of "Synecdoche, New York" in a London hotel room on my way to the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2006.
It was a thrilling and intimidating submission.
I was given two hours to read it and respond, before I had to give the script back to a waiting messenger.
Upon opening the cover and scratching my head in curiosity and bemusement at a title that announced itself once again as being from the totally unique sensibility of writer and now writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I was soon falling page by page down the rabbit hole, (wait - did we just skip five years in the space of a single line of description in the opening scene!?!). Upon completion I had the unenviable task of having to write from memory a detailed synopsis of the story to send to my colleagues at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment back in Los Angeles who were awaiting my response.
And I had an intense deja vu moment back to one of my first professional experiences in Hollywood.
I had been summoned from Chicago out to Los Angeles in the summer of 1986 with the promise of a job by Barbara Boyle, an amazing woman who became one of my mentors and is now the dean of the film school at UCLA, but back then was a high ranking executive at RKO Pictures. In what perhaps should have been a more-noticed omen of the way things typically work out here, the job evaporated by the time I arrived, and as a consolation prize Barbara offered me freelance work as a non-union script analyst or reader.
This entry-level job consists of taking a bunch of dirty laundry (the ocean of submitted screenplays, half of them incoherent, the other 49% ludicrous), washing it and folding it neatly (writing a book report of each script with a detailed synopsis of the narrative and a page of comments) and serving it up to people who are never going to wear the clothes you have cleaned (the harried executives who will glance quickly at the bottom line recommendation of your analysis and maybe parrot back a pull-quote as they speed-dial their way through responding to the agents and managers banging down their door).
As a test, the first screenplay I was given to read and analyze as a sample of my reading, writing and comprehension was, believe it or not, "How To Get Ahead In Advertising", which became the second film from British writer-director Bruce Robinson after his seminal debut, that cult classic and one of my all-time favorites, "Withnail and I".
For those of you who haven't seen this small British indie starring Richard E. Grant, the story centers around a harried advertising executive who grows a painful boil on his shoulder that surreally erupts into a second antagonistic head and split personality, to blackly comic results. Other than a period where I was obsessed with the Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, I had never read anything like it, and it was the last thing I expected to find upon my arrival in Hollywood.
I spent the weekend in agony. I felt I was being "gaslit" on my first job interview. If I were to confess that I loved it, would I be deemed to have hopelessly uncommercial taste. If I were to give it a negative report, would I be complicit in the studio turning down one of my favorite directors? The script felt like a Rorschach test designed to ferret out my emerging film personality.
Twenty-two years later, here I was reading one of the most wildly imaginative, deeply personal, and seductively subversive scripts I had read since Bruce Robinson's classic, and having the same schizophrenic experience of head and heart in conflict. Later, I was to discover that the name of Kaufman's loan-out corporation for his writing and directing services was auspiciously titled "Projective Testing Inc.", projective testing being the name of the whole field of psychology in which a subject is presented ambiguous stimuli to yield hidden levels of personality.
I can hear God laughing at me, even now.
Well, you can guess the rest of the story. I still have my lengthy email home from that London hotel as I puzzled over what I read and tried to write honestly and not too stupidly about the kind of screenplay of which it might be said "for those who know, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, know explanation will suffice."
My colleagues and I embarked on a wild filmmaking odyssey, accompanied by two of the best producers I've ever worked with, Spike Jonze and Anthony Bregman, and now 894 days later, the movie Charlie made with their help will open in a theatre near you this Friday in New York City and Los Angeles on its way to a slow rollout across the country from Sony Pictures Classics.
In certain circles, the anticipation for this film has been fanatically high from the outset. I remember when an early draft of the screenplay got leaked out, to all of our dismay, and was then prominently reviewed in The Los Angeles Times, the writer wrote that "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."
To paraphrase another blogger at the time: "This will either be one of the greatest films in the history of the cinema, or one of the most pretentious pieces of s*** ever made."
Whether it is either, neither, or both, is now something you can judge for yourself.
I can only promise you it is like nothing you've seen before.
If I were to offer up any clue to an appreciation of Kaufman's aesthetic in general and of "Synecdoche, New York" specifically, it would be to view it through the lens (or the mirror) of the projective test: the work is what it is, and it is up to you to interpret it and experience it as you see fit, and to derive the pleasure and meaning therein as you find it.
I hope you'll check it out. If you enjoy it, spread the word.
We are certainly not living in the Golden Age for bold, adventurous, challenging personal filmmaking.
In the '50's we watched "Wild Strawberries", in the '60's, a film like this might have been compared to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", Fellini's "8 1/2" or Antonioni's "L'Eclisse". In the '70's we flocked to a midnight cult classic like Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo" or the ecstatic cinema of visionaries like Werner Herzog.
Ingmar Bergman - Wild Strawberries
8 1/2 original trailer
2001: A Space Odyssey - Original Trailer
El Topo trailer
"Synechdoche, New York" is certainly not a throwback in any regard.
But, in my opinion, it deserves to be celebrated for having more ideas than a dozen of most other films out there, and for standing so far apart from the homogenized product of our current cinema.