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Charlie Kaufman, Literalist of the Imagination

By Travis Nichols

synecdochenyfirstphoto.jpg
Riding the bus down to the Hotel Monaco to meet Charlie Kaufman, I suddenly have a terrible piercing pain in my right eye. Every time I blink, it’s like a bit of glass under my eyelid rolls along the surface of my eye. I yelp and frantically try to drag the thing out, but I only seem to make it worse.
I stumble off the bus, finger to eye, thinking, yes, this is the perfect way to meet the writer and director of “Synecdoche, New York,” a movie as much about pain and decay as about creativity and inspiration.
In the hotel lobby, I sit blinking and Kaufman–short, wiry haired, in a leather jacket– walks up and points at me. “You here for Kaufman?” he asks.


We ride up the elevator to the conference room and as we do he sighs and says, “I fucking hate these things.” I look around the elevator and nod. “Interviews,” he clarifies, “I mean, don’t worry, I’ll be fine, but I do. I hate them.”
We walk out into the hall. All the doors have copies of the New York Times in front of them and Kaufman points as we pass by.
“Did you read it? The review?”
The review begins, “To say that Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now.”
I had read it. I agreed.
We go into the conference room and we talk. An excerpt from the conversation appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but there were many parts not included there, and I have been strangely drawn to this bit from the cutting room floor, which I include here despite its only marginal relation to poetry qua poetry:
TN: Watching “Synecdoche,” I kept thinking of this line from Marianne Moore that says poetry should create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” That idea of creating something very real within an obviously fanciful framework is something that I think you do very well. There is a kind of cognitive realism there, one that I don’ think you don’t get a lot of credit for. Mostly people say you’re “surreal.”
CK: Well, I argue for my sense of realism, but I think there’s an illusion, or a contrived realism that we’re presented with in most movies, and we accept it as realism, when it’s just a kind of movie convention. The things that are left out of movies that are supposedly realistic, those things are very interesting to me.
I think when you use dreams, or dream imagery, or dream logic, you can get to something that is truthful because . . . it’s hard to know why exactly. That’s just it.
I have the experience with dreams that I’m so affected by them in such a real way, I’m so moved by dreams to despondency or longing, that to try and find that in a form that allows for dream imagery and logic just feels like the way to go. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
And my “surrealism” is always grounded in real emotions. If you can be somewhat poetic in your imagery or in your ideas–and I try to be–then viewers have to wrestle with those things, if they choose to. If they’re engaged with those things, then they become part of the whole work, which is really what I’m hoping for.

Comments (13)

  • On November 20, 2008 at 9:15 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Parts of Synecdoche, New York were filmed in Woodlawn, my neighborhood up in the Bronx. It was nice. Folks could pretty much walk right over and say hello to Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Hoffman like they were a couple of lads from the neighborhood. Although, hard as I tried to explain to some of my neighbors, no one really knew who they were. At the urging of my friend Mary, I even gave Mr. Kaufman a copy of my book. She said I would hate myself if I didn’t. He was really cool about it.

  • On November 20, 2008 at 4:01 pm Nick wrote:

    Hey Travis, does he read poetry?

  • On November 20, 2008 at 4:32 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    When I mentioned Marianne Moore he broke into a smile and nodded knowingly, but I didn’t ask outright. After a few too many interviews with non-poetry people in which I ask all excited about what poetry they read and get only bewildered looks in response, I haven’t had the heart in a while. But I should have here. Next time!

  • On November 20, 2008 at 4:47 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    “I don’t really have anything against stories, but I just want to feel something happening. I read something that Emily Dickinson said that I’m going to paraphrase: you know something’s poetry if a shiver goes up your spine.” –Cherlie Kaufman in an Interview with Michael Koresky and Matthew Plouffe, Reverse Shot Online, Spring 2005

  • On November 20, 2008 at 4:51 pm Doodle wrote:

    Oh, dear. Not a very good paraphrase, is it?

  • On November 20, 2008 at 4:59 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    The fear, of course, is that he’s just a pretentious imposter who likes to puff himself up by paraphrasing and nodding at poetry. The state of Hollywood movies is so anti-poetic right now (isn’t it? Dunno. Sounds good to say) that any old Dana Carvey show sketch writ large for the big screen will seem awesome, but I’m willing to take the plunge with Synecdoche, New York, and with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both of which I think are minor masterpieces of a sort.

  • On November 20, 2008 at 5:47 pm john wrote:

    “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a line from a Pope poem. (I read that in some article; didn’t recognize the line, though I have read the poem.)
    I’m all for people posing about poetry. More cocktail-party name-dropping please!

  • On November 20, 2008 at 8:28 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Not to change movies, but I am still shocked that–in light of Hollywood being anti-poetic along with poetry–there has been no mention made of the movie Southland Tales. Which had Eliot and Frost on the 2008 campaign ticket. It’s a truly great movie. Namely that you get the sense that Justin Timberlake and The Rock have no clue that they are acting in such an amazing movie.
    What could be more beautifully dystopic than Justin Timberlake unwittingly reciting a re-engineered “Hollow Men”: This is how the world ends / This is how the world ends / This is how the world ends / Not with a whimper, but with a bang.

  • On November 20, 2008 at 11:30 pm Don Share wrote:

    How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
    The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
    Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
    Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
    Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
    “Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;”
    Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,
    Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.
    Grace shines around her with serenest beams,
    And whisp’ring angels prompt her golden dreams.
    For her th’ unfading rose of Eden blooms,
    And wings of seraphs shed divine perfumes,
    For her the Spouse prepares the bridal ring,
    For her white virgins hymeneals sing,
    To sounds of heav’nly harps she dies away,
    And melts in visions of eternal day.
    excerpt from Alexander Pope, “Eliosa to Abelard”

  • On November 21, 2008 at 12:09 am Katie wrote:

    Yes, decay! That was the word I was missing. Also, I keep remembering parts of the movie and have that strange early morning feeling that I am half-remembering a dream. Pretty neat.

  • On November 21, 2008 at 12:00 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    I get the sinking feeling that you did that from memory, Don.

  • On November 21, 2008 at 9:17 pm "noah freed" wrote:

    a) Pope is given as the author of the line in the movie.
    b) It’s pretty rich that you just assume that Timberlake “unwittingly” recited the lines & had no idea he was in a good movie. Condescend to popular culture much?
    c) Southland Tales is a terrible movie.

  • On November 22, 2008 at 10:37 am unreliable narrator wrote:

    But the really brilliant thing about Kaufman’s use of this quotation is that the character who quotes it (played by Kirsten Dunst) is a young secretary really hoping to impress the doctor for whom she works (played by Tom Wilkerson), a much older man with whom she’s in love, so she ransacks Bartlett’s for impressive relevant literary tidbits and comes up with this:
    Do you like quotes, Howard?
    What do you mean?
    Oh, you know, like famous quotes? I find reading them inspirational, and in my reading, I’ve come across some I thought you might like too.
    Oh, well, I…I’d love to hear some.
    There’s one that goes, “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.”
    That’s Nietzsche, right? [mispronounced]
    Yeah. And here I thought I could tell you something you didn’t know.
    Oh, no. It’s…it’s a good quote. I’m happy we both know it.
    Yeah. Oh, and there’s this other one I like. It’s by Pope Alexander, and it goes…
    Alexander Pope?
    Oh, yeah. Yeah, shit. It’s just that I told myself not to say “Pope Alexander” and sound like a dope, and then I go ahead and say it.
    It’s no big deal. You’re such a sweetheart.
    The world forgetting, by the world forgot. I think I just found my new tombstone motto.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, November 19th, 2008 by Travis Nichols.