Charlie Kaufman, Literalist of the Imagination
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.
Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...