Dear Charlie Kaufman,
You don't know me, and yet, you have created a film that touched the inside of my brain, heart and soul. I have never had as emotional a reaction to any of the thousands of movies I have watched in my lifetime as I had to Synecdoche, New York at a press screening this past Friday. In fact, by some cosmic convergence that – especially in consideration of your work, past and present – seems utterly appropriate, said screening was just the beginning of an entire weekend of film, theater and music that launched me into an experiential examination of self that shocked, excited, depressed and perplexed me. Thank you. Fuck you. Who the hell are you?
I'm sure I can't answer that question simply from admiring your accumulated writings. The emotional spectrum of your works – from the dreamy, beautiful, hopeful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the fleeting, wholly fantastic yet somehow realistic and seemingly hopeless yet ultimately accepting world(s) of Synecdoche, New York -- has repeatedly left me in awe and (all evidence to the contrary) speechless. The experience of living in Synecdoche for two hours has certainly been the apex even as said encounter was at times one of the most painful of my life. But as someone who has often struggled with the simple idea of "feeling," (and apologies for my venturing into TMI), this pain was … good? It was something I long to experience by revisiting your world again and again and again. And ultimately, with a reaction like that, one so visceral and active, can an argument be made that any work which elicits such reaction is anything less than a true masterpiece in the pantheon of arts?
This weekend's journey proved fascinating. I left Synecdoche for a hunting preserve in Southern Illinois where -- during Craig Wright's play Lady -- I watched a completely different look at love, friendship and relationships complicated and potentially destroyed thanks to something as elemental as political disagreement .The next day, still thoroughly affected by your film, I stayed in Manhattan, watching a foursome of New York theater dreamers simultaneously develop and perform in the ultra-meta-musical experience of [title of show], 90 minutes made even more bittersweet by the fact that this little-show-that-could had already become the little-show-that-could-until-it-couldn't as it was closing on Sunday after just over 100 Broadway performances. But, in a very different way than my gratitude to you, I was ever-so-grateful to have experience [title of show], an absolutely hysterical musical, that managed to be so much more as I saw it take the time to once again reinforce that the only thing stopping my creativity and dream pursuits is the lifeblood-sucking vampire of self-doubt.
But back to your film which I have no doubt will completely divide critics and audiences alike. (As this has already happened, I don't pretend to prognosticate.) I found myself asking so many questions as I continued to dry my tears and left the screening room, many of which had very little to do with the most basic question requiring answers from a film reviewer (as well as, but maybe less so, a critic): is it good? Is it well-made? Does the filmmaking and the story and the movie succeed?
Personally, I can't think of any way to say no, but at the same time, I can't yet critique your film because I am still way too focused on analyzing my own reaction to it. My opinion that Synecdoche may enter my canon of greatest films I've ever seen in no way contradicts my complete understanding as to why some (many?) people will downright hate it or at the very least not get it. I don't say that with any feeling of superiority nor condescension; if you had made and I had seen Synecdoche as 25-year-old Aaron – just four years removed from UCLA, about to embark on the beginning of his dream of a great job bringing him to New York – rather than as 37-year-old Aaron -- with a completely different perspective on life (in general as well as his own) – I may have appreciated it, but I doubt that I would have actually gotten it. And, obviously, this is just me utilizing my experience; my happiness and bitterness; my optimism and despair; my hypochondria and masochism; my dashed hopes and realized failures; my fleeting memories and permanent record; my moments of euphoric elation and aching sadness …. All mine; all mine that I bring to share in the life Caden Cotard as I watch a week turn into six years and certain inexplicable death thanks to unexplained illness elongate into an elderly life; as I see Caden's continual striving for absolute truth and some degree of artistic and creative perfection turn into a play never performed for an audience. Is it karmic or coincidental that I saw your film and [title of show] within 24 hours of each other. I know it's no coincidence that you chose to make a film about a director of theater, a living and breathing art form that, unlike cinema, has a definitive lifespan – when that performance ends, it can never be exactly repeated, and when the run of a show ends, it's gone for good regardless of future tours and revivals. When I walked out of the Lyceum Theatre on Saturday afternoon, there were only three more performances of [title of show] remaining, and for that show in particular – one that literally has seen its script evolve throughout every stage and stop of its existence to include the most recent events of its development in the show itself – that last show was, in fact, certain death.
I can't expect anyone else to have my reaction, and yet, I know that my reaction can in no way be unique because, much as you show in your film, even with all our differences from each other, on some level, we're all the same and can be played and replayed by others. The people who were our entire lives can suddenly be gone, just a memory, and yet our lives don't stop for even a second, and the world around us, the one that exists and the one which keeps growing and building on top of itself along with our experiences and knowledge and world view … it just keeps going and going longer than any bunny ever could.
Now here I am, two-and-a-half days later, and I still can't stop thinking about your film. As much as I want to see it again, I don't know how soon I can. What will the second viewing and deeper probing illuminate? I eagerly anticipate it and am thoroughly afraid of it.
I do have one question for you, however. It's been bothering me since the final white screen of your film: I'm not certain that anguish, gloom, hopelessness and despair are the only things in Synecdoche. In fact, I'm pretty sure they're not, even if they were, for me, the overarching ideas that go along with the seeming lack of control Caden has over his life as well as everyone else's. But as someone who has been an "aspiring" for longer and more consistently than he has ever managed to be a "professional," I couldn't help but wonder what seems to me to be a very basic point: How is all this in you? I mean, is chemical? Is it depression? Is it the dark side of the human condition that we seem to find seems to be a primary link between so many of the world's greatest artists across all fields throughout history? Because dammit man – maybe not monetarily, but can you get any more successful than you? I mean, look at your cast! You don't get a cast comprised of so many of the most talented actors of our generation when they don't desperately want to work with you, especially when the script they read couldn't have been anything less than terribly confusing. How can being so respected in your field that you can make a film like this your feature directing debut with a cast like that not allow you to be happy? Maybe the writer of critical successes that aren't Hollywood blockbusters doesn't make the bank of the top stars, directors and even some executives, but I gather you've done pretty well for yourself?
I almost feel like the question is naïve, and maybe it is. And maybe it's the problem so many of us have, depending on some sort of hope and dream to create a happiness that simply can't be dependent on anything other than one's ability to find contentment and joy within oneself, but it's got to help, no? And when you have achieved a working and successful and respected life through your own creativity and art, why the despondency? Because those of us who do hold out hope that if we could just push ourselves over that wall and get to a point where we're doing what we really want and others are letting us do it – clamoring for us to do it, in fact – believe that's when we will have found our personal Jerusalem, Mecca or Xanadu. Sure, maybe that alone is the point; it doesn't have to be hopeless, but reality is never perfect, and I have achieved enough of my own successes – grossly minor or personally major – to recognize that there's always something else … always something next. But those who achieve what we want to achieve are supposed to be those we strive to emulate.
And yet, here lies the brilliance of Synecdoche, New York. The specifics don't matter; the reaction does. And my reaction has been one that has already provoked endless hours of conversation within my own head, rants to friends over a drink, and even a few emails all before these 1700-odd words.
Hundreds of people will be writing about why your film is good or bad, and you'll get stars and thumbs and little clapping men and letter grades, and at some point, I may get around to reviewing and/or critiquing some of the more formal merits of Synecdoche, New York, but for the time being, I'm still just reacting. I have the feeling I will be reacting for quite some time, and for that I say thank you. And fuck you! But again, mostly … thank you.