I love you, Charlie Kaufman

A series of love letters to Charlie Kaufman. Part 1: An introduction to Synecdoche, New York

My first true Charlie Kaufman experience was as an 18 year old in my sophomore year in college–it was a time in my life when I adorned long hair with shorn bangs and a wardrobe full of crewneck t-shirts and athletic shorts. I was just getting my first taste of the world.

Two friends took me reluctantly to the Regal Cinemas on the college campus, a worn-down function with one working popcorn machine and stale seats. The audience was filled with older attendees who seemed more accustomed to the art film scene.

We were to see Synecdoche, New York, film writer Charlie Kaufman’s first directorial debut released in 2008. Kaufman is the neurotic mind behind other sad, whimsical works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich.

As the lights dimmed and I sat through the run of the movie, all I can remember is an intense desire to leave. I felt such cruel, second-hand discomfort from the film — something I hadn’t felt since watching another great film, Punch Drunk Love.

In Punch Drunk Love, Adam Sandler’s dramatic take on a lonely man whose frustrating familial relationships and love life is represented by a score by Jon Brion — erratic drum beats and use of the harmonium made me feel as uneasy as I assume Sandler’s character to feel.

Funny enough (and perhaps not as much a coincidence as I think), Brion also scored Synecdoche, New York — although the soundtrack for Kaufman’s film isn’t what made me want to run out of the theater; it was the depiction of gore and aging so profoundly authentic.

It was the barefaced existentialism of main character Caden Cotard’s inability to find any semblance of love or fulfillment in his life. In this film, theater director Cotard tries to create a grand play that mirrors his real life — all the while losing wives, daughters, friends, potential success, and any power or purpose. The resolution of the film is that life has no resolution, leaving the meaninglessness disturbingly settle in you as it fades to grey.

It was brutally devastating.

At 18 years old, I exited the theater passionately deciding that Synecdoche, New York was the worst movie I had ever seen.

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I walked away and let the memory pass until a few years later, when I found myself living in New York itself. Moving across the country and a handful of years changed things — I still had bangs in my hair, but most other things about me were different.

I felt a strange impulse to revisit the film and went through with it — with a new lens, Kaufman’s film took on a deep meaning.

My fear of the film’s unfeigned honesty turned into what I can only describe as an obsession. Synecdoche New York slowly but surely became my creed, a manual by which I lived my life.

I memorized the script just by listening to it on repeat, and the film became the background noise — my life’s theme music — to all of my daily activities.

This movie did something wonderful to me.

Synecdoche, New York took the veil of life’s bland clichés and ripped it wide open.

Depiction of real depression, existential angst, and longing had never been so masterfully captured. I had always said sadness is beautiful, but now there was a piece of art that confirmed the visuals in my head.

It made me grow. It made me take a long, hard look at what being human truly meant to me. It was devastation incarnate. And that is my first reason why I love you, Charlie Kaufman.

More to come.