Synecdoche panel with Charlie Kaufman most interesting yet of Ebertfest

Synecdoche panel with Charlie Kaufman most interesting yet of Ebertfest

Among the Ebertfest guests on stage with writer-director Charlie Kaufman on Friday night at the Virginia Theatre was a critic with an impressive pedigree and resume.

Nell Minow, a native of Glencoe, is a former lawyer for the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency, and with co-author Robert A. Monks, wrote three books on corporate governance.

She has filled-in as a critic for Roger Ebert at The Chicago Sun Times and maintains the Web site, Movie Mom. Minow also wrote "The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies."

Ebertfest emcee Chaz Ebert, a former lawyer who worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pointed out from the stage that Minow is the daughter of former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow, who in 1961 famously referred to television programming as a "vast wasteland."

And Minow’s sister, Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, is on the short list of possible candidates to replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

Polarizing films

Perhaps the liveliest post-screening discussion so far in the 12th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was the one that followed the screening of Kaufman’s "Synecdoche New York" on Friday night.

Producer Anthony Bregman said the 2008 movie was "incredibly polarizing" and resulted in an "enormous clutter around the dialogue over the movie."

Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which released the movie," said he thinks the "haters" don’t know how to watch the movie, didn’t give it a chance and have to see it in the right context.

One would be Ebertfest, where the sold-out house began laughing soon after the movie started.

Kaufman, who sat through most of the screening, said it was "comforting" to hear the laughter.

"I’ve read online countless arguments between people who think it’s a comedy and people who don’t," he said.

"This is funny but not like ‘The Hangover’" is funny.

The first question for Kaufman from the audience came from a teenage movie buff from Albuquerque who said most creative people don’t use outlines. He then asked about Kaufman’s creative process.

"I’m trying to figure out how not to admit I start with an outline," the writer quipped.

He said he explores themes in which he’s interested and that are going on in his life.

"It gets complicated and messy," he said. "I usually don’t have an outline unless I have to pitch. I try to keep it honest and emotionally kind of naked."

During the audience Q-and-A, Roger Ebert, who lost his speaking voice due to complications following surgeries for thyroid cancer, had his wife, Chaz, ask the Kaufman panel to discuss the film from the aspect of life and death. The critic said he watched "Synecdoche" at a time of illness and that it "enormously helped" him understand his life.

Kaufman said it was very meaningful for him to hear that. The writer-director also said the most any writer in general can offer as a creative person is to be themselves and to be as honest as they can be "because maybe then you can bridge a distance between you and other people" and make them feel less alone.

"We should recognize we are not in opposition to one another," Kaufman said. "I think we live in an alienating culture that puts people at odds with each other. To what end, I don’t know.

"Worry about illness and missed opportunities and missed connections with people — that’s what I tried to put in the movie."

Kaufman said many "happy movies" are lies that force viewers to "aspire or be envious" of things that are bull.

Meaning of synecdoche

A few Ebertfest-goers were talking about the term synecdoche, which Kaufman used in his movie title as a substitute for Schenectady, N.Y., where most of the movie is set.

Synecdoche, from Greek, is a figure of speech in which a part is used for a whole, an individual for a class, a material for a thing, or the reverse of those. For example, copper for a penny.

During the Ebertfest reception on Wednesday evening at the UI president's home, Kaufman told me he doesn’t know why he set his movie in Schenectady other than he liked the name of the city and wanted a place outside of New York City.

Kaufman, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., said he wanted to attend Ebertfest because he really appreciated the support Ebert gave the movie.

"It felt like a good thing to do," he said Wednesday evening. "I’m very happy to be here. It has a very nice feel."

He also described as "personal" the Ebertfest reception "ceremony," in which Chaz Ebert, festival organizers and UI officials talk about the festival, its guests and other "news.'

"You don’t always get that with film festivals," Kaufman said.

I wrote more about Kaufman's appearance at Ebertfest in an article that will be published in the Sunday entertainment section of The News-Gazette.

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