Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Synecdoche, New York"

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” is going to get understandably criticized by some as pretentious (e.g.: the title itself is a verbal pun, and never referenced in the film), unpleasant (be prepared for shots of feces and gum surgery) and arty for arty’s sake, but I don’t give a shit, I fucking loved every minute of it. This is Kaufman turned up to 11, the result of his ideas not having gone through the filter of someone else’s vision; in other words, it’s weird as shit. The film starts off in a somewhat recognizable, real world, and grows increasingly more surreal. Kaufman has gone on record saying he intentionally crafted “Synecdoche” to benefit from multiple viewings, and from a certain standpoint, it’s kind of frustrating that the film is intentionally impenetrable on a first watch. However, those who like to be challenged and can work with it on its own level will find it the sort of film you can discuss with friends for hours afterwards. While it could all just be watched and enjoyed as Kaufman zaniness, metaphor is everywhere you look here, and you’re constantly engaged in a very real way. The audience is made an active participant in the story/ideas being delivered, and is required to analyze and interpret just to keep up. That’s either going to frustrate the hell out of you, or warm the cockles of your giddy little film dork heart. Take a stab at which camp I fell into...

Where “Southland Tales’s” strangeness was like a fun, exciting puzzle with debatable substance, there’s a lot of weighty stuff to be said and read into here. It feels like a manifestation of every idea Kaufman ever had about art and death, and he wanted to include them all, just in case he never got to make a movie again; the strongest thematic undercurrent here is art’s inability to represent reality, but there’s a plethora of subtext to latch onto. Our Kaufman stand-in this time around is death-obsessed, hypochondriac Caden Cotard (a predictably fantastic Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director who’s just won a “genius grant” for his production of “Death of a Salesman” starring actors exclusively in their twenties and thirties. After his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter flee to Germany, Caden finds comfort in his leading lady (Michelle Williams) and decides to devote his $500,000 grant to renting a massive New York warehouse, and stage a play about “everything.” This basically boils down to a play about his life and everything around it, but since life keeps going and changing, as does the production. Stand-ins are hired to play the important people in his life, and eventually there are stand-ins for stand-ins, warehouses within warehouses, and the whole thing gets so meta you can hardly stand it. Besides Williams and Keener, the cast is adorned with stellar actresses (Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Dianne Weist) in supporting roles, and every one is really something special here.

Term papers can and will be written about this movie; it’s thrillingly overstuffed with ideas, but against all odds, also an emotional juggernaut. We may not always be able to work out exactly how we’re supposed to take certain aspects of the film, but we go along for this journey with Caden (and Kaufman), and the destinations are often devastating. Though equipped with an undeniable cynical streak, everything is open to interpretation, and I was tremendously impacted by the film’s ending, even as I remain unsure whether it’s entirely grim or not. To wit: midway through the film, Caden has an emotional exchange with his grown-up daughter in a hospital room as he confesses to a homosexual affair he never actually had, as a real petal wilts off of the flower tattoo adorning his daughter’s arm. The scene had me choked up, but I couldn’t tell you exactly why, and that’s a reflection on the film as a whole. Even when you can’t quite grasp exactly what or why, the film remains entirely transfixing, fascinating and beautiful to behold.


Anonymous Lev Lewis said...

Nice to see someone else felt the same way.

11:49 AM  

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