Monday, February 2, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Dir. Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman is one of a kind. In case you haven't been paying attention Kaufman is the man behind the screenplays of some of the best pictures of the last decade including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation. From his humble beginnings as a writer for the TV show Get a Life, Kaufman has built his reputation as a master surrealist from the ground up since the early 1990s. As far as I can tell all his strife and talent culminate in his Synecdoche, New York which he wrote and directed himself. Starring the consistently incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman as aging theater director Caden Cotard, the film starts at the beginning of the end. Cotard has reached a point in his life where all he can think about is death and, despite some vain efforts to overcome these thoughts, failures and tragedies befall him constantly. His health over the course of the film deteriorates to a sad but hysterical point, his relationships with women, including his wife, are almost all ruinous, and he is hounded by insecurity about his life and artistic work. To summarize the plot of the film would be pointless for two reasons, the first being that it would take far too much time, leave the reader confused, and fall notably short of really describing what's going on in the film, and second because Synecdoche is life, and who wants to read a summary about that?

Synecdoche has received mixed reviews by critics all over, yet what is impressive about these reviews is how polarized they are. It would seem the adage “you either love it or you hate it” actually applies to something. Many critics have cited Italian director Federico Fellini's influence on the film and while this is certainly a reasonable parallel it has often been used as a criticism rather than a praise. For those of you who haven't seen any Fellini films Fellini tended to make nomadic, philosophical films that aptly captured the theatricality of life. His characters and scenarios were often larger than life and his films require several viewings before any sort of a definitive message could be found. Synecdoche is a little more straightforward than say 8 ½ but while Fellini could intrigue and surprise the viewer, Kaufman does him one better by creating characters that are not archetypes; characters that live, breathe, say stupid things and who are, in the end, totally fallible. In other words they're real people, where Fellini sometimes seems to only want to produce caricatures. Still, the comparisons make sense. Some of Kaufman's dialog is only great if you keep in mind that he is intending it to be awkward. This intentionality in cinema, and all art for that matter, is often the fine dividing line between genius and naïve stupidity. Kaufman makes his characters, who (especially towards the middle and on to the end of the film) have spent most of their lives being theater pieces, speak like actors. They employ dramatic platitudes, like something out of a Shakespearean tragedy. They cite pretentious philosophical theories and abstract works of literature to cover their insecurities about being boring people and their ultimate fear of being forgotten. They play characters in order to escape themselves. That last sentence is the meat of Synecdoche. Escapism is probably too harsh of a word but throughout the film Kaufman hammers home the solitude of human life and the layers people form around themselves to keep their weaknesses from showing until they arrive at the point where they feel they hardly know themselves, never mind anyone around them. Kaden especially becomes enveloped in his huge theater piece to the point where it eventually becomes his actual life. This process is slow but is marked along the way by Kaufman's blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy until the viewer can hardly tell the difference between what is supposed to be going on and what is actually going. It is a daunting task just to get a handle on the physical aspects of this film never mind the psychological, but Kaufman has a gift for the delicate balance between the two. As in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while the film is visually stunning and at times even distracting, Kaufman slowly unveils the inner thoughts and feelings of his characters. Like a great novelist Charlie Kaufman never gives away too much and knows exactly when to reveal certain precarious details.

Synecdoche was far and away my favorite film of 2008. I have a habit of seeing one really great movie every 3 to 8 months and, naturally, I never know what its going to be. This one was it. I suppose I should feel fortunate to see “great” movies this often or perhaps, some would argue, I should try raising my standards but this film is a beautiful, moving tribute to the sublime, and sometimes daunting, reality that exists in all human life. It is one of those rare occasions in which modern cinema does have something new to say and says it so articulately; so profoundly and, in the end, so simply that it makes all the other films you saw before it seem superfluous. Synecdoche, New York will not leave you feeling good which is perhaps why so many people didn't like it. The ending is exactly what it should be, given what the film is about (I won't ruin it for you). Kaufman has built a tower of excellence; a film that is worth watching again and again.

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