Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

As Synecdoche, New York unspools, one may be forgiven if the routinely melancholic subject of mortality seems to be treated as a kind of relentlessly rancorous punchline. Charlie Kaufman's directorial maiden voyage is discontented, and just a little angry. Which provides the abutment for Kaufman's grandly affixed creation. Without the frustration that comes from knowledge of the mortality of oneself, such astutely penetrative works as the fifteenth century's Latin texts, Ars moriendi, written with the solemn purpose of endowing the reader with the properly Christian, and artful, way in which to die, would not have had their very first reason to be created. This connubial triumvirate of philosophy, religion and art in the bleary matters of death has haunted man, and continues to do so, in the popular art form of cinema.

In Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theatrical director in Schenectady, New York, suffering from a case of hypochondria that makes Woody Allen's Mickey Sachs in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) look positively blasé when regarding his health. Caden's suspicions seem to be proven, with dizzying rapidity, as Kaufman whirls the ailments with which Caden may or may not be afflicted—with the alacritous hurry of children-riding horses on a merry-go-round. His head being slashed while shaving leading him to believe he has brain damage; his urine curdling into a rusty brown; his fecal matter becoming differently colored (foreshadowed by his daughter’s fixation on her greening “poop”), finally graying as surely as his hair does in this twenty-year-long odyssey; the postules that riddle his skin; a gum disease, necessitating surgery; seizures. Kaufman's specific obsession with the waste product of his characters speaks to an anatomical cogitation, and supplies a rationale for critics looking through the lens of literalism to deride the unpleasant imagery and exposition while forming the fairly tired theory that the auteur has his head up his rectum. On one doubtless plane this does partly serve as a creative innuendo. If Caden is Kaufman, as Marcello Mastroianni's Guido Anselmi was Federico Fellini in , thus Caden's fascination with the matter he, his daughter and all people evacuate is a “brutally truthful” (an achingly lofty goal towards which Caden strives to reach in his art) reflection on the writer-director himself, a bit of self-deprecating humor about more than defecating. However, Kaufman's fervent interest in the body in all of its functions serves greater, much more involving interests. This thematic curiosity was previously covered with repetitiousness in his previous screenwriting enterprises most minutely in the context of the ritualistic auto-orgasmic act of masturbation. Here, however, Kaufman strips away his protagonist's desire to self-pleasure; indeed, when confronted with the potentiality of having sex with a woman, Caden begins crying, much to his embarrassment.

If Kaufman's Caden is unwilling to self-pleasure and humorously unexcited about—or perhaps simply incapable of emotionally handling—the prospects of lovemaking, it is with an ironic twist that Kaufman makes his ostensible alter-ego (emphasis on ego) a veritable eye of a tornado comprised primarily of femininity. Like a passive, uncharismatic and oversensitive variation on Mastroianni's Guido, and lacking a whip with which to keep his vying females at bay, Hoffman's Caden mopes and talks. In a kaleidoscopic first act in which time moves at great velocity (newspaper dates change by several months at the rate of a minute)—the fabric of which is never tamed and is astonishingly fluid throughout the film—Caden's relationship with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) completely disintegrates. Caden—whose last name, Cotard, hints at his ailment's identity—suffers one verbal indignity after another from Adele. As he is directing Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman,” and has given the modern classic a face-lift by casting younger performers (one of whom is played by Michelle Williams) in all of the roles, informing the actor playing Willy Loman for what feels like must be the hundredth time that the great tragedy of the play will be ballooned by the audience's collective realization that they will end up just as devastated and beaten-down as poor Willy Loman. Again, the film functions as at least doubly attuned, heightening the film audience's awareness that Caden resembles Willy Loman.

After Adele sees the production for herself, she lacerates her husband for wasting his time tinkering with someone else's play. Soon she takes their daughter away to Germany where she becomes quite famous. (A phone call between Keener and Hoffman recalls Capote, in which Keener, vastly more respectful and tender as Nelle Harper Lee, gently basked in her acclaim with To Kill a Mockingbird to a disgusted and psychologically bruised Hoffman-Truman Capote.)

The numerical configuration of 7-45, as in 7:45, is fascinating, for it gives the film a greater oneiric foundation. Awakening at the time his digital clock reads 7:45, Caden's lackadaisical efforts to vacate his bed, listening to the local radio station, whereat a woman speaks of the depressing realization that is the first day of autumn (“The bloom is off the rose,” she says at one point; later, she notes that “everything is dying...”) are a foreshadowing of the film's most fundamental portrait: a man slowly struggling against the oncoming chilliness of mortality. The beautiful number seven, God's chosen number of completion—and in the interests of further thematic uncovering, perhaps denoting the dice-flinging possibility of “sevening out,” which results in the player losing the dice. Four, idiomatically conjuring the imagery of the four extremities, resting on all fours, bodily communicating the extents to which beings can concretely reach. Five, the digital representation of the hand's extremities, theoretically reinforcing the primacy of man's distinguishing feature of the closing of the thumb and index finger—also very probably tied in with the concept of “taking five,” of a respite, in this instance pointing to an earthly rest.

The liveliest character in Caden's orbit is the spirited, lovely redhead Hazel, who works at his theatre's box office, played to infectious dazzle by Samantha Morton. Flirtatiously sweet, if admittedly highly, almost unhealthily determined, she is compulsively drawn to Caden's vulnerability, which most fittingly keeps her at a remote distance. Gradually, however, she wears Caden's veneer of insecurities and anxieties down, pointing to his wife's year-long absence (which he believes has only spanned the time of a week), and takes him to her home, where a perpetual fire consumes portions of the abode. This venue of confused lovemaking, the air overwhelmed by the smoke and flame through which Caden and Hazel eye one another, with her offering a drink.

Kaufman's richly detailed, almost epically vast narrative, marked by a suffusive coating of phantasmagorical surrealism, chronicles not the celebration of death but the reckoning with it. The film does not in actuality represent the petulant wallowing in nihilism that some critics undoubtedly dismiss Synecdoche, New York as but the confrontation with existential worriment. Kaufman's films cannot and should not be called nihilistic: if anything, it is an exemplary branching off from nihilism, and most historically judicious in being such. The film is surrealistic, the philosophical and artistic outgrowth from nihilism in the post-World War I period, and stands in contrast to nihilism as a film made with the entirely reasonable, even morally sound, yearning to confront the greatest vicissitude that lay in the shadow land between life and death. Kaufman's pictures may not meet the definition of “funny” for everyone (Synecdoche, New York is rather hilarious, however, despite the grimness and wistfulness at the picture's troubled but thoroughly humanistic core) but their interests, marinated though they may be in Dostoyevskian, Joycian and Kafkaesque theorem, are not absurdly esoteric or incomprehensible.

Those interests are in actuality not especially eggheaded, but truly bourgeois, at least in their emotional resonance. If anything, with each successive screenplay, Kaufman has become more one with his audience than with his peers. That process seemed to culminate in 2004 with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which took as its great, urgent theme the inviolable importance of memories—good, bad, indifferent—as the basis upon which people of all stripes find their own soulful worth. Those memories, in that case distinctly constituting the highs, lows and in-betweens that lovers share, and here, the sprawling ennui, sweeping intimacy of one man's life as artist, husband, father, friend and lover, give people an ideal to which they strive. Kaufman seems to be writing a valentine of sorts, not to anyone in particular, perhaps, but to the very notion of the good life, which is naturally imperfect (and thusly “good”). In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet's characters discovered that annoyances, disagreements and disappointments aside, they were ultimately right for one another. Keener's Adele remarks with cutting clarity—and, again, brutal honesty—“Everyone's disappointing, the more you know them,” a biting piece of individualized nihilism, yes, but exposed as fatally trendy and hollow. This is not unlike the family counselor played by Hope Davis, interested only in peddling her uber-trendy self-help books, whose lack of assistance in anything meaningful indicts the labeled highbrow establishment not unlike Woody Allen's thrashing of the intelligentsia.

Comparing Kaufman to Ingmar Bergman may verge on heresy, though some of the concerns are similar. Here Kaufman reminds of Bergman's films about artists, in one form and context or another, such as The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna and even Autumn Sonata, motivated as they are by the quandaries with which the famed Swedish master struggled. When Caden finds himself apparently swapping roles with a woman named Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest), the disorienting effect is considerably less subtle than that which constituted the psychological exploration and projection in Persona but not entirely unlike it.

It is noteworthy that cinematographer Frederick Elmes, longtime cinematographer of David Lynch's, lensed this film, lending it an aesthetically adventurous manner. Yet the cinematography, mixing the reality with the fantastical, is most effective because it is almost pensively restrained in its gritty, grounded schema. The original music by Jon Brion brightens some of the film's darkness, aiding Kaufman in making many a ludicrous event downright hysterical. Kaufman's picture succeeds most emphatically because of its singular ability to leave profoundly saddening revelations about humanity dropping into the minds of the viewers while practically giggling, chuckling and chortling through the celluloid itself. Meanwhile, Hoffman and Morton give two of the year's best performances in one of the year's very best films.

What Synecdoche, New York most puissantly reveals is the importance of finding peace within one's very soul, within oneself. Kaufman dials down the artistic expression at its most basic mixture of ingredients. Visually, this is demonstrated through absurd and humorous tiny miniature works of art framed at an art gallery that must be viewed through microscopic goggles. After Caden has assiduously built up the warehouse (it looks like an enormous airplane hanger in “reality,” however ill-defined that may be, however) he eyes a map. The map features the Warehouse, and underneath this symbol a smaller map and warehouse exists, and underneath that, yet another, each one becoming tinier than the one before it. Caden cannot stop thumbing through them for a moment, at the sheer, almost juvenile delight that matryoshka dolls likewise inspire. The entire film's essence is boiled down. It is in this never-ending vortex, this gravitational pull of wonder, that people learn about themselves. Or so Caden desperately hopes.


nick plowman said...

Fantastic review, I must say. And it seems that this film has produced some of the most entertaining, thought provoking reviews more than any other film seems to have done this year, in my opinion. And that is great.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes indeed, this looks as fantastic as a review can be written for this film. I am checking in and will later today have a full reaction, which I look forward to as I found this one of the most challenging films of recent years and one of 2008's best.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for that, Nick. I'll be looking forward to checking out other people's reviews in the near future. For now, though, I just want to keep soaking in my own thoughts after seeing it last night. What a trip, what a picture.

Thank you, too, Sam, and I look forward to your "full reaction," haha.

Sam Juliano said...

This wildly sophisticated and scholarly discourse would earn an "A+" in my cinema class if I was a teacher, and it tenaciously makes a strong bid to be the most thorough and comprehensive review of the film that I have yet seen on these threads. Still, I think the other reviews I have read like Craig's and Nick's have been magisterial in their own ways.

This is as deep a treatment as a review could rightfully evince. The initial discussion of mortality and the cohesion of "philosophy, art and religion" is surely a fascinating one, as is that superlative examination of Caten Cotard's character, which of course is central to any understanding of this film.

I loved the reference to the "kaleidoscope first act" and the phone call that recalls CAPOTE, as well as the deft discussion of that "numerical configuration of 7-45 (7:45).

Furthermore, as per my own review of the film, I made my own connection between Bergman and Kaufman, so I daresay your own perception here merits a lot of attention.

This is a very difficult film to absorb, and to write about it is doubly difficult. I guess there is so much more I can say, but if I go that direction with this particular film, there will be no end point. It was quite a challenge just to read it. You can rest easy Alexander, your effort here is a singular, exhaustive triumph.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you very much, Sam.

It is an easy film to get "wrapped up in," not such an easy film to wrap your arms around, as such, and it is most challenging but in a most stimulating way. And that does lend itself to thorough examinations, haha.

Thank again for the very kind words and indispensable input as always, Sam, as your thoughts on films of all kinds is always worth treasuring.

What a wonderful film this is, though!

vanessa said...

I really, really like Philip Seymour Hoffman and I cannot wait to see this!!

Great review!!!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Vanessa. I too am an avid fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's simply splendid here.

Sam Juliano said...

You really made my day, not only with the superlative review but with the big thumbs up on the film. I think we both can say it's definitely among the year's best.

And thank you for those wonderful words of appreciation to me!

K. Bowen said...

Still at its core only a fancy way to say Life sucks, then you die. :)But a good review, nonetheless.

K. Bowen said...

Interesting thought though about therelationship to Bergman. i personally thought of it being more like 8 1/2, an artist trying to think back on the loves of his life and draw meaning and importance.

Moses Hernandez said...

You writing such a deep and masterful review only a few hours after seeing this film is nothing short of amazing. Most critics had days and even weeks to come up with their reviews for it after seeing the film. Hell, some even had months. But yours is in a class by itself. Talent like that is freaky, scary even.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sam, thank you again, and you're most welcome!

KB, I did just look at your review and found it interesting. I can't agree, at least in terms of the effect side of Kaufman's equation, but you make your case well. We actually agree about many of the particulars, down to the similarity to Joyce, but perhaps being a fan of Kaufman's makes the bitter easier to swallow than if I were not a fan of his. I do agree, again, about the Fellini connection through the Italian great's 1963 picture, and I'm convinced looking at the two films with even greater attention to detail, in comparison and contrast alike, would make for a very intriguing line of investigation all by itself.

Moses, thank you very much for the remarkably kind words, but I believe you are too kind. Nevertheless, thank you in any case. I'm glad you found the review rewarding.

Sam Juliano said...

I completely disagree with K. Bowen, who seems to take the easy way out with this astonishingly complex film.

Likewise, the Fellini comparison is rather preposterous.

K. Bowen said...

"What Synecdoche, New York most puissantly reveals is the importance of finding peace within one's very soul, within oneself."

Perhaps. I'll think about it. I like the Kafka reference, which makes sense, as well. I respect the film. I certainly respect your thoughts.

On the positive side, Hoffman is wonderful. Morton is strong. But the person who unexpectedly stands out in that group of strong actresses is Michelle Williams. If Wendy and Lucy is as good as rumored, then this is the year she really came into her own.

On the other hand, I would rather see Cathy Keener in something other than the put-upon Bohemian wife. She can sleepwalk through that role, and she's starting to.

nick plowman said...

Definitely a trip Alex, one I can’t wait to embark on again, with some of your astute observations in mind this time. Seeing it once and having no idea what it was about going in was great, I just wonder what else I might notice with all these thoughts and opinions in mind.

Sam Juliano said...

"I respect the film. I certainly respect your thoughts."

Well, K. Bowen, if those comments were in response to what I had said above, I salute you for their ingratiating substance . And they are more than fair.
If, however, they are in general response to Alexander's review again, well again they are more than fair and I respect them all the same.

Hello Nick. Your own Fataculture review of the film remains extraodinary and your perceptions have stayed with me.

Craig Kennedy said...

First of all, yeah, what Moses said about the depth of this very quick turnaround. Impressive job.

You were willing to try and pick the film apart in a way that I was uncomfortable doing.

"The film does not in actuality represent the petulant wallowing in nihilism that some critics undoubtedly dismiss Synecdoche, New York as but the confrontation with existential worriment."

This is exactly right I think. I reject the idea that Kaufman's work is nihilistic. It's a troublingly simplistic way of dismissing him. Would a true nihilist bother making art? I see Kaufman as having nihilistic tendencies but his art comes from a struggle against them. He's trying to fill a nihilistic hole.

As someone who isn't satisfied to have meaning supplied by religion, this is a struggle I experience myself so I deeply identify with Kaufman's characters.

Nice review, but I would also like to hear more about what the movie made you feel. Perhaps now that you've cracked what it made you think, you'd be interested in following up.

Alexander Coleman said...

KB, I understand your points against the film. I cannot deny that there is a certain solipsism on display in much of Kaufman's work. On the "plus side," however, I do believe Kaufman is--for all of his trickery and narrative unconventionality--quite sincere, when he voices, through multiple characters in this film, the idea of "writing what you know." Kaufman's angst, turmoil and spiritual ennui could easily become tiresome if he weren't such a superlatively gifted writer, in my opinion, anyway: While his screenplays occasionally verge on being too consumed by their own narrative schemes and "wackiness" (as that fellow in Adaptation refers to Kaufman's screenwriting), they, for me, anyway, make truthful observations about humans through Kaufman's own prism. And that is, I suppose, why I think the Kafka connection you like makes as much sense as it does, in its implications.

Sam, while I agree that Kaufman and Fellini aren't especially connected, I cannot deny that 8-1/2 may serve as a useful template against which to look at Synecdoche, New York. Again, however, many people will see it wildly differently, so maybe you and others sharply disagree. I'd love to know what you think about this.

Nick, yes, it is quite a trip. I'm sure I'll see it again in the coming weeks. There are many layers to this picture, and that leads me to...

Craig, thank you for the kind words. As you say, and as I say, haha, I don't find Kaufman nihilistic--if anything, his films are anti-nihilistic, at least when taken as whole works. (This reminds me of our discussions about the Coen Brothers: yes, their films frequently depict nihilism and nihilistic individuals, but I cannot and will not call them nihilists because it finally does not fit.) Not to mention your point that an artist, especially one as intellectually and artistically curious as Kaufman, does not make a nihilist. (It is true that Pasolini at a certain time was becoming personally lost as a person, and artists have in the past find themselves worthless.) In any event, I entirely agree with you, Craig.

As for how the film made me feel: I'm still grappling with it in many ways, but the final scene (the coda as it were) was quite saddening. I fear some may see it as sort of flippant, but I didn't think it was. I found it very mournful, and so the film's lasting impression is one of grief. However, I must say, I laughed more at this film than I have laughed at a 2008 new release since--well, I'm not sure when. There are great swathes of it that are simply hilarious in my opinion and so the final sadness with which it ends is very tempered by that. There is a persistent helplessness that one gathers from the proceedings. Those darkly lit, grainy scenes in that apartment building, and especially that hallway, were visually depressing (doubtless intended to be so), and since they came late in the film, I came to interpret Kaufman's visual formation throughout the film to shift from the sunny (almost to the point of being comparatively idyllic) first act to the downbeat gray darkness that seemed to rain down on the film, with the approaching inevitability of death.

Craig Kennedy said...

I found abundant humor too and it helped ameliorate the gloomy tone that so many people seem to be tripping over.

I'll have to see it again, but I still feel a certain optimism in the ending. As I think I said in my own review, it felt like he was finally stepping outside of his own mind and connecting with the broader human experience. It may have been a little late, but I think he came to the realization at least that he was not alone. In some kind of spiritual sense he was connected to all of us.

Alexander Coleman said...

I think that rings true within Kaufman's framework very well, Craig. The film makes a connection between the ontic and the spiritual in those closing moments, and while I do not dispute the sadness of the film, I do believe that, as with Kaufman's earlier films, he allows his character to find peace before the very ending. And I wholeheartedly agree that the abundant humor certainly does "ameliorate" the gloominess at hand.

Laura said...

An exceptional review of a movie I just saw today. Your insights are plentiful. I already had my hands full processing the movie itself but your review has made so much of it come to life for me, kinda complementing it in a way most movie reviews just don't. Wonderful job.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Laura, I'm glad to hear you just saw this one and found the review worth checking out. It's an outstandingly rich film, and one I'm looking forward to revisiting.

K. Bowen said...

It does strike me as nihilistic. The gloomy ending being the key but not sole moment in that assessment. However, it strikes you as being humanistic. Let's assume, though, that you can convince me it's humanistic. I still don't think I would be happy with it. My protest is not only nihilism. It's that it's a nihilism born of mental insularity, so much so that it comes across to me as artificial and, if I can use the word in this sense, inexperienced. If in the end it is humanistic, I would still feel the same.

I think the observations made are precious and artificial. And I don't mean that as a complaint against its surrealism. It's an issue with Kaufman's reputed shyness and seeming lack of life experience. As you say, he does write what he knows. But most of what he knows is untested theory circling his head.

At least that's my perception.

K. Bowen said...

By the way and for the record, I didn't pan the film. I gave it a middling grade. Although sometimes when I get in discussions with enthusiasts, I feel like I panned it.

Alexander Coleman said...

I cannot protest your points about Kaufman's film being characterized by nothing less than great insularity, KB. It is, it would seem, his most insular picture (I realize he had others direct his earlier screenplays, and they all lent very valuable ingredients to his written concoctions as you note in your review) to date, and "the most personal," in that tired phrase about artists making something that is specifically from themselves.

The psychosexual trappings and identity-crisis minutiae, though, is not new to Kaufman at all, and with this film, I actually surmised that he was perhaps readying to, not so much depart these recurring themes, as to finally step a bit away after going so far in here.

I understand the charge of nihilism with this film taken alone, and I would concur with the idea that it's at least much more embittered and scabrous than Kaufman's earlier works, which were of course tempered by the respective directors' own personalities (though, again, even in basic narrative form, Synecdoche, New York would be a much more acerbic picture than the ones made based on his screenplays).

Perhaps one key difference in our reactions to Kaufman's work is that you don't care for him continually going over his thoughts without bringing them to clear conclusions, whereas I tend to enjoy this from him. His films themselves tend to take on the attributes--and possibly the weaknesses, depending on one's perspective--of his struggles of his thoughts, or inspirations, and the circumscriptions thereof. Like in Eternal Sunshine, the memories being "turned off" forever like factory warehouses having their lights turned off, repeated ad nauseum: it may become tiring and even redundant, but eventually the very points of enervation may become more laudable depending on one's own perceptions, and especially in the case of Kaufman, one's sense of humor.

However, again, I completely respect your thoughts and opinion here. You've voiced it with great clarity and eloquence.

Alexander Coleman said...

These are the kind of discussions that make the Internet worthwhile.

K. Bowen said...

I'm glad you're enjoying it. Not meaaning to be a pest. :) I think this is a very intriguing conversation.

Alexander Coleman said...

I agree, KB. :)

Daniel Getahun said...

What Laura and Moses said.

I find your examination of 7:45 mind-blowing. Whether it's accurate or not is beside the point; the fact that you remembered and pulled that much out of it is extremely impressive.

"If anything, with each successive screenplay, Kaufman has become more one with his audience than with his peers."

I love that thought as well, the idea of a filmmaker connecting with US and not THEM. Compared to someone like Tarantino or Eastwood, from whom I feel a real distance.

I agree with KB about Keener, though. This was essentially a reprise of her role in Hamlet 2, just to name a movie this year.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Daniel, that means a lot.

I agree that Kaufman has gradually come closer to his audience, which is ironic considering this is very much a portrayal of his alter-ego as artistic creator.

I didn't see Hamlet 2 so there goes that problem for me. :)

Matthew Lucas said...

I'm still mulling over my own review of this and have very purposely stayed away from others' reviews until I'm done. But I promise I'll come back and read this after I'm finished. Your reviews are always very perceptive.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you very much for the kind words, Matthew, and I look forward to your review as well. I almost always stay away from others' reviews until I've finished mine.

Joel E said...

Interesting review, Alexander. Your thoughtful examination of the deeper psychology and symbolism of the film is intriguing and enlightening.

I agree that Kaufman isn't a nihilist, although i think I can see how KB or someone else might read that from the despair Kaufman seems to regard the inevitably and triviality of life itself.

One thing I've noticed in all his pictures, and this would play into KB's criticism of Kaufman as a screenwriter, is that Kaufman seems to be obsessed with portraying men incapable of emotional availability. They feel emotion and yearn for connection, but other than Joel in Eternal Sunshine, none of them can offer themselves to another in any real way. I'd admit I'm awfully tired of this one-dimensional depiction of male leads in Kaufman's movies, except that he depicts these character moments with such honesty and realism that I find it intriguing regardless of my frustration.

I'm still not sure what I think of SNY, but your review helped give me some food for thought.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words and thought-provoking input, Joel.

I can see the despair with Kaufman, to be sure, probably more with ths film than ever before. He seems to repeat this borderline archetype of a protagonist, I agree, though they seem to come in different pitches and are endowed with different counteracting talents or gifts as individuals (though the concept of creation, as in artistry seems to recur quite a bit, not unlike Woody Allen and his own personal sorrow at the idea that art cannot immortalize one, no matter how good or noteworthy it is).

You make a fabulous point, though, about the men in the Kaufman screenplays yearning for a connection. That is a consistent thematic at play, and this might be one of the reasons Synecdoche, New York is receiving such mixed notices and head-scratching reactions--it's in many ways the "endgame," with the Hoffman character, Caden, representing the most hopeless case yet, but serving almost as a spoke of the wheel of women in his life.

There is a great deal to think about, though. I am sure I will be revisiting this one in the weeks to come.

Thank you again, Joel, I'm glad you found the review helpful and/or interesting.

barney raper said...

this is one f'd up movie. great acting tho.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Coleman, great speaking to you about rev road recently - thanks again... Also, kudos on another magnificent essay here... Hope it's okay to revisit another "older" film like this (I'll catch up)... I found Synecdoche to be one of the few films that has moved me greatly (I found myself feeling some measure of existential sadness - not something I am prone to), but left me intellectually unsure of what I'd just seen (a split that is also not my usual film viewing experience). Clearly, you did not have that same problem... Though I consider myself to be a relatively informed film enthusiast, I do not happen to be a David Lynch aficionado - sacrilege in certain circles to be sure - but there it is. I was not surprised to find that Lynchs' DP had shot this film as the stylistic similarities are obvious. While the burning house in Synecdoche is the most overtly surrealistic expression (forgetting the replica at the heart of the story), your thoughts regarding Kaufman's restraint in employing said surrealism are fascinating, and you give voice to the biggest issue I have with Lynch - that is, his lack thereof – I simply do not like getting overly manipulated or fooled when I watch film, and Lynch has openly stated (as if it wasn’t obvious) that he wants to provoke, to shake things up, to screw with his audience (I feel like this is better left to video installation pieces, but that's me). Kaufman, to his credit, clearly wants to play by the rules – or at least the ground rules he establishes himself within an individual film... In response to some of the comments made by K Bowen, I couldn't disagree more - Kaufman is nothing if not sincere. If you've listened to the man interviewed, there is little doubt that this is not some elaborate game he is playing at. One would have to be an accomplished actor or some kind of studied performance artist (and his first name is not ANDY) to display the consistent level of insecurity and neuroses he demonstrates in the flesh, to say nothing of the obviously personal nature of his work. For my money, in the same way I find Woody Allen's, and Ingmar Bergman's, and any number of auteur director's work appealing, I appreciate Kaufman (rather than condemn him) for his solipsism - that obsession, that inability to walk away from self-exploration, is part of what drives artists of his kind; although, it is their ability to communicate these obsessions in an artful way that makes them genius. Perhaps never in the history of cinema has a screenwriter so clearly managed to influence films from several different directors that combine to equal an early body of work comprised of films that share a very unique film world (hint - it's not Jones' or Gondry's construct). One can comment on Wes Anderson, The Coens, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, The Dardennes, Wong Kar Wai, Hsaio-Hsien et al and debate their merits and failings, but one wonderful aspect these directors (and others like them) share is that they have a film world in their heads that they're continually trying to express through their stories. The settings and plots and characters change, but their aesthetic runs through their work. It amounts to simply having a point a view and the ability to convey that over the course of multiple films. I am not, for instance, a huge Hal Hartley fan (though I like some of his films), but one has to hand it to him for his singular pursuit in making films in his own unique style. I say the same for Jaglom, Lynch, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Jarmusch, Fassbinder, The Dardennes, Leigh, Loach, et al - It is perhaps the very yardstick separating true artists from directors for hire (not to say that artists didn't and don't exist among this bunch as well - it's just harder to define them unless they stuck to one or two genres). Kaufman is, in his screenplays, tearing himself inside out, mining his insides. His surrogates are afraid, ugly, lazy, out of shape, nervous, unsuccessful, bad with women, confused, dishonest, jealous, narcissistic, selfish, anti-social, bad in bed, and a bunch of other really lousy things. In fact, part of what makes us like and identify with them is the fact that they are so painfully obvious in their humanness. Kaufman is measurably harder on himself than any cinematic writer/director I can think of (Eustache and Fassbinder come to mind, but that's a different story). I see Kaufman's meta approach to examining the process of creating art and how that creation reconciles with the artist and his/her "real life" to be further evidence of Kaufman's refusal to "lie". Not only do I think Kaufman is the furthest thing from insincere, I think he is so obsessed with artistic integrity that he finds it impossible to tell straight narrative, because for him this wouldn't be "honest" enough. He is so overly conscious of not wanting to lie that he finds creative ways to tells us up front he's a liar and a coward and that you can't necessarily trust anything he says because the real person writing the screenplay is neither overly talented nor emotionally whole, and wouldn't know how to tell a pure story if it bit him on the ass, but he will try anyway, and will try to let you know as he goes when he's full of it and when he isn't (when he knows it, of course)... In terms of charges of nihilism in relation to Kaufman? You, Mr. Coleman, mentioned Pasolini, an example of someone potentially expressing some nihilistic leanings in their work. Makajev? Kurstica? Cameron Mitchell? Fassbinder maybe? I'd call Lynch more Nihilistic than Kaufman. I don't think being solipsistic in relation to creating art is at all the same thing as expressing a nihilistic philosophy. Regardless of the kind of despair and hopelessness Caden encounters in this film, the fact that he keeps trying to get it right (in both his personal and artistic life) is indication enough that this is not Kaufman's philosophy here or anywhere else. Caden looks to art precisely because he believes life does mean something and there are answers out there. A nihilist does not – or, at least searches for whatever is out there through disorder and indulgence. In fact, Kaufman's films are centered on lead male characters rather desperately looking for love, conformity, and connection, not the opposite. If anything, the female characters in his story have a tendency to be searching for more nihilistic experiences. Kaufman's males are obsessed with being understood, listened too, "gotten," an interesting switch from standard gender stereotypes, which lends additional fodder to ideas about Caden Codard and his feminine persona... Synecdoche is, seemingly, an amped up (or down) version of the same subject matter Kaufman has been examining all along. Caden is the most extreme of his protagonists - the biggest hypochondriac, the most desperate, the most depressed, and his quest is, naturally, bigger, his confusion and angst level greater. The stakes have been raised to perhaps an absurd length, and one can't help but wonder if this is Kaufman the artist feeling he has become boxed in by his own solipsistic quest (tying himself in knots, so to speak). Something about this work smacks of conclusion to me, and perhaps it's the very level of those same stakes that makes me think, where can he possibly go from here??? On some divergent path, likely, that will be different and yet the same, in the way that all artists are essentially singing the same song, painting the same picture, shooting the same film… and that’s a good thing because we get to watch and learn from, and appreciate their journey as it connects through their body of work.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, all I can say is, thank you for the astonishingly permeant (few other words could be appropriate) comment, Anonymous. Needless to say, I agree with your many thoughts here--especially that Synecdoche, New York is in many ways Kaufman's magnum opus, and sees him reaching a new, more fantastic height.

Cotard is indeed the most extreme version of Kaufman's protagonists--for all of the reasons you suggest. The swapping of the gender stereotypes is evident in the film as you say.

As for those filmmakers you suggest may demonstrate some nihilistic leanings in their work--perhaps, but nihilism and art tend to not mesh, and while I agree that those filmmakers frequently delve into depressing areas of life, I think all of them genuinely care about the characters they create. Fassbinder, for once, I would suggest is almost an anti-nihilist: his films are passionate and brimming with concerns rooted in the sociological. The others likewise have worries, concerns and troubles that they try to lustrate those pangs with their films.

I wish I could go into this more, but I must be going now. Thank you once again for this rich comment yet again, however, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, would love to hear any additional thoughts you might have when you have more time as I feel like you have so much insight into the films you write about, and film in general, although certainly do not feel compelled... Just to clarify, I was not suggesting that any of the directors I listed were nihilists in any way, shape, or form - I was trying, awkwardly obviously, to make the point that I don't think of Kaufman in that way, and merely listed some directors off the top of my head that I thought expressed indulgent lifestyles within their films - not very well thought out on my part - can I retract? - hah... In any event, I was pleased to read your review because I had a lot of not very articulate thoughts about it and your piece attuned, through your usual cogent delineation, some of those ideas. Further, as always, you bring up new avenues of exploration in every one of your pieces, which would seem to be the very point of any film criticism beyond capsule summary review, and something that is hardly ever actually accomplished...

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you very much for the kind words, Anonymous. Very appreciated here. I understand now, with greater clarity, what you were saying in your earlier comment. Excellent thoughts, and thank you for expanding on them yet again. Sincerely thank you once again for the enormously kind remarks. Your comments have allowed me to focus once again on films that I have enjoyed considering and conversing about in entirely new ways. Thank you for that as well!