Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

I'm not quite sure how to explain a movie like Synecdoche, New York. So let's just start with some facts, in the order in which they become apparent.

The title, of course, is a pun. There is a city in New York called Schenectady, but synecdoche is a literary technique in which a part of something is used to represent the whole. Mickey Mouse is an simple example that comes readily to mind--his iconic circular ears are often used to denote the full Mickey, or sometimes the full Disney empire.

And the film is written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman has established a reputation as a writer with his screenplays for Adapdation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Synecdoche is his first time in the director's chair as well.

So, if you're me, you're really excited. The film is named after a literary device, it contains a pun, and it's written/directed by Charlie Kaufman. Maybe not everyone's cup o' tea, but it's an English geek's wet dream. Throw in a starring-Philip-Seymour-Hoffman and I'm sold.

The results? Sadly, it's a bit underwhelming. Or, rather, the type of whelm it aims for ends up trapping it into earning the prefix under-. Let me unpack that.

In the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, a director living in Schenectady who, upon receiving a MacArthur "genius" grant, decides to finally write and direct his opus. Cotard puts his opus together on an enormous stage in New York City, bringing in thousands of actors, all of whom perform semi-related, equally important little vignettes. Essentially, it's New York City in miniature. It's one way the title gets enacted.

But really, the movie is about Cotard. Not just about his weirdly enormous, ever-evolving, and ultimately never-finished play. But also about his life and about his relationships--with Catherine Keener, his artist-wife who abandons him and takes his daughter with her; with Michelle Williams, his vapidish perennial actress; and with Samantha Morton, his box office assistant turned personal assistant turned true love. 

The movie is very into being "real" -- for example, it spends an uncomfortable amount of time on Cotard's weird medical issues, such as seizures, an inability to salivate, and his sycosis (inflammation of hair follicles, not the more well known "psychosis" (another pun)). But it also gets at the real by injecting a lot of the surreal. As the play moves forward, the timeline becomes more and more confused (both in Cotard's head and in the viewer's.) His psychologist (Hope Davis) seems weirdly telepathic. Samantha Morton's home is always shown as burning (and no one seems to mind).  This being Charlie Kaufman -- and this movie being named "Synecdoche" -- these things all mean something. But it seems like there's a lot that can't be fully comprehended in a first pass; the movie needs a second, third, fourth, fifth viewing. (Kaufman states as much himself. In an interview with IonCinema, he says: "You need to see it more than once. The trick is to get people to watch it more than once.")

But therein lies the problem. Because of its focus on being "real", it's also quite a bit sad, a tad hopeless, a little bleak. One of Cotard's remarks to his actors is that he "won't settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal." And brutal is not so bad a word for this movie; it's so emotionally raw that it hurts to be a part of, and so it's not something a viewer is necessarily eager to revisit. Which is a shame, because I'm sure much of Kaufman's use of symbol in this movie is brilliant, but I'm also sure that I won't be sitting through the entire film again anytime soon to find out.

To foist a bit of synecdoche upon you, dear reader, for me the film is summed up by Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), whom Cotard hires to portray himself in his play. Sammy does a marvelous job capturing Cotard, but when he's not in character, he can smile. The smile really stuck out to me while I was watching the film, and I think it's because Cotard doesn't really have a smile in him (thus making fake-Cotard's smile all the more glaring). Sure, Philip Seymour Hoffman does turn the corners of his mouth up from time to time, but it's always an awkward, embarrassed, or unsetted smile. Never genuine. But Sammy's smile--the actor's smile--is genuine. And as a result, I'd suggest that he, not Cotard, is the more real, more genuine person.

In all his obsession to make his film "real," Charlie Kaufman left out joy, happiness, and (with a few notable exceptions) laughter. He seems to have given in to something that was always an impulse but never a controlling feature of his earlier work -- the equating of "real" with obscene, or uncomfortable, or upsetting. And those things are just part of the real, no more or less part than mirth is. And the tragedy is this focus on the ickiness in "real" has actually made Cotard--whom I imagine has more than a bit of Kaufman in him--into something like a two-dimensional character. Which means that, even for all its artfulness, I can't give Synecdoche, New York any more than a 2. 

Quotes that serve as a part to represent the whole:
Caden Cotard: I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't.

Sammy: (handing Cotard a slip of paper with his ex-wife's address on it) I want to follow you there and see how you lose even more of yourself. ... ... Research.

Minister: Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won't know for twenty years. And you'll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it's what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn't really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved. And the truth is I'm so angry and the truth is I'm so fucking sad, and the truth is I've been so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long have been pretending I'm OK, just to get along, just for, I don't know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own, and their own is too overwhelming to allow them to listen to or care about mine. Well, fuck everybody. Amen. 


Wicked Little Critta said...

Serious props for your review, DW. This was quite an undertaking, and yet this captures it quite accurately.

I can tell that there are aspects of Kaufman that I adore. I enjoy surrealism, and also diving into the reality of life and humanity. However, it's true that this movie was weighted down with so much baggage you could barely recognize these brilliant elements.

For starters, this movie dragged. I mean, DRAGGED. When I looked at the clock and realized we were only halfway through, I cried a little inside. Part of this I think was due to how Kaufman, and as a result, the movie, didn't seem to care about me at all. It just did its own thing and if I got into it, good. If not, then f*ck me.

By the end, I was mad. The ending is actually not bad, and there's a monologue that I really enjoyed. But I was forced to get through so much arrogantly artistic crap that the whole experience was negated. Also, realizing the potential for a really excellent movie in its last scene is really annoying. Charlie, you need help. Go and give Michel Gondry a call.

Mike said...

I think you mean "pretentious" instead of "artisitic" in the last paragraph there, WLC.

I have a confession: I f**king hate Charlie Kaufman. The only times his schtick really worked for me was The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich, to a lesser degree.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Ok, I'll grant you "pretentious" could work, too.

I feel like I can't really hate Kaufman, because to be honest, I think that Eternal Sunshine is one of the best movies ever made. In my other limited experience with him, though, I've been quite turned off.

I have to say, It would be very interesting to be his psychologist...