Thursday, September 18, 2014

In Praise of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

"An artist makes a movie that is so labyrinthine and obscure, such a road map of blind alleys, such a turgid challenge to sit through that it sends most people skulking out of the theater -- except, that is, for a cadre of eggheads who hail the work as a visionary achievement."
-Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

In Roger Ebert's review of Charlie Kaufman's 2008 directorial debut, Syncecdoche, New York, the late critic deliberately included the above quote. Gleiberman isn't exactly the vanguard of the next generation of film critics, but Ebert takes pains to emphasize that although he disagrees (and considers himself one of the "eggheads" to which Gleiberman is referring), he respects his colleague's opinion on a film that many consider bloated, self-indulgent, inaccessible, and pretentious. 

"...just when you think it’s safe to go back to the movies, the plunger sucks up something from a clogged drain like the unspeakable, unpronounceable Synecdoche, New York, and you’re forced to take back every prematurely made prophecy about “the worst movie ever made.” Because no matter how bad you think the worst movie ever made ever was, you have not seen Synecdoche, New York. It sinks to the ultimate bottom of the landfill, and the smell threatens to linger from here to infinity."
-Rex Reed, The New York Observer

Since the late 1990's, Charlie Kaufman has become one of the few household name Hollywood writers. He and Spike Jonze burst onto the scene with 1999's Being John Malkovich, a strange film that dealt with the boundaries between fiction and reality in a way previously unseen. Over the next 10 years, he would write the critically acclaimed features Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with the latter becoming both a critical and commercial success. How then did Kaufman, who had created large amounts of critical goodwill, find himself with a directorial debut that some considered the worst film of all time? How, also, did Roger Ebert name this film the best of the 2000's?

"Impressionistic, inaccessible and endlessly frustrating, “Synecdoche” is replete with art-house pomposity and the type of muddled profundity one sees in an introductory philosophy seminar. Ever witnessed a freshman struggle with the writings of Nietzsche and the implications of nihilism on his own self-awareness? Ever wanted to see that struggle blown up on the silver screen for two interminable hours?"
-Sonny Bunch, The Washington Times

, New York is Charlie Kaufman's masterwork. The film deals most directly with themes present in all of Kaufman's films: dopplegangers, the nature of art and the creative process, obsession with love, obsession with loss, memory, and mortality. These themes all crop up organically in the unique narrative, which, although hard to distill into a sentence, essentially tells the story of a man trying to capture life in theater. We experience almost the entirety of a theater director's adult life in a way that has never before been attempted on film. The film flies through time, barely ever giving us a signpost of how far we've come. The narrative is layered beyond belief, and the other creative aspects of the film confront that narrative with full force. Phillip Seymour Hoffman turns in a masterwork of a performance as the protagonist, Caden Cotard, a man whose name gives an insight into his worldview (for more information, look up Cotard's Syndrome). Cotard's attempts to capture his life in an creative work echo the attempts of millions of artists that came before him, and echo the attempts of Kaufman himself.

"Even if you come out of the theater with your head spinning, as the days pass (and this is a film that will cause endless internal debate for days and weeks), what emerges in your memory is a sweet and profound tale of the struggle to create meaning out of the messes of our lives."
-Ian Buckwalter, DCist 

The grammatical term "synecdoche" refers to a small piece of something standing in for the whole object (for example, using "suits" to refer to businessmen). The title Synecdoche, New York is a key to unlocking the entire film. The play-within-the-film's set is a stand-in for New York City as a whole, and our protagonist is a stand-in for artists, writers, and creatives everywhere. The film seeks to miniaturize (but not reduce) some of the biggest issues that face any creative person, in order to examine them. Beyond that, the film could be read as being about life in general, transcending the creative process and tackling the totality of existence. Roger Ebert seems to think so:

"...the playwright's life refers to all lives, and all lives refer to his life. So Kaufman gives the whole thing away right there in his title. Talk about your spoilers."
-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times 

Although I don't purport to understand the entirety of the film (or even most of it), I think that it's a film worth struggling through for anyone who thinks about topics like the nature of creativity and how mortality defines the human condition. I can't possibly contain all of my feelings about it in one blog post, so please excuse the rambling. Synecdoche, New York is a film that will haunt you, stick with you, and one that you will want to return to again and again.

To say that Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now. That at least would be an appropriate response to a film about failure, about the struggle to make your mark in a world filled with people who are more gifted, beautiful, glamorous and desirable than the rest of us — we who are crippled by narcissistic inadequacy, yes, of course, but also by real horror, by zits, flab and the cancer that we know (we know!) is eating away at us and leaving us no choice but to lie down and die.
-Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
I'd recommend reading Ebert's full review on the film, which can be found here,, as well as Manohla Dargis' full review in The New York Times

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