29 November 2008

Synecdoche, New York

Written & Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Full credits from IMDb

I was depressed for several days after seeing Synecdoche, New York. Not because it’s a singularly depressing film—it’s sometimes funny and poignant, in addition to depressing—but because most other movies (except maybe Inland Empire or Last Year at Marienbad) seem so insignificant and irrelevant now. As does writing about them. That’s not to say that Synecdoche (rhymes with Schenectady) is the pinnacle of cinema, but that it’s an unparalleled, epic expression of one man’s neuroses. No other film, no other piece of art, has mined an artist’s conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds so thoroughly, so honestly, so awesomely. It’s endlessly enthralling, intellectually radical moviemaking and a benchmark in art-as-publicized-therapy.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Kaufman’s surrogate (named Cotard, presumably after the syndrome), a modestly successful regional theater director who scans the morning paper for interesting obits and the latest epidemiological news. (“Avian flu has spread to Turkey,” he announces at the breakfast table. “The country, not the bird.”) He’s a sedately neurotic, a real miserabilist, and—like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, though neither Jewish nor comically relieving—a paranoid hypochondriac obsessed with death.

His wife leaves him, after which he gets a MacArthur Fellowship and begins creating a lasting masterwork, a play which he stages in a hangar so impossibly spacious that, in it, he can build a working, life-size model of New York City (a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, partly, with its searchlighted zeppelin). “We’re all hurtling towards death…each of us secretly believing that we won’t [die],” Hoffman says. “That’s what I want to explore.” The scope of the production becomes so epic that the hangar becomes a part of the hangar. He hires someone to play himself, and an actor to play the actor playing himself. His love interest becomes interested in the actor playing himself, so he has sex with the actress playing her.

In short, it’s a standard-issue Charlie Kaufman mindfuck, though is reaches farther into the outer edges of cinema and the human brain than he has hitherto ever attempted. Most of Kaufman’s previous films, Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, have been set, at least in part, within the characters’ minds. Synecdoche follows suit, though not explicitly, like Adaptation’s last third. Hoffman’s manifest hypochondria, from bumps and legions on his skin to discolored urine and stool, is present in one scene and gone the next. He doesn’t age for “years,” he suddenly ages, he ages back again. He sees himself in chemotherapy ads on television and in children’s cartoons.

It’s surreal; Samantha Morton, in a supporting role as love interest, buys a house that’s on fire and lives in it through the film. (“I’m concerned about the fire,” she says as she considers buying it. “It’s a big decision,” the real estate agent answers, “deciding how to die.”) Synecdoche plays out as one long nightmarish and expressionistic fantasy with no clear demarcation, if such a boundary exists at all in the film, between the hallucinated and the real. (Although little seems real in Synecdoche; at one point, Hoffman drips “Tear Substitute” into his eye before he begins to weep.) But Kaufman never acknowledges his own absurdity, legitimizing the film’s lack of logic through his straight-faced acceptance of it, in the tradition of the great surrealists.

Like Last Year in Marienbad, some unspoken tragedy seems to inform the action. Is Hoffman in a coma? In limbo? In Hell? Or simply buried in the recesses of his own mind? But as in Resnais’ film, the answers, of which there are none, aren’t important. The film’s power lies in its emotion, unaffected by whether the proceedings are a comatose dream or literalized psychotic imaginings. Synecdoche demands multiple viewings, but its multiple thematic strands are still immediately clear, at least intuitively.

Like , it’s an artist’s mid-career working-through of his relationships with women—and thus particularly masculine—but it’s also an exploration of loneliness, loss, regret and the ways they intersect with artistic creation. Life is a play without an audience, Kaufman suggests, and so to make his life meaningful—and less lonely—he tries to transform his into a viewable piece of art. Such a project takes a lifetime; he’s literally dying to get at something real. (“I won’t accept anything but the brutal truth,” he tells his actors. “Brutal! Brutal!”) At one point, a member of his cast asks, “when are we going to get an audience? It’s been 17 years.”

Hoffman comes to understand that he is but one person on a planet full of them. “13 million people,” he says, “none of those people an extra. They’re all a lead in their own story.” But Synecdoche isn’t about just any one of those 13 million. Kaufman himself is the film’s lead; despite its universality, the movie remains exclusively his story. The director is no solipsist but he is a narcissist. And the closest the movie gets to a happy ending is the suggestion that this control-freak’s only chance at peace is to surrender his ego. (And to let himself be played by a woman. Maybe he becomes a woman himself? Or a homosexual?) During this epic struggle of self, Kaufman intimates that revolution is on the streets outside the hangar, that the external world is in political upheaval, but he’s more interested in keeping the camera on Hoffman’s face—in celebrating individual worth. “No one wants to hear about my misery because they have their own,” Hoffman says. “Well, fuck everybody.” That is, don't let anyone tell you your private pains aren't worth telling the world about. That’s an idea that starts to cheer me up. Grade: A+

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