Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Synecdoche, NY

Monday, February 23, 2009

Synecdoche, NY

Last night at the Oscars there was nary a mention of Synecdoche, NY. Not only no nominations, no wins - no jokes (even at its expense), no musical numbers, not even a moment in any of the montages. For Charlie Kaufman, the film's auteur in the fullest sense of the word (for now he has placed himself in the director's chair as well as the screenwriter's desk), this is actually somewhat unusual. True, the Academy has never full-throatedly embraced his work, but it would have been remiss not to at least nominate groundbreaking films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the last film finally won Kaufman an Oscar). Though not everything he touches turns to (potential) Oscar gold - the George Clooney-directed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the oft-maligned Human Nature (both unseen by me) were ignored by award-bestowers - the cold shoulder offered to Synecdoche is rather conspicuous. Partially because a number of critics have proclaimed it a modern masterpiece or at least extremely worthy of note, but primarily because as Kaufman's directorial debut this is obviously a very important project to him, and one in which he invested a great deal of time and thought. It may also be his most personal movie, which brings us to an interesting question. But first...


I've been planning to review Synecdoche, NY since I saw it in early January. Already then, the party was winding down...most blogs had tackled it months earlier and debate subsided as it became clear the film wasn't going to make much of an awards splash after all. Attention was shifting elsewhere, and the movie was leaving urban theaters without ever having made it outside of the big cities (at least far as I could tell by scanning local listings). As time passed after my first viewing, I decided to see the film again before writing it up; I finally did so a few weeks ago and had quite a different experience with it. More time passed, and here we are. I'm not really up to a full-on, deep-burrowing analysis of this provocative film, but I owe you guys something so I'm going to ruminate a bit around the subjects which intrigue me - Kaufman's direction (and consequently, the film's form), the tone and sensibility of the movie, and the ways in which Kaufman's persona has filtered through the cracks of his stories until it finally seems to shatter the glass this time around. All of these points are worth exploring but the moment for a passionate, all-encompassing view of the film (if such a thing is possible) seems to have passed, at least for now.

After all, if the party was waning in January, it is by now officially over. The cracked morning light is spilling through the Venetian blinds, those who passed out in the bathtub have already woken up and shambled out the door (presumably past the flickering fire and smoke which calmly envelops one wall), and the hostess is on her knees scrubbing the floor and casting irritated glances at the immobile figure sitting in the corner, the one who doesn't seem to notice her hints. He is nursing a beer, the same he's held in his lap all night, and seems absorbed by a boil on his hands. Or maybe he's just examining it to distract himself from the misery he's obviously experiencing, which his slumped frame and sad-sack expression do a poor job concealing. His name is Caden Cotard, and if Charlie Kaufman would be reasonably surprised or offended to see his work ignored, Caden would most likely accept it numbly with a melancholy resignation, even if the work was deserving. For his ambition (perhaps fruitless, but still...) is only matched by his paralysis and melancholy - if one can call such a flat disengagement with the outer world by such a romantic descriptor.

This points to an interesting difference between Kaufman and his probable onscreen stand-in, as well as a difference between Synecdoche and movies like Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine. Judging by his work and his half-obscured public persona, Kaufman is either a neurotic naval-gazer or a super-clever, malignantly grinning court jester, or else some combination thereof (obviously it's the latter, though in which proportions it's hard to estimate). On the one hand, his protagonists - and, we're led to understand, their author - are perpetually conveyed as socially inept, over-analyzing, sad-sack losers who are usually briefly attached - but can't hold on - to beautiful but somewhat shrewish women. Yet even as Kaufman relentlessly mocks himself as a man, his cosmic trickery and dazzling brilliance celebrates Kaufman-as-artist. One is left with the impression of a magician's sleight-of-hand: while pretending to put himself down, Kaufman is making sure everyone leaves with the impression that he's a genius...and what's more one who, despite his navel-gazing, self-loathing, and meta-headiness doesn't take himself too seriously.

Adaptation is probably the prime example of this trick: the character is named Charlie Kaufman, he's struggling to write a screenplay, ultimately fails and in the process (with the help of his hack brother) unwinds the actual narrative which he inhabits. Yet all the while, the other Kaufman, the artist-Kaufman, is standing to the side letting us know we shouldn't feel too sorry for him. After all, people, he knows what he's doing here. It's not as if he actually couldn't adapt The Orchid Thief, it's just that he wanted to make a point about adaptation, and film narrative, and the art of screenwriting. Relax...he always knew what he was doing and where he was going with this.

Crucial in maintaining this two-step was the facility of Kaufman's directors. Any doubts we could have had about the movie's uncertainties are elided by the visually confident, comfortably fluid work of Spike Jonze in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, or the visionary wonder which Michel Gondry summons forth in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the latter film doesn't have the same aren't-we-clever hipster remove as the other two, but then it also eschews those film's characteristic self-pity). Adaptation is supremely metatextual...but really only on the level of the written text. Jonze's direction is too accomplished to pick itself apart the way the writing does, and so it gives the material a gloss and a feeling of undoubted accomplishment. Kaufman's sweaty agony remains on the screen and we're left with the impression the humility is a bit false.

In Synecdoche, Kaufman proves that he is not the director Jonze and Gondry are: he does not have their confidence, their gifted sense of sheer cinematic style, their sense for the overall shape of a film. As a result the movie feels surprisingly uncertain, its self-doubt mirroring Caden's own. And so for once the direction fails to paper over the author's neurosis, fails to package everything so that we can breathe a sigh of relief and say, "We're in the hands of a master here, it's okay." In this curious way, Kaufman's competent but fairly unaccomplished direction becomes a virtue, a badge of honesty - this is a Kaufman picture for an Obama-led, recession-mired America, one which no longer has the chutzpah to glance in the mirror and pretend everything's on course or worse, that it doesn't matter.

Also, Synecdoche is a movie saturated with mediocrity. Its character is a probably mediocre artist living a mediocre life in a mediocre town (sorry, Schenectady, perhaps you're more interesting that you've been portrayed). Of course, to call Kaufman's direction mediocre would be unfair. As I said, he's competent and one really must make a distinction between the acting, which is as good or better as in any other Kaufman film, and the visuals and cutting, which are not nearly as memorable or inventive as those in the earlier films. Nonetheless, and allowing also for Kaufman's skill in utilizing a very ambitious set (or set within a set within a set, etc.), it's safe to say that Kaufman is, at least in this stage of his career, not a great director. And unlike with John Cusack in Malkovich or Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, it is not at all clear that Hoffman's Caden is any sort of misunderstood genius. For the first time, the real possibility of mediocrity emerges in a Kaufman hero: not just an inability to create a particular work or receive acknowledgement, but to actually fashion anything other than self-reflexive, self-absorbed mush (my favorite moment is when a member of Caden's production cast timidly asks when they're going to put on a performance: "we've been in rehearsal for seventeen years!" The film's delightfully skewed time frame, and the melancholy implications thereof, will have to be dealt with on another occasion).

I haven't spoken much about the film's plot or the way it devours itself and becomes something new. Perhaps I will revisit the film on DVD and go exploring a bit more. Fundamentally, though, where Kaufman's direction falls shortest (and in this he's aided, or at least abetted, by a somewhat more-confused-than-usual screenplay) is in letting us know where and how to relate to the material. In a sense this is intentionally Brechtian, a point which Kaufman does not hide as Caden makes a side trip to Germany and endures, there and elsewhere, stridently "unrealistic" encounters. But the film seems uncertain as it stumbles from one tone, one theatrical approach to another. It makes attempts to tie its stumbling narrative to the contusions of Caden's own consciousness, but because Kaufman lacks the facility of a great or even an experienced director, what's possibly meant as an alienation effect instead feels merely inept and what are supposed to be surreal touches seem random (though on occasion, endearingly so). Initially, I felt the film gained in confidence as it went along, as it became further and further enmeshed in Caden's brittle, self-consuming consciousness, into territory Kaufman was most comfortable inhabiting. After feeling very distanced from the early parts of the movie, I ended up walking out of the theater in a kind of rarely-felt glow, a feeling that I'd experienced some kind of illuminating, penetrating art, the kind which I haven't encountered in a first-run movie house for years.

Then on my second viewing the film seemed so much funnier than I remembered. Suddenly the early passages ended up working better for me - what had seemed merely absurd now seemed appropriately absurdist. Yet as I came to appreciate the comedy more, the tragedy and poignancy of the second half seemed more forced and tiresome (especially once I caught on to the half-baked offscreen apocalyptic allusions I'd thankfully missed the first time). All of which suggests that there are many ways of approaching, appreciating, and criticizing Synecdoche, NY so I will stop here and leave further analysis for further viewings. In a way it's appropriate that a compelling, intriguing, yet somewhat half-baked and not entirely conclusive movie produced a somewhat half-baked and not entirely conclusive review (which hopefully contains its own fair share of compelling/intriguing elements). As way of apology for all those aspects I've overlooked or bypassed in my initial sally into Synecdocheland, I open the discussion up to the readers. True, I always hope to do so, but in this case particularly, I hope you'll consider this entry a starting point, or even ignore it to discuss what interested you about the movie. And if I've got nothing to say, you can always address your queries to the lonely man sitting in the corner of the room, savoring the dying embers of a party he observed but could not fully participate in. If nothing else, it will take his mind off that boil.

(If you liked that ending, imagine a grinning jester of MovieMan standing off to the side, winking and saying "See, I always knew where this review was going..." But don't believe him.)

8 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

I have seen Being John Malkovich and Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but not Synecdoche, NY, nor am I inclined to watch it - as a depressive I don't think Kaufman is going to offer me any new insights on mortality.

From what I have read of S,NY and the Kaufman screenplay's I have seen, I think 'melancholy' is not a fair qualifier for the disengagement of the guy holding the beer. He despairs, he observes, he ruminates, he is pathetically self-absorbed, he doesn't even have the guts to swallow his self-pity and actually get drunk. He is nursing that beer all night like he nurses the life he has been gifted. He prefers immobility and sterility to actually living. He doesn't get it - a life observed is a life waisted. Dames at first fall for such guys - they appear deep and intelligent - which they are - but there is no spark, no real love for anything, only a nostalgia for a future already gone, and a wacky reverence-cum-loathing for their own genius. Women soon discover that and see the selfishness and the vanity beneath the veneer of vulnerability.

My two cents...

MovieMan0283 said...

...which are not too far my own (that's why I immediately doubted the adjective "melancholy"). That said, the later passages of the work do come closer to a kind of melancholy.

If you ever change your mind and do see it, come back to the thread & let me know what you think (I'll get notified by e-mail).

PIPER said...

I still need to see this. I've heard wonderful things.

My guess is if it wasn't a joke that's already a couple of weeks old (Joaquin Phoenix) or some kind of Musical number about Musicals then it really didn't have a place in this year's Oscars.

MovieMan0283 said...

Only if Beyonce sang the theme song, or rather lip-synced it...

That said, I have to admit I found the Ben Stiller bit pretty funny even if it was obvious (and three weeks old) and perhaps not very hip for those and other reasons. Of course if it turns out Joaquin ISN'T kidding, then the whole thing suddenly becomes somewhat more uncomfortable...

(Come to think of it, Stiller playin Phoneix playing whatever it is he's playing is a concept not at all out of place in Synecdoche...)

C. Jerry Kutner said...

There are eight major female roles in this film, some of them exceptionally well played. Might the film be to some degree "About These Women?" (Like the Ingmar Bergman film with that title?)

As you note, "there are many ways of approaching, appreciating, and criticizing Synecdoche, NY." There's a metaphysical aspect of the film that deserves consideration. It's not all about Caden/Kaufman.

The film at first seems drier than the Kaufman screenplays directed by Jonze, Gondry, and George Clooney (who directed "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," a film you should see, along with Gondry's underrated "Human Nature," the only Kaufman film to date with a female protagonist or, at least, co-protagonist). Toward the film's end, however, I found myself deeply moved.

The film's treatment of time and its passage is a lot more "realistic" (from a subjective standpoint) than the rather uninspired treatment of the same theme in "Benjamin Button" - the way in Kaufman's film events and memories of those events collapse together.

I've only seen it once. I'll probably have more to say about it after I've watched the soon-to-be-released DVD.

MovieMan0283 said...

Jerry, what you mention was what most intrigued me about the film on first viewing and what left me walking out of the theater feeling like I was floating on air, a rare sensation for me coming out of a new release (did I mention this in my write-up? I can't even remember anymore...) I probably should have written the review back then but it didn't work out that way.

Have you seen All About These Women? It's absolutely horrible. I watched it when I did a whole Bergman retrospective shortly after the director's death and what most amazed me about the film was that this very non-cinematic "comedy" was plunked down directly between The Silence and Persona, perhaps the two most cinematic of Bergman's works. Go figure.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

I wasn't as horrified by "All These Women" as you were. Sure, it's a decidedly minor work - especially for Bergman - but I liked the use of color (his first color film - very nice in the theater where I saw it), I actually laughed at some of the slapstick comedy (which reminded me of Blake Edwards), and enjoyed the self-satirical use of all those great Bergman actresses who'd been treated so seriously by him in previous films.

That said, it's certainly no "Smiles of a Summer Night."

MovieMan0283 said...

Smiles is evidence that Bergman COULD do comedy, along with some other films (the elevator scenes in that one with the 3 stories being another example - what was the name of that one?). Which is a good reminder, because many of his comedic efforts were kind of stilted (so, I think, were his English-language dramas, The Touch & The Serpent's Egg).

Of course I saw most of these movies on crappy Kim's videos (R.I.P.) so I may have been missing the more lavish experience of the cinema. That said, there's something endearing about those runny, broken-down VHS's (shout-out to Erich Kuersten and another R.I.P. for Kim's).