Wednesday, September 8, 2010


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2008)

This is Rex Reed in a recent New York Observer: “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.” Having a field day, Reed aimed a cannon at the Toronto festival’s description of the film as “part dream, part puzzle, part brainteaser,” calling it “the most overblown, hyperbolic stretch since Lassie played a war veteran with amnesia.” And so on. Game over, it seems. Except that the somewhat more plugged-in Manohla Dargis in The New York Times wrote this: “to say (the film) 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.”

Bottom Of The Landfill

Can such diverting views possibly be reconciled? I’ve not always shared the general enthusiasm for the work of Charlie Kaufman, making his directing debut here after writing Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. The films are extraordinarily clever, structured to allow any number of ensuing impressions and bafflements, but my pleasure in them has never have gone beyond the academic. Synecdoche, New York focuses on Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a New York state theatre director going nowhere much artistically (stuck trying to put a fresh gloss on Death Of A Salesman) nor personally (laden down with physical ailments and fears; married to an artist who can’t wait to get away from him, and doesn’t).

After receiving a major grant, he embarks on a project of immense ambition, renting an abandoned warehouse in which he starts creating a fictional world of immense complexity, employing hundreds of actors improvising scenes in response to such written instructions as “You were raped last night” or “You lost your job today.” As time goes on, the project endlessly evolves, focusing increasingly on recreating his own life, with an actor playing his own role in orchestrating all of this; and then as that actor becomes increasingly enmeshed in the master-plan, taking on another actor to play him (except by then it barely matters if the casting is true to gender or other considerations, nor even whether it’s the actor seeking to replicate the subject, rather than vice versa).

Confused already? I used the phrase “as time goes on” – but it’s not so clear what that means here. The film seems to span twenty, thirty years or even more; despite no apparent income, Caden’s still maintaining a huge infrastructure, long after the originating grant would have run out. At one early stage, before the project kicks off, it’s seriously unclear whether his wife has been gone for five years or merely for a week or two. The movie is clearly not “realistic” – apart from the logistical absurdities, it features such whimsies as a perpetually burning house. What portion of it takes place in Caden’s mind, or the mind of others, is impossible to divine.

The Biggest Masochist

The structure’s “puzzle” aspect was prominent in Kaufman’s other films too of course. The reason I liked Synecdoche, New York more than those others is that Kaufman seems here to have reached a rueful maturity, spawning immense narrative and thematic complexity without seeming trapped by it (and without betraying the slightest hint of virtuoso pleasure). Reed’s evocation of a “landfill” isn’t entirely off base - the film’s opening stretch is suffused in bodily functions, maladies, general malaise; but also in a formative-feeling curiosity, about articles in the newspaper, the meaning of words, the building blocks of everything. Hoffman – “the biggest masochist in the Screen Actors Guild” as Reed has it – transmits almost utter despair and pain: seemingly consecrated to a career as an “artist,” but devoid of any particular theory or inspiration. For a while the movie is suspended in agonizing indecision – how can (or why should) such a man possibly go on living? Then he gets his big idea…why crap into the toilet, when you can do it directly into your art?

That might sound crude, but as Reed points out, at one point Caden goes to his ex-wife’s apartment and scrubs her toilets, in the guise of a woman named Ellen. “Don’t ask,” Reed adds. Well, maybe you should. Why would the master orchestrator of such a grand sprawling creation invest himself in such a meaningless, uncreative pilgrimage? Because, I think, he finds it doesn’t matter. The more he hones his art, the greater the impossibility of ever lifting it to any kind of transcendence; certain failure might be its only badge of authenticity. As such, the movie’s twisted gloom surely relates very well to its content. But, of course, at the cost of withholding almost all the easier pleasures of Kaufman’s earlier work.

That’s not quite true I suppose – there’s much diversion in the performers, including a wonderful line-up of notable actresses (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton and many others). But as it goes on, the film clenches up. Death and loss come in a relentless march. Dargis calls the film “as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies.”

Futility Of Art

I guess that’s right, in the sense that the film sees the futility of excessive immersion in art. But on the other hand, it’s too deliberately unrealistic a construct to yield much of a discovery about the merits of the real world. To me, for all his suffering, Caden might still be the lucky fulfilled one, relative to the masses lining up to toil almost facelessly in his project’s inner layers, or to the other screwed up people passing through the film. The film offers only a thin endorsement of art’s redemptive powers, that’s for sure, but it still might be the best available. Either way, Kaufman manages here to inch onto the territory of the great directors; those from whom we accept irritation and incoherence and perhaps occasional repulsiveness, because we come out of their films richer than when we went in. Even if that richness has to be measured in a new kind of sadness.

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