originally published September 14, 2008
As threatened, a few stream-of-consciousness thoughts on Charlie Kaufman's latest...
When Synecdoche, New York premiered at Cannes, I remember being annoyed by how feeble the critical coverage on it was. But I get it now. This is a film I'm hard-pressed to describe, let alone review in depth, after just a single viewing. I can say that I see why Kaufman kept this one for himself rather than entrusting it to Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry—it's so dense and cryptic that it would be nigh uninterpretable by anyone but the source. Kaufman is a pretty meat-and-potatoes director, all things considered, but there are so many idiosyncrasies built into the material that it's stylish by default.
The film itself suggests an X-ray of a self-loathing artist's soul (he wrote without any intention of qualifying it). A miserable theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) receives the MacArthur Genius Grant and what he does with it transcends mere navel-gazing: he erects an exact replica of his life in a cavernous warehouse, eventually hiring actors to shadow him and his inner circle. (Synecdoche, New York reaches some mad crescendo when the boundaries between representative and actual realities have blurred such that doubles for the actors themselves start cropping up.) Once Kaufman started taking his games off court, so to speak, for instance by casting Emily Watson as Samantha Morton—the two are often mistaken for each other offscreen, and are certainly doppelgangers here—I found myself wondering if even Kaufman/Hoffman was a planned coincidence. That’s the kind of insanity this movie breeds.
The term “Lynchian” is bound to come up a lot in reviews of the film and for once it's not inappropriate (and moreover not an insult to Lynch). Yet I suspect it will still be misapplied to Synecdoche, New York's surreal humour when it more accurately describes its existentialism; the picture is nothing less than a male-oriented (or is it?) Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire, climaxing in a quiet apocalypse worthy of Week-End's closing title declaration: "END OF CINEMA / END OF WORLD." This is not to accuse Kaufman of making a pastiche—indeed, he might be the only other American filmmaker to whom these nested narratives come naturally.
Bottom line: Synecdoche, New York is hilarious, heady, intoxicating, heartbreaking, and more than a little maddening.
I saw another film at this year's TIFF that I feel woefully unprepared to write about without a second look, Astra Taylor's Examined Life. A rebuttal of sorts to What the Bleep Do We Know!?, it may be too broad for its own good (Taylor literally asks a handful of noted philosophers (Cornel West and Judith Butler among them) to spout ten minutes of arbitrary rhetoric apiece and calls it a documentary), but it's as compulsively watchable as its animated counterpart, Richard Linklater's Waking Life. It's also so linear and compartmentalized that it feels like the first filmed blog, with viewers destined to take its scene transitions as unconcious prompts to complete the cycle of interactivity in public forums afterwards.
(This post dedicated to the memory of David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008.)