January 25, 2009

“Synecdoche, New York”

Here's my review of Charlie Kaufman's latest from The American Conservative:

Starting with 1999’s art-house sensation “Being John Malkovich,” Charlie Kaufman has cleverly made himself the best-known screenwriter in America by refusing almost all publicity … except that which he generates through his own intensely self-referential screenplays. The protagonist of his 2002 comedy “Adaptation” is a neurotic screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, who is trying (and, unsurprisingly, failing) to adapt a New Yorker article about orchids into a big studio movie. Kaufman next dialed back the wit a bit in his masterpiece, the 2004 romantic drama “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

He combines Woody Allen’s self-doubting persona with playwright Tom Stoppard’s conceptual razzle-dazzle in the service of metaphysically surrealist plots reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges. Kaufman justifies his movies’ intellectual demands by saying, reasonably enough, “One of the things I think is really exciting and joyful about the experience of being an audience member is figuring things out. When you make a connection, it’s yours …”

Having had his say on love in “Eternal Sunshine,” Kaufman is back to tell us all about life, death, and art in the first film he’s directed. “Synecdoche, New York” is an ultra-ambitious combination of the Great Artist’s Summation of His Life’s Work and self-parody.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Best Actor-winner for “Capote”) plays Caden Cotard, a community theatre director in Schenectady, New York mounting yet another revival of “Death of a Salesman” for the blue-haired subscribers. He’s falling apart physically, suffering through an entire House, M.D. season of medical syndromes. Caden’s wife (Catherine Keener), an artist who paints microscopic pictures requiring magnifying goggles to view, tells him that he won’t be going to her exhibition in Berlin. She’s instead taking their four-year-old daughter and a friend, a sinister German lesbian (Jennifer Jason-Leigh).

At this nadir, Caden wins one of those obnoxious MacArthur Genius Grants. His health stabilizes and the women around him (“Synecdoche” features seven excellent actresses) look more fondly upon him. He decides to unleash his creative powers on a vast theatre project that will tell “the brutal truth” about, well, everything. In his bid for artistic immortality, he rents a cavernous warehouse in New York City, employs countless carpenters to build mockups of New York streets inside it, and hires a cast of thousands to live out their lives under his artistic direction. (Apparently, MacArthur grants have gone up several orders of magnitude in value.) Rehearsals go on for decades without reaching Opening Night. As the cast ages, they hire younger actors to play themselves playing their roles.

A “synecdoche,” which rhymes with Caden’s hometown of Schenectady, is a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole (“threads” for clothes) or the whole for a part (“the law” for cops). Kaufman genially explains that if his movie is a hit, “then people will be able to pronounce it and everyone will be able to know the word ‘synecdoche’-- which is a good word to know.”

In “Synecdoche,” Kaufman indulges and satirizes both his aspirations and his failure to keep in mind the artistic value of abstraction and reduction. The film recalls Borges’s one-paragraph parable On Exactitude in Science:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City ... In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, … delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars…

Similarly, as the now-aged Caden’s artistic charisma wanes in the mid-21st Century, the cast finally riots, chanting “Freedom!” Mobs of actors smash their way out of the set, which has grown to take over much of Manhattan.

Kaufman intended that the densely-packed “Synecdoche“ could only be fully appreciated after multiple viewings, but the first screening can be grueling. My wife loved it, but several people walked out. Yet, it’s occasionally hilarious, as when a real estate agent talks a character into buying a house that happens to be on fire. That’s even funnier in 2008 than when Kaufman dreamed it up.

My advice is to lower your expectations, then see it.

Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Starting with 1999’s art-house sensation “Being John Malkovich,...

What a horribly boring film that was. I remember it being marketed as Great Art That You Had To See. I was still young and insecure about such things then, so I watched it whole years ago on TV. By the end even my younger, more pretentious and status-conscious self couldn't be convinced that it was interesting. You mention that Catherine Keener is in Synecdoche. The question of why she was in movies at all bothered me through that whole Malkovich film. Not much of a looker. Or much of an actress. Does her father or uncle finance the movies in which she appears? I just looked at her Wikipedia page and that doesn't seem to be the case. I'm simply confused on that one.

Steve Sailer said...

Catherine Keener always plays The Cool Friend You Wish You Could Have Hung Out With.

That was made explicit in "Adaptation" where Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), the tortured artiste screenwriter, is jealous that his identical twin Donald Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), amiable aspiring shlockmeister screenwriter, is now hanging out with Catherine Keener. Charlie isn't cool enough to hang with Catherine Keener.

Of course, if you haven't seen "Adaptation," none of this will make any sense.

Tino said...

I liked Malkovich, loved adaptation, and absolutely hated Synecdoche.

Another case of Steve review being better than the movie (also Australia and Wind Shakes).

m said...

Hilarious- Steve's review's are often better than the movies.

Steve- what project are you attached to next?

Anonymous said...

I disagree strongly with the first anonymous about Catherine Keener. I think she's a terrific actress and plenty good-looking (not all actresses have to be flawless beauties, no?)

Anonymous said...

My general opinion about Charlie Kaufman: His movies are filled with original and arresting ideas and funny incidental details but they tend to fall apart in their "third acts".

In the case of "Synechdoche, New York", however, the movie starts falling apart much sooner than that, probably because he didn't have a strong director reigning in his ideas.

366weirdmovies said...

We had similar opinions of the film, but I liked it more than you did. I found the absurd humor involving, Caden's character sympathetic, and the use of postmodern philosophical ideas usually relegated to print very clever and well-integrated. The main flaw I saw was that it became overly serious and dour at the end, making the finale a bit of a slog.

Very good review, but obviously I would think so, since it was recently suggested that I might have unconsciously plagiarized you.

Milton Dean said...

"Kaufman intended that the densely-packed “Synecdoche“ could only be fully appreciated after multiple viewings, but the first screening can be grueling."
"My advice is to lower your expectations, then see it."

I don't think that I've yet heard a more honest recommendation for the film. I bought it on DVD, and the first time was indeed, gruelling.
Since then I have watched it with a number of people, only one of which euphorically enjoyed it on the first go.
I can assure you that I increasingly enjoy it after every viewing. It just might qualify as another masterpiece.
Excellent Review.