Thursday, October 23, 2008

Synecdoche, New York - review

I occasionally write film reviews for the National Board of Review
. I cross posted some when I had a myspace blog, and now that I have this blog I will be cross posting a few here as well.

There’s a children’s song that begins Charlie Kaufman’s new movie, Synecdoche, New York. The song is about the city of Schenectady, New York, and the city of Schenectady is a synecdoche for the movie, and the world, as a whole. Understand that? Then you are one step towards understanding the infinitely reflecting mirrors that make up Kaufman’s latest metaphysical reflection on life.

Kaufman is a rarity in Hollywood: a writer whose movies are identifiably his, no matter who is directing. From Being John Malkovitch to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his films have been a unique combination of fantasy and philosophic reflection, with a touch of melancholy underneath it all. For his directorial debut, he has taken the melancholy and put it front and center. The children’s song that begins the movie seems to be light and carefree, until you realize it’s truly about death.

And of course, the song itself is a synecdoche: a part representing the whole, for those who have not recently attended a poetry class. For the whole movie is about death. Which is to say, it is about life, which has but one ending for us all. It’s also about a director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), creating a play about death. Both the movie and the play within the movie taps into the same existentialist gloom that inspired Beckett.

Beckett expressed his gloom through the sparseness of his plays. Kaufman, by contrast, is ornate, perhaps overly ornate. Kaufman prefers worlds within worlds within worlds, so that his own directing debut, which stars Hoffman a director, has that director then choose an actor (Tom Noonan) to play a director, who then chooses an actor playing an actor to play an actor playing a director, and so on, ad infinitum.

Hoffman once again shows why he is one of the most talented contemporary actors to somehow become a Hollywood star, portraying the depressed antihero pitch perfectly. He is surrounded by a bevy of talented women, especially Samantha Morton, who plays his soul mate, a woman who has bought a symbolically burning house.

Of course, the movie seems to say, don’t we all live in a burning house destined to collapse on us one day? And isn’t there beauty in the fire?

It takes a certain taste to respond to that sort of poetic reflection, but Kaufman is one of the few writers (and now a director) who has been bringing an introspective spirit to Hollywood. This film does not always succeed: there might be one too many layers of its sprawling, Russian doll of a story, but like life, the joy of the film is in the struggle.


Kasheri said...

Kaufman's work always seems like something I ought to like, but then don't. The not liking something that it seems I ought to like then makes me crabby. So I come out of his films feeling out of sorts and defensive, thinking to myself, "It's not that I didn't get it, it's that I didn't like it." So I expect that I'll give this film a miss, unless Brainflak makes me go, in which case I'll try to keep an open mind and will instead end up poor company. Don't tell him why. It's our secret. ;-)

Theater of Ideas said...

Have you seen Eternal Sunshine? I feel like you would like that one.

kasheri said...

I did see "Eternal Sunshine". Brainflak bought it and I watched it at home alone so that I would not crab at anyone if it made me crabby. And it did. This whole idea of strangers coming into your home and partying around your sleeping form just upset me all out of proportion to what you might expect. Perhaps it's because of what I do for a living, and the fact that those folks would then end up in my office for a talking-to. Damnit, people, this is your job. Hoochie dances over the sleeping clients is not professional behavior!

Theater of Ideas said...

Hmm...hoochie dances not professional behavior? I guess I'm in a bit of an unusual profession...people I work with are hoochie-ing all over the stage!