11 hours ago
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.