Thursday, November 13, 2008

Down the Rabbit Hole: Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman is the writer of such imaginative films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and with Synecdoche, New York he is out to prove that he’s a genius. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard is the convention-bucking theater director of Death Of A Salesman, and with Synecdoche, New York’s play-within-a-play he’s out to prove that he’s a genius. Tom Noonan’s Sammy Barnathan is an actor obsessed with Caden Cotard, and in Synecdoche, New York’s play-within-a-play-within-a-play he’s out to prove that Kaufman and Cotard are geniuses. Anyone detect a pattern?

Synecdoche, New York, both written and directed by Kaufman, and for all intents and purposes starring him, is a film packed with visionaries that has eyes for only itself. Kaufman’s previous films have been self-aware and even self-referential – in Adaptation, Nicolas Cage plays a tormented screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman – but this is the first time that a portal into Kaufman’s mind has revealed nothing more than the screenwriter’s brain. Whereas with Eternal Sunshine Kaufman viewed familiar concepts (love and fate) through the kaleidoscope of his imagination until they were distorted enough to seem new again, here he takes a microscope to the mechanism. Synecdoche has themes and emotions, sure, but they are peripheral distractions – ends necessitated by the means. For all the effort involved in creating a spectacle on par with The Great and Powerful Oz, the film ultimately prefers that we bow down in praise of the little man pulling the levers.

Some will say that’s Synecdoche’s triumph. Don’t believe them. This is a film in which art imitates life until Kaufman’s life is the only art we see. The main character, and Kaufman stand-in, is Hoffman’s Caden, a theater director who is doomed by a literally fatal blend of aspiration and self-doubt. Recipient of a “genius” grant that gives him virtually unlimited funds for his next project, Caden resolves himself to live up to the grant’s name and its worth. He starts by procuring a seemingly infinite warehouse in which to stage the production, which of course creates the pressure of designing a drama big enough to fill it. He determines that this next play will be his lifetime achievement, and thus he operates like a man determined to spend his lifetime achieving it – as if anything less would be settling for mediocrity. He becomes so consumed with the fear that he’ll die before making something of himself that he begins to age more rapidly – growing noticeably weaker, sicker and frailer by the day. Paralyzed by his own expectations and void of any true artistic vision, Caden slaves away at vagueness for so long that his dogged pursuit of art becomes his art. His play can never be realized, because then he’d lose the struggle and the whole operation would cease to have meaning.

Caden’s play within Kaufman’s play generates another play within that. That’s where Noonan’s Sammy comes in, playing Caden trying to direct his theatrical performance and sort out the pieces of his life at the same time. Confused? Don’t worry about it. Per the structure, Sammy will illuminate Caden, who illuminates Kaufman ad nauseam. Meantime, we sit back and endure the tedium with little to grasp onto. Sure, it’s nifty the way all these physical worlds and pseudo-realities sit one inside the other like nesting dolls, but what does it reveal beyond Kaufman’s cleverness? Caden’s long-time-in-coming epiphany is the notion that all the extras of the world – regular folk like you and me – are in fact stars of their own productions. But while that’s true in the big picture, it’s a sham within this one. Just like Caden is seen walking past his actors, spitting one-line directions at them to suit his whims while they slave away in his interminable rehearsal, Kaufman is less concerned with any of his individual players – Caden included – than with the enormity of his undertaking.

If Synecdoche seems complex, challenging or elusive, you’re working too hard and giving Kaufman too much credit. Yes, the film has peculiarities, like the always-burning house of Caden’s assistant and quasi love interest Hazel (the ever captivating Samantha Morton), or the diary that writes itself. But these are empty riddles. They can be answered however you’d like because they lack any official definition. By contrast, in Citizen Kane we at least come to learn that Rosebud is a sled, leaving us to figure out for ourselves what’s so damn important about it. Here we merely get the word. With Synecdoche, Kaufman is faking it like a wannabe poet at open-mic night, convinced that the convolution of the tale makes it profound. To be moved by this indistinct mindfuck is to read your horoscope in the paper and believe it’s written especially for you. Your emotional reaction will be genuine, but it says more about you than about the art.

Kaufman’s unconventional approach is refreshing on the whole, but a filmmaker shouldn’t be praised for playing his instrument backward and occasionally hitting the right notes. Combine Kaufman and this impressive cast, which also includes Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest, and it’s hard to resist the urge to impose depth on this 124-minute tangled mass. But save for an intriguing first half-hour that’s brightened by a winsome Morton, it just isn’t there. Guess what: if it looks like an anvil and feels like an anvil, it’s an anvil. Synecdoche is dead weight. It’s a gigantic idea that delivers nothing beyond the blunt force of its scale. Like Caden, Kaufman put so much attention into the meta and the minutia that he lost track of any emotional core, the reason for creating the story in the first place.

As chance would have it, prior to seeing Synecdoche I was killing time in a bookstore and happened to pick up from the bestseller rack the self-titled autobiography of Slash, the guitarist from Guns N Roses. After glancing through the photo inserts, I thumbed to the chapters pertaining to 1991, when I was a freshman in high school and the band was at its peak: releasing two albums simultaneously that debuted at the top of the charts and creating mind-bending epic videos for play on MTV. In his book, Slash describes how the creation of those albums (Use Your Illusion I and II) required him to lay down his guitar riffs alone in a recording studio, whereupon the tapes would be sent to lead singer and creative director Axl Rose, who put all the pieces together in Howard Hughes-like seclusion. It worked. The band’s output was more complex and lush than ever before, and yet it marked the moment Slash felt the band’s identity slipping away: Guns N Roses was creating records, true, but it was no longer making music. It wasn’t a band anymore.

So seems to be the case for Kaufman. Synecdoche marks the moment his storytelling process finally overwhelmed his story. For the moment, he has disappeared down the rabbit hole, and in a year that has seen tremendously disappointing films from such gifted storytellers as Steven Spielberg and M Night Shyamalan, it’s hard to keep from fearing that Kaufman might never come back out again. To complete the previous cautionary tale, it’s worth noting that after a sloppy follow-up album (The Spaghetti Incident), Rose set to work on the band’s next supposed masterpiece, Chinese Democracy. The year was 1995. As of today, the album remains unfinished. If Synecdoche is a window into Kaufman’s psyche, America’s most talented screenwriter may be sinking into his own abyss of ambition, expectation and neurosis. It would be a loss for us all.


Joel Bocko said...

This is one of the sharpest, most well-written reviews I've yet to encounter in my perusal of the blogosphere. I have no idea if I agree, having not yet seen Synecdoche but given my increasing disillusionment with Adaptation, I very well may when all's said and done. Either way, well-played.

Richard Bellamy said...

Your article clearly shows how much you have admired Kaufman's previous screenplays - and yet you are honest enough to call an anvil and anvil. Kaufman disappointed you - as Spike Lee disappointed with "Miracle at St. Anna" and Shyamalan with "The Happening" and Spielberg with "Indiana Jones." What's going on with these guys? Are they resting up for next year?

Anonymous said...

Indeed, tight criticism. You're a great writer with interesting ideas. I've read most of your blog, and out of the current stuff, this piece really shines. Tone down the subjectivity a tad and it would be even better - but that's just personal taste.

Fox said...

I echo movieman's praise of your writing here. Great stuff. I've ALSO yet to see Synecdoche, NY (it's frustrating for me to even spell it...), but it opens in town this weekend.

My biggest curiousity going into this movie is gonna be Kaufman as director. I really disliked Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but I adore both Gondry and Jonze movies he wrote. I'm hoping this movie - his directorial debit, I believe - leads to some insight of this man.

But Jason, don't you know that Chinese Democracy IS done? :o) It's out exclusively at Best Buy on November 23rd! That's a week from Sunday! Sorry... I can't help but be a tad excited. I was also a high school freshman with the Use Your Illisions came out.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I hope folks will jump back in and leave their thoughts here after they've seen the movie. It's the kind of movie that should generate a thoughtful debate, and I'm excited about that.

Fox: Rats. Well, I'd heard that "Chinese Democracy" was due out somewhat soon, but I didn't know there was an exact release date set. And previously we heard the album was FINALLY coming out how many times? Anyway, the larger point still works.

As for a new GNR album: I'm excited, too. Though at this point - and here's where the comparison to "Synecdoche" comes in - I can't imagine it will live up to all the effort involved in creating it. And I wish this GNR resembled the group that recorded the "Illusions" albums beyond Rose.

Mark said...

When we went to see "Synecdoche" last weekend, my 15-year-old, aspiring-filmmaker daughter Gina tagged along with Michelle and me. We didn't really know what to expect, except that we're all Kaufman fans and I knew Manhola Dargis liked the film.

It wasn't easy to watch. I agree with many of your criticisms. It's frustrating, a bit pretentious and ultimately depressing. Several people sitting around us got up and walked out, and when we left the theater we looked around at the faces of our audience-mates: Blank, angry or sneering were the dominant expressions.

But for the three of us, as we discussed the movie later, "Synecdoche" was weirdly successful. Maybe I'm one of those who is "working too hard and giving Kaufman too much credit," as you say, Jason. But I thought he captured the elusiveness and frustration of the creative process. I recognized the difficulty of getting lost in and paralyzed by your own story, and the hopelessness of trying to invent something as interesting or complex as the real world.

Interesting, I thought, that Keener's character made art on a smaller and smaller scale -- big picture through the little picture -- and found success, while Caden attempted art on an ever larger scale -- little picture through the big picture -- and failed miserably.

Or did he? He discovered something, even if in the end it wasn't much more than the trite truism that everyone is the star of his own story.

"To be moved by this indistinct mindfuck," you say, "is to read your horoscope in the paper and believe it’s written especially for you. Your emotional reaction will be genuine, but it says more about you than about the art."

Yeah, but isn't that what art is supposed to do ... tell you something about yourself?

I don't know. I suspect this one will be debated for a long time. I can't say it was a "fun" night at the movies, but it sure gave Michelle, Gina and me something to think about. We woke up the next morning still talking about it.

A week later I'm still sifting out my feelings about it.

I'm glad you wrote this excellent review -- it gives me even more to ponder -- but at this point I think I'm one of those knuckleheaded, mindfuckable horoscope-gazers who actually appreciated this ambitious anvil.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark! Excellent! This is a film that deserves to be debated. Here we go …

You make some terrific points about what the film does well while acknowledging that it’s somewhat painful to experience. “Synecdoche” is bleak, unconventional and requires effort. I’ve got no problem with that. But …

I feel “Synecdoche” spins its wheels and goes a hell of a long way to go not very far. In literary terms, it's overwritten.

You make a great point about the art of Keener’s character vs Caden’s. But here’s another way of looking at it: Keener’s character has a vision of what she wants to create and finds fame as a result. Caden, meanwhile, is searching for fame and thus isn’t actually driven by an artistic desire. He tries to convince himself otherwise by jumping through every hoop that comes his way, as if making something large means making something meaningful.

On paper, this is an interesting concept, too. One might say that it’s the difference between an author who writes his first book out of love and writes his second to make good on a cash advance. The trouble is, Kaufman is making the exact same mistake Caden makes. I don’t believe that he’s as invested in Caden’s journey as he is with all the bells and whistles that surround it.

Let’s compare it to “There Will Be Blood.” There’s a film that’s bleak, that requires effort, that isn’t necessarily “fun.” But it’s a movie that’s entirely invested in its character. I don’t feel that same level of investment here, even though I often identified with Caden.

You walked out of the theater thinking about the film and talking about it. That’s wonderful! That’s a success, at least on some level. But I didn’t come away from “Synecdoche” learning something about myself. I felt like I learned something about Kaufman. And what I learned bored me.

I’m looking for to more comments on this film, especially from the anvil lovers.

Ed Howard said...

I've weighed in now too. Your review is smartly written, and I don't necessarily disagree with a lot of your points, but I think the film's themes go beyond what you say:

"Sure, it’s nifty the way all these physical worlds and pseudo-realities sit one inside the other like nesting dolls, but what does it reveal beyond Kaufman’s cleverness? Caden’s long-time-in-coming epiphany is the notion that all the extras of the world – regular folk like you and me – are in fact stars of their own productions. But while that’s true in the big picture, it’s a sham within this one."

Don't you think that the film itself is to a large extent a criticism of Caden's methods? The film is a parable about the dangers of art, about the possibility of art being a flight from reality rather than a reflection of it. Kaufman is satirizing himself here, and the film mocks self-indulgence even as it's massively self-indulgent itself. I think Kaufman understands that though Caden says he wants to capture the lives of real people, all he's really getting at is himself, and this is Caden's failure. The film is about the gap between intentions and results, and about the connections and disjunctions between reality and art. It's not always easy to watch, but it's complex and brimming with ideas, and I don't think you're doing it justice by dismissing it as self-indulgence so easily.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: I read your review this morning, and I'm looking forward to commenting when I have more time. I think your arguments there and here are good ones. And to answer your question, yes, my review is probably too dismissive. I was aware I was taking a hard stance as I was writing it, and here's why I dug in:

Quite frankly: I feel like "Synecdoche" wastes my time. Yes, as you and Mark both suggest, there are some interesting concepts here. But this film with nesting doll worlds is itself like the present hidden within seven wrapped boxes. If the gift turns out to be a diamond, well, it's worth the effort. But what I found at the center was a piece of quartz, with all the ornate packaging suggesting that it's something more. That bothers me.

Now, I do recognize that Kaufman put some thought into this, and therefore "Synecdoche" is far less frustrating for me than an entirely empty film like "Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull." But try as I might -- and I have tried -- I don't believe Kaufman structured the story this way because he thought it was most illustrative of the emotions/themes he was exploring. I think it's complex for complexity's sake. And I think it includes some dead ends.

"Synecdoche" to me is like some massive sculpture sitting inside someone's door. You walk in, you marvel at it for a while, and then someone says: "And you can hang your coat on it!" Well, sure. Or you could put your coat on a fucking hanger.

As I said in a previous comment, I think "Synecdoche" is overwritten -- a word that should have made it into my review. I don't disagree with many (if any) points in your assessment, but I don't think the ends justify the means. And on top of that, I'm genuinely worried that Kaufman's increasingly self-referential filmmaking will lead him into a creative black hole.

But I love the debate. It's enough to tempt me to give it another look. But at this point, I'm not ready.

(Reader note: Be sure to read Ed's review, linked in the comment above. "Synecdoche" has its backers, but Ed's review articulates the film's strengths better than most I have read.)

Ed Howard said...

"I don't believe Kaufman structured the story this way because he thought it was most illustrative of the emotions/themes he was exploring. I think it's complex for complexity's sake."

I've said that I agree with most of what you're saying despite our polar opposite conclusions about the film, but I think this is dead wrong. Kaufman's essential subject, in all his films, is the mind and its relationship to reality, and the structures of his films tend to reflect this. This is especially true of Synecdoche, in which the structure is encoded with many elegant metaphors for mental processes and the way we think about our lives. As I mentioned in my review, one of these is the way Caden's rapidly progressing aging reflects the way we think back on our own lives: with all the major events seeming somehow close together, we wonder where all the time went. The "nesting dolls" of the closing half-hour or so is also one of the best metaphors I can imagine for how Caden uses his art to escape from reality. It's like making carbon copies of reality, with each one somehow more distant, less like the original. I can see not liking the structure, finding it too confusing, but there's no doubt to me that it is indicative of the themes and emotions at work in the film. It's a film about a man who tries to escape from a miserable life by making art, and it's structured as a series of progressions further and further away from concrete reality. I mean, does it get more perfect than that? I have my problems with the film, but its elaborate, ingenious structure is certainly not one of them.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: When I first read your latest comment, I was ready to award you the point. A day later, I'm back to standing by my statement -- even though you articulately poke holes in it.

I've done a lot of flip-flopping over the issue in the past 24 hours. When I read your comment first, mine looks positively stupid. But when I read mine alone, it still rings true.

Which is the long way around to saying that no matter how "elaborate" or "ingenious" Kaufman's structure might be, I still believe that it's complex for complexity's sake. I adore, on varying levels, "Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine" and "Adaptation," wherein I think his offbeat structure leads to a fresh and often deeper truth. But I just don't find that here.

To borrow a statement from your review, I think Kaufman's journey has indeed sent up up his own ass. It's not that his film doesn't work or can't be defended -- because clearly it does on some level and can. But I don't feel it. I don't feel he's committed first and foremost to the central emotions of his story, and I can't pretend that I do.

Of course, I wouldn't want you to pretend away your reaction to the film and your belief in its conviction. As I said in the comments of your blog, I'm enjoying the conversation about this film far more than the film itself. On that level, I'm grateful for it.

Further debate is welcome, by the way. I don't want this to sound like I'm slamming the door on debate. Keeping weighing in, all.

Richard Bellamy said...

I was intrigued with this film when I first read about it and then saw the preview. Being a drama director, I identified with the creative aspect: a man sets out to creative a massive performance piece that represents all of life within a smaller version of New York City. The concept of the film served as a wonderful example for the literary term “synecdoche” in my A.P. English class because a number of students had seen the preview.

When the reviews came in, I still wanted to see it, even though I had to wait until this weekend for it to hit Cape Cod.

Having seen it, I have to agree with Jason that it inclines more to the “anvil” than the – what’s the opposite? – the flying apparatus that flies successfully. I could see the kernels of truth but I had to agree with Jason who says,

“With Synecdoche, Kaufman is faking it like a wannabe poet at open-mic night, convinced that the convolution of the tale makes it profound.”

At the same time I agree with Ed Howard as far as the truths Kaufman was trying to portray –

“The film is a parable about the dangers of art, about the possibility of art being a flight from reality rather than a reflection of it.”


“It's a film about a man who tries to escape from a miserable life by making art, and it's structured as a series of progressions further and further away from concrete reality.”

There were themes in this film that I really like to see portrayed in films. The idea that art could be “a flight from reality rather than a reflection on it” and how the film is about “a man who tries to escape from a miserable life by making art.”

You’ll say, “Well, that’s not what the film is about,” when I say that I was disappointed that the movie didn’t focus more on Caden’s struggles to create a massive and unique work of art; the film focused more on the many episodes or versions of his miserable life. That’s my own self-inflicted disappointment, I guess, because I was expecting more of an examination of the passion for creation no matter how unwieldy the work of art is.

Given what the film is about, I didn’t feel connected enough with Caden – and, at times, I didn’t feel he was convincing enough as a character – to empathize with or even be interested in what he was going through. I never felt like cheering him on – and that’s what we like to do at the movies. We like to cheer on a character even if he his blindly trying to accomplish something that cannot be accomplished.

In “Taxi Driver” – a bleak film – we feel enough for anybody who feels such searing alienation that we cheer Travis Bickle on toward some sort of fulfillment even if it’s not in the manner we would choose. Scorsese gets us to stand in Bickle’s shoes. I never felt anywhere near Caden’s shoes – though I felt at least interested when he was working on his creation.

For me, the best image is Caden writing out character developments on chits of paper and we see all the pieces of paper lined up endlessly. That was brilliant. But there wasn’t enough of the creation – however mad – for me to be excited about this movie.

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog!

Jim James
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Richard Bellamy said...

Jim - Tell me about the cinemas at the Mall of America in Minnesota. How many screens? Do they play indies?