Friday, January 25, 2013
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The problem with it, besides everything, is that it still puts it on a binary. Every movie has to be "good" or "bad" overall. Some movies don't really fall into one of those two categories, like Synecdoche, New York. To be fair, I'm giving my opinion on this movie after only watching it once and this is a movie that just begs to be watched multiple times so every frame can be analyzed, so I may be missing a lot of the nuances that would definitively put the movie into the "good" or "bad" camp. But while watching this I couldn't decide if what I was watching was a brilliant, postmodern, surrealist take on death and our attempts to give life meaning or if it was nothing but self indulgent bloat too far up it's own ass to see the point.
The plot is, uh, complicated. Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director living in Schenectady, NY. (Which is my neck of the woods! Woo! Upstate New York, bitches!!) He lives with artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and his 4 year old daughter Olive. After his wife leaves him to go to Berlin, he is granted a MacArthur Fellowship and starts to create his magnum opus, a gigantic play meant to really capture what life is. He sets about creating it in a gigantic hanger, with the play getting bigger and more complex every passing day. That's the plot when distilled into simple terms, but really there is a lot going on around all this. The movie takes place over a span of decades, sometimes jumping years ahead with no warning. Soon the characters are followed and replaced by actors being those characters. Locations seem to melt inbetween the real world and the false one. It has a nightmarish quality to it, not in the same horrific way Rosemary's Baby does, more as if everything you dread is happening at once and you can't wake up.
This movie is very cold, explicitly meant to be distant from the viewer. A postmodern film, it deliberately draws your attention to all the little seams both movies, and fiction in general, contain. This is homework film watching, not a movie you pop in to zone out to. It requires you to be fully paying attention to it. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, it has the same elements that have defined Kaufman's work. It's very very very very meta, to the point of obnoxiousness. After a while you just want to yell at the movie for going that far with these concepts. It's not something I would consider enjoyable to watch the way Kaufman's other movies are.
At the same time, just because it's hard to get through doesn't necessarily diminish what it's trying to do. The movie started as Kaufman and long time collaborator Spike Jonze's attempt to make a horror film. Jonze eventually left to direct Where The Wild Things Are, which we might get to in a little while, leaving Kaufman with both writing and directing duties. I don't know if I would call this a horror movie, I don't think it falls into any kind of genre. It is terrifying in it's own way though. There is an unbearable sense of sadness throughout the film, highlighting how once you make a mistake there is no changing it. Perhaps the most heartbreaking and hard to watch comes when Caden sees his long estranged daughter Olive on her deathbed. It's a gut punch of a scene, dissolving into humiliation and loss that he won't ever be able to take back, no matter how many times he changes his play.
I feel so underprepared writing about this film. Usually after I watch something I have a theme I can really get into and talk about, but Synecdoche doesn't have one that I feel qualified to explain. It's so ambiguous and esoteric, saying so much in it's two hour runtime that, by the time it's over, you have no idea what it's main point was. Was it death? Death certainly is the most prevalent element in the film. There were at least 5 funerals in the movie, some sad, some comical. Maybe it was the nature of art, and how it reflects us. Lots of evidence for that as well. Yet that doesn't feel right, it's too simple for a movie like this.
A synecdoche is actually a literary term, referring to something that uses part of something to represent a whole concept, and vice versa. Indeed, this is a very literary movie, feeling like an adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel by way of William Burroughs. I really don't know about this one, I can't say I recommend it but I'm really interested in watching it again. Maybe I'll revisit this review when I do because I'm seriously puzzled. On the Wicker Scale this movie is running on a parallel scale closely mimicking the real one.