Friday 22 May 2009

Monday Night Film Club and a near impossible review - Synecdoche, New York

About two thirds of the way through Charlie Kaufmann's new epic I had a deeply unsettling thought: how on God's earth am I going to write a review of this movie? Kaufmann's work is tricky to pin down at the best of times, but Synecdoche leaves everything else standing. In the pub afterwards, half joking, I came up with an idea that would be entirely fitting. The review would be this: if you liked his past work, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then you will probably like Synecdoche too and should go and see it. If you sat through those films wondering what on earth the point was, you should avoid this like the plague; you will very likely come out and want your money back. That would be it, the rest would be left to the comments in the hope that something could be gleaned from the cumulative experience of many viewers. It was a joke, but it would actually fit quite nicely.

However, I haven't done that. After all, I'm a subscriber to Jed Bartlet's dictum (which I can't remember exactly in terms of numbers) that anyone who uses five words when they could use ten just isn't trying hard enough. And, in fairness, the more I've thought about the film, the easier it becomes.

To begin at the beginning, with the name. From my full Oxford English Dictionary (all twenty micrographically reduced volumes of it) Synecdoche:

A figure by which a more comprehensive term is used for a less comprehensive or vice versa; as whole for part or part for whole, genus for species or species for genus, etc.

It's a fitting title. Actually, when I first read it I mistook it for Schenectady, a district of New York (where the opening of the film is set and in which Charles Mackerras, a favourite conductor of mine, was born). But enough etymology.

In many ways, I see Synecdoche as the sequel to Adaptation. Which, in turn, is probably my least favourite Kaufmann film. There are brilliant aspects to it: I love Kaufmann's quest to capture the beauty of the orchids and nothing but, and his failure as the script goes to ever crazier places (though, as Film Club co-founder Caroline noted afterwards, he does indeed capture the beauty of the orchids). However, partly as a writer, and partly for other reasons I'd rather not go into, I find it very difficult viewing as too much of the time it cuts too close to the bone for me. However, the film explored the mind of screenwriter putting a script together, and the meandering journey that resulted. Synecdoche does the same, only more so. And now, as director as well as writer, there is little to hold Kaufmann back and things balloon somewhat.

The story follows director Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is in a disintegrating marriage with Adele Lack, Catherine Keener (a Kaufmann stalwart). He has just directed Death of a Salesman and is a raving hypochondriac. Things get going when he wins the MacArthur Grant (the exact value of which is not specified, but, given what comes next, must be bigger than Kubla Kahn's caverns) and decides to make something true. Over the ensuing decades, he builds his theatre piece in a measureless warehouse, recreating his life in infinte detail. As he does so, it consumes everything else. That is doesn't amount to much is what many will find frustrating. Ditto that characters vanish from his life, and consequently the film, without resolution.

I suppose what Kaufmann is saying is that, well, life's like that. You could recreate anyone's daily existence with a cast of thousands and it would probably amount to a similarly unenlightening experience. In his ever deeper search for meaning in the warehouse, Cotard becomes ever more disconnected from life and from the real world until he is no longer even the director of his life, but merely a bit part actor. In other words, you could argue it's a longer way of putting that line from The Shawshank Redemption: "Get busy living or get busy dying." There's more to it than that, of course, lots more. Much of it defying explanation. But that, for me, is the gist.

The execution is beautiful - the way the set grows around them, the way we see the slightest snippets of the outside world, from the passing of Zeppelins to the troops roaming the streets of New York, which are wonderfully judged to convey just how long has passed. The rest of the cast, including Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and Samantha Morton is excellent too.

That said, this isn't Kaufmann's best work. It is not, for me, as thought provoking or as simply brilliant as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a near perfect work of science fiction which took an impossibility (erasing an unhappy love affair) and asked two brilliant questions: would you want it and would it make a blind bit of difference?

Then again, perhaps I should just have said go if you like Kaufmann. There are plenty of typically mad touches, the 7 1/2th floor-esque burning house (which at first provokes the response that it must be a dream sequence) springs most readily to remind. Enjoy, but don't say I didn't warn you.

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