Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thoughts on... Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Synedoche, New York, 2008.

Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan and Hope Davis.


A theater director struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse as part of his new play.

How to categorise or explain this film? A theatre director, a daughter, a few decades and a cast of thousands in a giant warehouse in his play on despair, death, loves lost and found, and blurring what's real as art represents life. I took it to mean that we can explore ourselves and communicate better through our art - though Kaufman seems open and encouraging of multiple and personalised interpretations.

I was very excited by Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, being such a fan of his screenplay Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry. It is with regret that I have a poor report to bring of a writer much admired.

Perhaps Michel Gondry and Kaufman need each other. Gondry's next sole work, The Science of Sleep, was a disappointment. The quirky and the amazing and unconventional special effects of Eternal Sunshine were there in Sleep, but the story and ideas were missing. Without Michel, Charlie Kaufman brings a work that seems to spiral away with the writer's own ideas and scope.

Others have hailed Synecdoche epic, complex and multilayered. It began as a wry look at a disintegrating family, with (I thought) a satire on how illness and death are so much in the media - even for children. The film elicited several laughs from the audience in its earlier stages - including from myself, though I couldn’t see how it was multilayered yet. It felt Woody Allen-esque in its self deprecating, hypochondria ridden creative hero and fast but natural dialogue; but then it became confusing and dull. My pity went from the protagonist, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Sprawling rather than epic comes to mind as we got lost in who is playing who in this huge play that never gets seen by an audience. The nihilism and negativity are bleaker than anything I recall seeing (and I often choose difficult films) - and it is worse in that it seemed to feel that its statements of meaninglessness and hopelessness were brave and profound.

It reminds me of Richard Kelly's follow up to Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, in that his next film after something complex and thought provoking ultimately becomes… not too ambitious (I never deduct marks for that) but trying perhaps too hard to top an earlier success with something that feels its cleverness is lost in its creator's mind. At first, I felt that I was missing something but was not sufficiently engaged to rewatch to find out what it was. But by the end - which I hastened - I felt it was the film who was missing something. It is our choice whether we see life as hopeless and meaningless; and stark nullity is not courageous and true, it’s sad.

Elspeth Rushbrook

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