Tuesday, June 09, 2009


After having missed the movie in theaters least year, I finally got around to the DVD of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, and at the risk of my street cred amongst the blogging community (of which there is admittedly very little to fritter away), I have to admit indifference, at best, to the cold-sweat puzzle-making that this writer-turned-director seems to have fashioned as a singular personal style. I was (and continue to be) in various states of love with the films made from Kaufman’s scripts for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (by George Clooney), Being John Malkovich (by Spike Jonze) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (by Michel Gondry), at the same time as I have to confess a serious amount of aggravation toward Adaptation (also by Spike Jonze) and ignorance of Human Nature (also by Michel Gondry). Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s directorial debut, and he is perhaps the only person who could have gotten a handle on the scrambled interior narrative of this most gnarled, deadpan and depressed descendants of . Unfortunately, he is also the one person unable to step back far enough from the self-actualized rubble to at least try to adequately visualize some of the movie’s ideas about artistic crisis and the decay/death/mutation of self, which are startling due to more to the scale of commitment of Kaufman and his actors rather than to any fresh insight or urgency. But despite its ambition, Synecdoche, New York ultimately feels puny to me-- it's a death-obsessed downward shot that nonetheless indulges in a sort of fetishistic romanticizing of its own fatalism. (The movie lacks only a soundtrack scored by the world’s tiniest string section wringing out endless variations on the old Hee Haw ditty, "Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me.")

The movie is nothing if not an honorable try, but it comes nowhere near the kind of audacious high-wire energy necessary to sell these notions of the mysteries of the creative process, perhaps because they all seem to be warmed over from Kaufman’s previously documented navel-gazing, perhaps because this first-time director just isn't up to the challenge he's set for himself. (All the wet-blanket, self-conscious referencing and toying with dopplegangers is enough to make Pirandello throw up his hands.) In Synecdoche the writer-director seems to be mired in a spiraling depression that he is incapable of adequately dramatizing, so he settles for allusions and various clever visual linkage designed to provide emotional ballast and balance for the long dead spots where there’s little for viewers to do but either congratulate themselves for spotting the obtuse references or notice how flat everything else is in the absence of genuine-- as opposed to abstract-- emotional resonance. (The one exception to this observation resides in Samantha’s Morton’s lovely work as longtime lover of our putrefying protagonist, the ultimate Method role for thespian Philip Seymour Hoffman. Horton manages to connect with and embellish upon something resembling the heart and soul of a real person and, as a result, breathe some real life into the hermetically sealed frame. This is a little like admitting that Maureen Stapleton red-clad life-force was the only bearable aspect of Interiors.) I understand that for some this movie is a emotional epiphany, and I respect that; all I can say is, those who respond to it are as welcome to Synecdoche, New York as I am to David Cronenberg’s film of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, an impossible narrative that covers the same ground but does so with Cronenebrg’s visual acumen and filmmaking chops at its disposal, which coalesce and somehow make the damned thing work brilliantly.

I’m sure I must be paraphrasing David Edelstein’s thoughts (or someone’s) when I say that the Kaufman of Synecdoche seems like a very compressed version of the Woody Allen of Stardust Memories, clearly distrustful of the notion that comedy is capable of conveying the ideas he so desperately wants to deal with. (Synecdoche seems like it wants to be funny, but someone just won’t let it.) It's as if making/letting his audience laugh was somehow a concession to an unbearable lightness for Kaufman, or perhaps a corruption of the insistence of his big ideas. Unfortunately, the ideas aren’t so big, and there are many far less pretentious movies that have approached or directly dealt with the ideas present here about the little death and infinite sadness at the core of the act of artistic creativity-- Naked Lunch being but only one-- that don’t come off as punishments. I think Synecdoche is essential viewing for anyone interested in what singular films can and cannot do, and of course for anyone charting the progress (or diversions) of Charlie Kaufman, but that doesn’t make it a masterpiece, or even particularly good. Kaufman’s single-minded pursuit of his interior Escher painting is, I suppose, what will ultimately cement his status as a visionary, but the risk of incessantly charting that interior landscape as your Great Subject, as Fellini did to ever decreasing returns, is in the forbiddingly insular landscape of the films themselves. I wonder what would happen if Charlie Kaufman befuddled everyone and did a job-for-hire as his next project. Whatever the result, it’s a lot more rewarding to contemplate the possibilities of a $100-million Kaufman remake of Fantastic Voyage than it is sitting through Synecdoche, New York.


From left: Andrew Grant, Karina Longworth and Chris Beaubien

One of the best things on the splashy DVD of Synecdoche, New York is the DVD extra “Infectious Diseases in Cattle: A Blogger’s Roundtable,” in which five reputable and respectable Internet-based film critics, apparently hand-picked by Kaufman himself, chew the fat for a half-hour or so about what they thought about the movie. The writers—Glenn Kenny, Andrew Grant, Karina Longworth, Chris Beaubien and Walter Chaw-- are eloquent in expressing what about the movie got under their skin so, and in detailing some of the points of order that will have escaped those who were worn down by the movie’s narcissistic trajectory. No matter that I disagreed with their conclusions and could not relate to their experience with the film-- I enjoyed seeing these folks getting this forum so much, and that they used it to talk in such captivating ways about the film, that I wish they’d made room for a dissenting view. Now, before anybody writes in and accuses me of jealousy, know that a) this is a New York club (except for Chaw, and congratulations, Walter, if Sony got off the dime for your plane fare) and b), I have almost zero desire to appear on camera talking about anything. This is not my backhanded way of saying I should have been in the room with these folks, though, in other circumstances I’d welcome the opportunity to hoist a beer with any one of them.

I understand that Kaufman and producer Anthony Bregman were looking more for a respectable exegesis of what Kaufman was trying to do as a writer-director, and for fans of the movie and of film criticism I think you’d have to say these five fine filmbrains (sorry, Andrew) succeeded. But I think the scope of the discussion could have been fruitfully expanded, without turning the whole enterprise into a rowdy McLaughlin Report for cinephiles, had someone been invited who could have eloquently expressed the ways in which the movie doesn’t work. David Edelstein or Stephanie Zacharek, for example, are smart folks who didn’t respond rapturously to the movie and could have brought a welcome diversity to the gathering. As it is, this blogger’s roundtable, while not strictly for the already converted, may best be appreciated by the Kaufman choir. But if the idea catches on and more filmmakers promote the notion of gathering writers together for more DVD gab fests like this one, I hope that there will be more room left at the table for the one or two redheaded stepchildren who may be trying to shout above all the praise and call attention instead to the director standing in the corner, holding court in his birthday suit.



Rick Olson said...

You know, Kaufman is a pain in the ass, but I kind of like his movies, including "Synecdoche" I guess I was suckered into all the baroque goings-on, and you gotta give the guy credit for the old college try at something unique. I thought Gondry's version of Kaufman was probably the best, but quite like Clooney's and Jonzes "Malkovich", his "Adaptation," not so much.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Rick, I definitely don't begrudge Kaufman his ambitions or his ability to get a movie that is coloring so far outside of the lines made at all. What I said about a fledging director like Mr. Ooh La La marshaling his resources and getting a small independent movie like Earth Day holds true for a more high-profile first-timer like Kaufman too-- I salute him for sticking with the way he sees things and for having the balls and the stamina to fight it through and get the movie out there. It's just the "baroque goings-on" that I've lost patience with. I guess I just find the inside of Charlie Kaufman's head far less interesting than he and lots of others do.

Bob Turnbull said...

One thing I've noticed about "Synecdoche New York" is that it seems to have inspired some great writing from critics - not just the rapturous or very personal commentaries, but the negative reviews as well (including yours). I don't think I've ever enjoyed reading negative reviews about a film I love as much as I have with this one (the exception being Rex Reed's awful piece of writing about the film - I don't think I'll ever read another film review by him).

I just re-watched the film again tonight for the first time since my initial theatrical viewing back in September (sheer coincidence) and though it wasn't quite the discombobulating experience the first time was, I found so much more to dig into (and not just the little background bits). It's navel gazing writ large, but I'm still bowled over at not just the methods employed to do it, but at the emotion brought across too. I think the entire cast is phenomenal - along with Morton, I think Wiest deserves special mention. Her longing for the daughter she never had hit me harder this time around than the first time.

I also can't really agree with your last sentence in the comment above:

"I guess I just find the inside of Charlie Kaufman's head far less interesting than he and lots of others do."

Perhaps I'm a biased Kaufman fan, but I don't think he necessarily really believes that he is THAT interesting. I think that's just his topic of expertise - that's what he feels he can write about.

By the way, you know you have street cred up the wazoo, right?