Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Synecdoche, New York

Go ahead, pronounce it, I'll wait.

Okay, I'm done waiting. Sin. Eck. Dock. Key.

Giving a definition wouldn't help things.

Charlie Kaufman's resume as a writer is a list of some brilliant, brilliant films (and some quirky mainstream TV). Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are all his. Yet with such a unique voice, he had yet to direct his works. Luckily, people like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze have been more than up to the task. In fact, it was Spike that was going to direct Synecdoche, but when schedules didn't match up, Charlie decided to take the reigns himself with Spike's blessing.

I went in with high hopes. Kaufman is a lock to be quirky, odd, hard to follow, and challenging. He's a perfect fit for a festival film. He didn't disappoint. Much like Eternal Sunshine, he starts off with a seemingly normal premise, with a hint of "off", and slowly cranks it up to a surreal, meta, exploration into... something.

Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a successful theatre director in Schenectady, New York. He's married to artist Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), and has an adorable daughter, Olive. His latest production of Death of a Salesman is critically acclaimed, but his wife points out that he's stuck. He's getting praise for something somebody else wrote. Then his life falls apart - health and family both start to fail.

In the midst of this, he gets a "genius" grant, giving him financial freedom to create something magnificent. He decides to create an honest, real-life piece of theatre as his masterwork.

And this is where Kaufman goes all Kaufman on us... brilliantly. The movie shifts to New York City, where Caden buys a giant warehouse to stage his play. He starts creating a simulacrum of his life, and it grows into a reproduction of the lives of everyone else. Through it all, he deals with love, marriage, and life in general.

And that is the barest structure of the plot, which has so little to do with the experience that is this film. I think I could watch it a dozen times and have 12 different interpretations of things. It's recursive, metafictual, self-refrencing, and yet seldom confusing. By the end, I just kept staring at the screen, processing what I'd just watched. Somehow, through the increasing abstraction and blurring of lines between the fiction of the play and the reality of the film, a strong sense of pathos and pain comes through.

The directing was spotty at times. Unlike his writing, Kaufman didn't take too many risks with the camerawork. It's fairly basic, with a few interesting cuts, but it serves the purpose of the story. At times its confusing... some of those times are purposeful, but others seem to be unintentional. I forgive it all though.

I wish I could do this film justice. Many people will likely hate it, passionately, but I found it fantastic. Imagery that will take multiple viewings to work out, only to then believe something different entirely, moments of laughter that may seem like sadness in hindsight, relationships so screwed up that you sit in awe, it's all over the map, but what a fun journey it is.

Loved it, from top to bottom. This one and Pontypool would be enough to make this a top-level fest experience for me.

Tonight - Adam, Resurrected. A holocaust comedy.

*EDIT: Something I forgot - the wordplay! There is some great use of language and ambiguity in this film. It's a film that rewards those who listen to every word, and watch the entire screen.

1 comment:

lj said...

i'll keep my eye out for it, thanks for the rec!