Saturday, December 6, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)

It’s not hard to see why Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York has sharply divided critics and audiences. It’s almost impossibly ambitious, yet at first glance it seems to strike many viewers as show-offy and self-indulgent, particularly given the way its sobering worldview undermines any of its potential entertainment value. Yet to dismiss the film as Kaufman getting stuck up his own ass (to quote Mike D’Angelo) is to deny just how wise and sneaky a piece of work it is.

As virtually all of its supporters have said, Synecdoche is about nothing less than Life and Death- or, more specifically, the paths our lives take as we grow older. From the outset, Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) body is betraying him- pustules break out on his face, his eyes don’t dilate properly, a seizure leaves him unable to generate tears or saliva. This pileup of health disasters, coupled with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive leaving him, makes Caden mindful of his mortality, so he seizes on the opportunity afforded him by a McArthur Grant to turn his life into a massive theatre project.

In many films, making the protagonist a director reeks of solipsism, as though the filmmaker didn’t know anything about any other lifestyle besides a life in the arts. But here, it’s a brilliant move on Kaufman’s part, as Caden’s job and the project he mounts mirrors the impulse we’ve all felt to take control of our lives in order to make sense of them. However, Caden’s life becomes consumed by this inward-looking project, and the constant self-regard leads the production to drag on for year after year, growing far beyond his ability to control it.

But then, isn’t this how life is for all of us? In our younger years we’ve convinced that we’re the masters of our lives, only to see our worlds growing ever larger in old age while our own rules in them become smaller, until we’re not even calling the shots for ourselves anymore. Along the way, everything Caden knows and lives is lost to him- his parents, Adele and Olive, and his great love Hazel (Samantha Morton) all die, while his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams) also leaves never to return. Even time itself gets away from Caden, from the opening scene in which two nearly imperceptible temporal shifts take place, to later in the film where entire years get passed by unnoticed.

Yet for all its starkness, punctuated occasionally by typically Kaufmanesque non sequiturs, the film’s tone morphs gradually into a kind of warm ruefulness once it becomes clear how much possible happiness Caden has lost due to his inability to stop thinking about himself all the blasted time. Yet by the time this happiness comes within reach it’s too late, and the tragedy is that Caden recognizes full well that he won’t have another chance like it again. By the end, all he can do is to look back at a life of intense self-regard, and to reflect on the idea that to truly know oneself can be a source of misery rather than pleasure, and that all his attempts to create something larger than himself have fallen flat.

This is why, even in her absence, Adele may still be Synecdoche’s key supporting character, even more than Hazel, Claire, Olive, or even Sammy (Tom Noonan), who has been tailing Caden for two decades for reasons unknown but to himself. Through her art- postage stamp-sized miniature oil paints- Adele embraces smallness rather than being unwittingly consumed by largesse the way Caden is. Perhaps that’s why she needs to escape him, since she knows innately what it takes Caden a lifetime to learn. And if Caden could only stop and think about it, perhaps he might realize that Adele’s success through modestly-scaled art is a rebuke to his own ultimately-failed grandiosity.

Early in Synecdoche, New York Adele tells Caden, “everyone’s disappointing, the more you know someone.” Yes, and doubly so when that someone is yourself.

Note: Looking over this review, I can’t help but noticed that I’ve completely neglected to mention such things as direction, performances, and technical elements, although they’re all top notch, all the more impressively so for being Kaufman’s directorial debut. All I can say in my defense is that, cosmetic differences aside, I was so consumed by my own identification with Caden’s plight that I found it difficult to think of the filmic aspects of it. At numerous points in the film, Caden sees himself in the world around him, and I felt much the way watching the film itself. Make of that what you will.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

1 comment:

Jason_alley2 said...

Wow, until you mentioned it, I hadn't even considered the contrast between the tinyness of Adele's work and the HUGENESS of Caden's work. And if I missed something as obvious as that the first time around, who KNOWS how many hidden details there are in this movie that I won't pick up until the 3rd, 4th, 5th time, etc...