on December 28, 2009
This is a film that's angering to watch at first. It's angering because it's so damn real, and acurate about human sorrow and depression and desperation. It's films like these that have true power; films that anger you at first because it represents how life is, so truthfully that you can't take it. You hate the film when you're done with it. You say you'll never watch it again. But you can't help the fact that it stays with you, and will demand a second viewing, to realize how incredible it really is.
This is a film about the human condition, about depression, about loss. This is the saddest film that Charlie Kaufman has ever wrote, but easily the most universal. Life has the same conditions for all of us; it's simply the time inbetween us not yet being born and us being dead. And we're all crammed into this little world secretly thinking we can live forever, so we fixate on small things for longer than we should be allowed to. Life should be embraced, even if it's damn near impossible to for some of us.
This wasn't a typical review; this film cannot be simply reviewed at all. It's just one that we should all see.
on November 15, 2008
The question for this complex and weird film is whether writer-director Charlie Kaufman's artistic ambition will ultimately frustrate viewer patience. When I saw the film, a couple in front of me walked out halfway through. You will probably love or hate this film; reviews have been sharply divided.
Philip Seymour Hofmann stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director mired in all the midlife crises, real and imagined, of body, mind and spirit. The film begins conventionally enough, or so it seems, but there are telltale signs early-on that Kaufman is going to play with reality itself -- a cartoon on the family TV features Caden as a character, and a realtor walks a client through a house that is permanemtly on fire. Those are two ominous metaphors.
The giveway is that the name "Cotard" bears a striking resemblance to that of the French postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard. We shouldn't be surprised when Caden quits his career doing theater among the "blue hairs" in suburban Schenectady, New York, where his latest production was "Death of a Salesman," and with the help of a MacArthur genius grant (a cruel irony given his circumstances) moves to a cavernous warehouse in New York City and recreates his confused life through what eventually becomes a cast of hundreds of characters. Yes, life is a stage and we're the actors.
In his book The Post-Modern Condition (1979), Lyotard made (in)famous the notion of "incredulity toward meta-narrrative," a fancy way of saying that there are no truly universal or absolute meanings or truths in life, and that all meaning is a personal or social construction. This is exactly what Caden tries to do -- he creates meaning in his life through characters who portray his life. He keeps changing the name of the play, one of which is "Simulacrum" (= an insubstantial semblance of something). He keeps saying that he "finally" knows how he wants to direct the play. Indeed, the play is never finished but is instead a building project that piles floor upon floor of sets; it never ends. For Kaufman there's a very thin line between authenticity and absurdity, genuine reality and mere representation, living life and playing roles, healthy self-awareness (however painful) and oppressive self-consciousness, and between true life and certain death.
Does Caden's effort to manufacture even the barest micro-meaning make any sense? The last line of the movie offers a glimmer of hope. Maybe.
on February 5, 2009
The first thing I would like to point out is that it will be disliked by a lot of people at first, but later be loved by many just like Citizen Kane. Don't believe me? You can either 1) read Ebert's review, or 2) wait and see for yourself.
Synecdoche, New York isn't only the best movie of the year, but it is the best movie that Charlie Kaufman has written to date. It's a film that everyone needs to watch more than once to get what he is trying to say. There are scenes that is impossible to know if they are real or just a dream. Time moves at a different pace and you never really know where you're at. But the most interesting part of the movie lies with the purpose of the writing; Charlie Kaufman wanted to write a horror movie. And not just any typical genre film, but things that scare him. He puts the fear of being alone, of dying by a random cause, of being rejected in everything that you do. Kaufman does such a good job writing for Caden that you begin to feel his pain, to feel his fear. That is true talent. The movie isn't made to scare you, rather Kaufman wanted to do something original with the horror genre. [...]
If you haven't seen the movie yet don't go to the site. It has spoilers galore. Aside from the writing, the direction and the acting is phenomenal, especially the performance given by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It just goes to show you that the Oscars really do overlook some of the best movies of the year. Once you get into the movie there is no escaping it until it is over.
on November 25, 2009
For me, this movie woke me up about a half hour in with the realization that I was watching and hearing thoughts that have been in my own head for years. If you find your inner voice keeping you up late at night, going over and over the same painful questions then I think you will be familiar with the experience of watching this film.
Keeping in mind that most sane people seek professional help and pharmaceutical relief from this experience, it does seem like an odd choice to market the experience in DVD form. That said, I find it strangely therapeutic to know that I am not alone in my head, Charlie is there to keep me company. I believe it was the philosopher, Pascal, who suggested that the strongest motivation in our lives is to distract ourselves from the reality that life is, for the most part, an horrible and painful experience. This film is not a distraction it is a mirror. For those out there that prefer to believe that life is a precious and beautiful miracle, and take their prozac and church services seriously... You might want to stay away from this movie.
To the nuts and bolts of the film. The only things that are taking some time to get used to are the obvious jumps out of reality. Living in a smoldering house for example, the airplane scene is another. My question is how these whimsical elements fit in film about the torture of life? Maybe that, as predictable as you feel life has become, occasionally you will be surprised by surreal moments? Or maybe it is just Charlie sticking his head in your face reminding you to smile?
If you're a person that should be on antidepressants but choose not to be because you believe life should be experienced rather than hidden from you might appreciate this film.. If you "don't get it" I guess you can be thankful? Or maybe you need to watch it again with the idea in mind that for a lot of people, this the reality that goes on between their ears.
I don't even know how to start reviewing SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, the new film from writer (ETERNAL SUNSHINE, ADAPTATION) and first-time director Charles Kaufman. I've been looking for a way in to this review since seeing the film two evenings ago.
Here's the best I can come up with: what WAITING FOR GODOT is to Theatre-Of-The-Absurd, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is to Film-of-the-Absurd. Both projects are brilliant, yet also maddeningly difficult to fathom at times. GODOT, set on a stage decorated with just one bare tree, dared to explore the very condition of living in a world without meaning. SYNECDOCHE uses all the tricks available to filmmakers to explore many of the same questions. Or perhaps it's just one big question.
GODOT is an all-time classic. It is both the epitome and the definition of absurdist theatre. Books have been written about it, and it is still stage with great regularity all over the world, by theatre companies eager to plumb new meaning (or any meaning) from it. SYNECDOCHE will probably not generate such devotion or ruminations. But to view this film is be immersed in the same feelings as a good production of GODOT will get you: to laugh, to feel great sadness, to be confused as hell and to also feel that true understanding of it is tantalizing close, and yet always out of reach.
(I'll admit right here that others will see this film and merely be extremely irritated by it, or think of it as a clever but somewhat boring mindgame. These are also quite valid reactions.)
The film begins on a seemingly typical day in the life of Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) a theatre director in a smallish town in upstate New York (Synecdoche...and don't ask me why Kaufman didn't spell it Schenectady). He's near the opening of his production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and he seems as miserable doing what he does as Willy Loman is with his life. His clock radio comes on, and we hear that it is September 1. When Caden arrives in the kitchen for breakfast, the TV tells us it is Halloween, and moments later, a story indicating the date as November 2 is on the radio. So we get the idea, if we're paying attention, that Caden's days are all strikingly similar to each other and that if you see one morning, you're seeing them all. Time is zooming by him. To him, he might experience a week, but in fact a year goes by.
Anyway, Caden is married to Catherine Keener, a visual artist who paints very detailed and VERY tiny miniatures. Some of the funniest moments in film this year revolve around these miniatures...but it's a dry wit. (For example, here pictures are about 1" square. She's sending some to a gallery in Berlin, and for each painting, she has constructed a tiny little shipping crate, complete with excelsior.) Keener is also practically seething with loathing for Caden, because she feels he has long since given up searching for truth in his art. They have a young daughter, Olive.
Eventually, Caden's wife and child go to Berlin for a gallery opening, leaving Caden behind. And they never return. It is in these events that we begin to see how disconnected from life Caden is. He still believes his daughter is a young girl...but she ages into a young adult. Caden himself is visibly aging before our eyes...yet he doesn't seem aware of it. He's afflicted by mysterious ailments, which to him seem to come virtually all at once...yet in reality, they are illnesses that might come one at a time over a many decade span. The illnesses of aging.
During his life, Caden is surrounded by many women. Michelle Williams plays an actress who is enamored of Caden, or at least his ability to get her cast. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Keener's best friend, who may also be leading his daughter Olive astray. Hope Davis is his psychiatrist, who doesn't seem to be on his side at all. But most important is Hazel (Samantha Morton), his box office manager and the one woman who actually seems to cherish Caden...not that he can see it.
As if this weren't confusing enough, early in the movie, Caden is awarded a grant to produce a giant, meaningful, truthful and important piece...anything he wants to do. He rents perhaps the largest warehouse in the world and plans to stage "the truth." He begins to construct a set that basically is to consist of every setting in his own life, and begins to cast actors who will play everyone he's ever known. Yet he can never bring this piece to completion because while he attempts to stage his life, he continues to have a life, which results in needing to add more and more and more to the play. Years and years and years go by.
In two hours, we get to see all of Caden's adult life from the age of roughly 35. He appears to experience it in just months. Is Kaufman saying that Caden (and therefore US) are so busy trying to control, plan or understand our lives that it simply zooms by and we miss it? Yes, that is part of it. He's also reminding us that we are each the "stars" of our own lives...and that the supporting players in our lives are the "stars" of their own lives and that we might be more or less of supporting players in their lives than they are in ours.
But in the end, it seems that Kaufman is trying to make us feel what it is like to live, to age, to come to grips with all our disappointments and to finally get down to a basic understanding of ourselves. How everything is ultimately stripped away and we are left with nothing but our most basic needs. And how if we're lucky, those needs MIGHT be met before we die. But perhaps I'm wrong. That's my impression, but I'll be every viewer takes away something different.
The movie has many, many funny and ridiculous moments. I found myself laughing out loud many times. But the overall feeling is of a sadness so deep, it can only be a sadness of the soul. It isn't a pleasant feeling, particularly as some of the moments may strike a chord...but it feels accurate.
The film is beautifully made. Kaufman has used CGI to craft a stage setting for Caden's "masterpiece" that is breathtaking in scale. The makeup in the movie is wonderful as well...some of the most subtle aging work I've seen.
Everyone is very good. Keener is always an intelligent presence who pops off the screen, this time with barely concealed anger. Davis and Williams are quite good. Later, Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest make appearances, and they are also very welcome. But I've got to give special notice to 3 performers. Tom Noonan plays the man who is cast to play Caden in the play Caden produces. Noonan is an amazing screen presence, and while for a change he isn't playing a killer (MANHUNTER, THE PLEDGE), he manages to be both sympathetic yet a little scary. Samantha Morton deserves Oscar consideration for her glowing performance. And Hoffman once again knocks it out of the park (big surprise!). It's the kind of role we think he can do in his sleep...but he finds variations and tones that force him to dig deeper than we've seen.
I'm going to stop here, because while I've told you a lot, I've only skimmed the surface. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is not going to be my favorite film of all time...but you can bet I'll return to it again and again, if only in the hopes of solving its beautiful and frustrating puzzle.
on October 19, 2010
Many love it, many hate it, few are ambivalent about it. For my money, there's no better confirmation of a work of art's greatness than that.
As is the norm, most reviews tell more about the reviewers than about the film. Some loved it yet admitted they didn't understand it, others hated it because they didn't understand it. I doubt those two groups mix well at cocktail parties.
I prefer reading the reviews by the haters. They're sad, little, short stories of tragedy and outrage, punctuated by frequent dashes of ad hominem. I learn from them that people don't like being made to think of themselves as stupid. They call Kaufman names and want to punch him in the eye. To add to my amusement, I pretend that Flannery O'Conner wrote all the bad reviews, giggling her afternoon away in delight at inventing so many lost souls looking for their grace.
Rather than attempting to explain the film, and chancing eroding the beauty and mystery of its aesthetic, I present just one consideration. In living life, there's an impenetrable disconnect between experiencing the feel of its moments while simultaneously comprehending its meaning. Because of that, there's an urge to learn a fuller truth by stepping back to witness oneself living, to witness from a detached point of view. Synecdoche is somewhat a film version of Rene Magritte's painting, The Human Condition. If you're not compelled to google it, that painting is of an interior scene that includes a painting on an easel in front of a window. Much of what's outside the window is blocked by the painting on the easel, but that painting within the painting is of exactly what it's blocking from view. Well, we believe it's a painting of exactly what it's blocking, but we can't be sure because we can't see past it.
on February 8, 2013
This is a very complicated movie, with more than one theme. But if I had to pick "the" primary theme, I would define it as the desire---for a great many people---to unnecessarily complicate their lives.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman's character Caden returns home after having spent the day directing a local-community-theatre type production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN---a production in which he has deliberately chosen young actors to play the ordinarily middle-aged roles---he tells his wife that the show is scheduled to be performed with over 500 lighting cues before simultaneously asking her---in a rhetorical, disinterested manner---why he always has to make things so difficult.
"That's what you do," she replies just as casually.
But then it isn't just Caden. It's the way ALL of the people in the movie interact with each other. The way the women in his life perceive his quirkiness in themselves, which is probably why they are drawn to him. The way in which he falls so easily in, and then out of, love---abandoning that which is attainable in favor of something which is always over in the next, greener yard. To casual movie goers, it will be easy to assume that Caden is a constant victim of circumstances, and that's a misconception. Caden is an often selfish man who effects the lives of those around him, just as the selfish actions of others often affect him (he is seen to have a familiar pattern with Hazel: ignoring her when she herself is single, then finding himself attracted to her once she has found herself in a new relationship).
The movie is about how we distract ourselves with what are often silly, meaningless goals---the more complicated (and "seemingly" noble) the better. And how we are constantly seeking substitutes for the people who have hurt or left us, only to find ourselves in the same situations over and over again.
on April 6, 2009
Let me put this review in perspective. I love Charlie Kaufman. "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" are two of my favorite movies of all time. I also have a history of loving bizarre movies, even if I don't understand everything that's going on. "Brazil," "Mulholland Drive," and "Primer" come to mind.
So the problem isn't that "Synecdoche, New York" is "too weird" for me. The problem is that, while those other films used their weirdness to enhance their stories or as pure mind-bending entertainment, the weirdness of this film just felt tedious and self-indulgent. It trampled on my brain rather than engaging it. The premise is intriguing (building a replica of a replica of a replica of reality), and the beginning of the film is quirky and funny, but the story just gets more and more complicated and emotionally detached, to the point that I couldn't wait for it to end. It reminds me of what Quentin Tarantino did with "Death Proof," and P.T. Anderson did with "There Will Be Blood," and M. Night Shyamalan did with "The Happening." You get to a point where you're popular enough to do whatever you want, and then you turn out a boring, self-indulgent mess.
Bottom line: The film bored and confused me more than it entertained, but if you're a Charlie Kaufman fan or a fan of bizarre, challenging, and philosophical movies, you might want to give it a chance. Apparently, many others have had the exact opposite experience as me, so you may find this more mentally stimulating than I did.
Richard Yee, author of Deliveries: A Collection
on October 11, 2011
Here's about all the general information you can know without seeing this film yourself:
-The names of the characters and the plotlines in the film use a heavy amount of Jung's psychological work. Look up the Wiki on this movie and there's a little section to give you an idea.
-The film is most explicitly about the search for meaning in our lives.
-The film is implicitly about the need to stop searching for meaning and, in so many words, follow the stage directions.
-These concepts have both been covered, albeit in different ways, by others before Kaufman.
-The film jumps vast lengths of time between scenes, often at unlikely points. In one scene, the main character begins making love with a woman he has just begun to date. Cut to a three-second shot of their marriage. Cut to a conversation in their home; they now have a four-year-old daughter. Skip four or more years in a matter of seconds, with no warning or change in rhythm.
-The film is complex. Characters are played by actors who are themselves characters. Identity crises happen regularly.
That's a really general idea. Honestly, I recommend you see it. The reason I recommend it has something to do with it being my favorite movie, or close to it at the very least. I like the narrative oddity because as much as it surprised me, it never lost me. I was able to stick with it all the way through, and I feel as though if you can, it's rewarding.
But seriously, if you haven't seen it, what are you doing buying it?! Rent it. Watch it. Love/hate it. Decide whether or not to buy it accordingly. What are my reviews to you?!
on July 17, 2009
Saying this film is not for everyone is probably the understatement of the year. After watching every depressing minute of it (and not comprehending any of them) I think that there is a good chance this film might not be for anyone. But in spite of the fact that it was self-indulgent, rambling, and very, very long, I felt compelled to give it five stars--because Kaufman truly is a genius.
Now I have to explain myself. The reason I thought this was a great, if not particularly likable film, was that in Synecdoche, Kaufman bit off more than he could chew (always a noble endeavor) and then proceeded to chew it, jaw unhinged. What Kaufman was tackling in this movie (besides his own depression) was not mid-life crisis. It was the ultimate meaningless of life itself and a single person's unwillingness to succumb to that idea -- in spite of its undeniable truth. Throughout the movie, the main character, Caden, doggedly tries to make sense of his life by projecting it into a play. This was not simply a case of egoistic self-indulgence (we watch Woody Allen films for that). It was a quest for truth itself. (A phrase Caden himself repeats endlessly.) The irony is that the macrocosm that Caden seeks to represent (i.e. life) through one of its parts (New York), cannot be represented. How can one grasp one's own existence? Even if you look into a mirror, what you see is not you. And this sums up both the futility and the allure of Caden's grand project.
For many, a film which is so blatantly, and so morosely, existentialist will hold no appeal. However, unlike the all-too-serious French, Kaufman can't help poking fun at his own sense of futility, resulting in some truly funny moments. The constant search for finding someone to "play" himself, ends up with a cleaning lady who eloquently and succinctly sums up Caden's "character" while holding a mop. The apartment which is constantly on fire, the suicide of one of Caden's actors ("Get up! I didn't jump!"), the daughter who is killed by her tattoos, all add an element of pointed absurdity that saves the film from wallowing in its own ennui.
The other saving grace of this film was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played his part so brilliantly, and so convincingly, that I sat at the edge of my seat for the entire film. (All the while confusedly whispering to myself, "What's going ON?")When all is said and done, Hoffman was the reason this film worked. Without the degree of sympathy he was able to elicit, nobody could have sat through it.
The final justification that I will offer for giving this incomprehensible film five stars, is that Kaufman was successful in his quest to completely blur the lines of reality. Very few film writers are capable of creating a reality that we fully recognize as being ours, and then slowly blurring its edges to the point where that reality is completely erased. Yet we still believe in it, even past the point where we cease to recognize what "it" is. Kaufman does not create fantasies, but something darker, something that leaves us uncomfortable, something that hints at a bottom line we'd rather not face. Whatever that dark something is, I must acknowledge that only Kaufman can pull off making it so thoroughly credible, and with so little regard to whether or not the end product is marketable. For that reason alone this film was an achievement, and well worthy of its stars.
*Footnote: Since so many people appear to have missed the significance of the title, "synecdoche" is a term of Greek origin meaning "the whole is represented by the part." For example, many curse words use parts of the human anatomy to describe the entire person. As a further ironic touch, Caden's perpetual search for a title which will sum up the meaning of his play/life is provided by the title of Kaufman's movie. The locale, Schenectady, was chosen as a play on words--among other things. (It is also an instance of synecdoche.) Once the meaning of the title becomes clear, the puzzle is: Which part represents which whole? If you can answer the question, you will have solved the puzzle of Synecdoche: New York.