Thursday, 27 May 2010

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Music: Jon Brion
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Director of Photgraphy: Frederick Elmes

To begin, a kind of disclaimer. This review may seem overly negative, for ‘Synecdoche, New York’, the directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, is a very ambitious and well crafted-film. However, as Peter Bradshaw notes in a piece for The Guardian, it also a film that will polarize people – and, I would add, that may create a polarity of conflicting opinions within one person (thus rather complicating the traditional reviewer’s task of evaluations and evidence leading to a conclusion summing up a work’s overall merits). Something of this sense of uncertainty comes through when Bradshaw writes: “The film is either a masterpiece or a massively dysfunctional act of self-indulgence and self-laceration,”; he chooses the former, as does Roger Ebert, and as did many other critics; I edge towards the latter, though perhaps I might not have felt this way, if half-an-hour had been trimmed and some attempt had been made to draw all the threads together (as in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’) rather than letting those threads dangle looser and looser, petering out into a host of non-sequiturs. Oh, and if the film had avoided the usual white male movie-maker’s questionable treatment of women (but I’ll come to that later).

Anyway, I’ll begin the review proper at what seems to be an odd tangent, for comparative purposes that will hopefully become clear later on in the piece. That said, maybe it’s not such an odd tangent when you consider it further: both Kaufman and the man I’m about to discuss, Quentin Tarantino, have been described as ‘postmodern’ film people, Tarantino in a movies-as-entertainment way, Kaufman in an intellectually-dextrous-and-trickily-mind-bending way. So, QT first. Tarantino's moral compass seems to come from the B-movies he so loves. These are the films that have shaped his own sense of morality – at least, as it applies in his films (though I’m not suggesting that we should read this too far into the man’s own life; Tarantino very much makes ‘film films’, spaces in which we can participate in/enjoy socially-unacceptable behaviours and moral ideas, and doesn’t pretend to do anything different. ‘Inglourius Basterds’, with its explicitly historical subject-matter, might have been a problem in this regards – but the fantasy way in which it unfolds (epitomized by the fact that Hitler actually does get assassinated) soon puts paid to that.) So, B-movie ethos in Tarantino: Tim Roth telling Harvey Keitel he's a cop rather than keeping his mouth shut and not getting shot, just because he's "a man of honour"; the revenge theme of 'Inglourius Basterds'; the revenge theme of ‘Kill Bill’. He clearly enjoys those moments of frisson when something occurs that feels right in the context of the film – by which I mean, satisfactory, providing a sense of ‘closure’ – but which might lead one to think twice outside that context. For instance, the satisfaction we feel when ‘Inglourius Basterds’ ends with the mutilation of Hans Landa, the SS murderer. This seems like a rather more self-aware version of Sam Peckinpah’s cathartic climaxes, particularly that of ‘Straw Dogs’, where the timid intellectual’s transformation into a man of brutal action and savage violence is more exhilarating than horrifying: those rapist yokels asked for it! (In the case of Peckinpah, this exhilaration is also the product of a classic tension-and-release strategy; the strategy which causes one to wait expectantly for the climactic shoot-out in a western (Peckinpah’s own ‘The Wild Bunch’ being of course one of the most overblown examples of all)).

Given all this, 'Synecdoche, New York’, feels like a completely different kind of film. It’s set in the present day, has no desire to align itself with American genre film (Robbe-Grillet, Fellini; OK, we can deal with those kind of people…), and prides itself on its muted emotional tone and rambling puzzle-structure (as opposed to the incident-driven approach which Tarantino’s films, despite their narrative jiggery-pokery and focus on apparently inconsequential chat, do tend to go for (‘Kill Bill’ especially)). Yet I would argue that, just as Tarantino takes a B-movie version of reality and runs with it, ‘Synecdoche’ takes an art-film version of reality and runs with it, to create a kind of fantasy that substitutes surface for any genuine moral engagement with the real world - except judgments filtered through the fantasy film-world. (That fantasy film world where depressed, middle-aged men undergoing mid-life crises are inexplicably sexually and emotionally attractive to virtually every pretty young woman they meet). At least Tarantino is honest about just wanting to make entertaining movies with lots of film references, witty dialogue, and fine performances; films with the intrigue and bizarre nature of well-told anecdotes. Charlie Kaufman, on the other hand, wants to be profound; we get some sense of this in the first scene of the film, which has Philip Seymour Hoffman getting out of bed while a poem by Rilke about life's disappointments is read over the radio. In a sense, the film could have just ended there. But wait, you cry: we would have missed all the jokes, non-sequiturs, and 'realistically'-presented absurdities. And I will agree that we would, and that some of these are imaginatively captivating as images or ideas per se – for instance, the always-burning house, the flower tattoo that sheds its leaves on its bearer's death. OK then, this is a film bursting with ideas, but it doesn't know when to stop, and along the labyrinthine maze it constructs for itself, it loses its moral bearings.

‘Moral bearings’? Well yes, let's not pretend that the film doesn't want to present moral ‘messages’, because, deep down, it does want to say something 'profound'. Digression: anyone see the Jennifer Lopez movie ‘The Cell’, where, through some sci-fi gizmo, she enters the subconscious of a serial killer, an environment rendered through all kinds of gothicky décor and costumes? The more I think of it, the more ‘Synecdoche’ makes me think of that film: whipping up a load of appealing trickery (admittedly in a much more complex and interesting fashion) with a very flimsy excuse for doing so. In ‘The Cell’, the killer is a killer because of his childhood trauma, and that forms the basis of the action inside his mind; and in ‘Synecdoche’? Well, we ‘learn’ that ‘life is slow dying’ (didn’t Philip Larkin say that?), that the body decays and that relationships don’t always work out; that there may be increasing regrets and ‘issues’ to work through, and that art is no substitute for life – one cannot live through one’s problems through grand-scale artifice. In that sense, we might see the protagonist’s grand theatrical project as a condemnation of artistic folly, monstrous egotism masquerading as a ‘great and truthful work’. In attempting to create something ‘great’, all the ‘director’ does is to multiply his own rather uninteresting follies and weaknesses on an absurd scale. To support this claim, we might consider the sly digs at actorly pretentiousness: the talk about ‘knowing that you don’t know’, the suggestion (in the scene where the protagonist tells his therapist he’s got a MacArthur grant) that this ‘great project’ is simply an attempt to work through some emotional issues (a kind of giant, disguised therapy session where the patient is in charge and there is not therapist). And yet, and yet…this film is not a satire. Sure, it has jokes, the best ones packed into the first hour of the film; but it’s not a ‘comedy’ by any means, as ‘Being John Malkovich’ was, and it lacks the moral outrage that lies behind truly great satire – the sense that what one’s attacking is being attacked for a reason, rather than gently mocked or quietly half-criticized. So, no satire, no comedy; indeed, Kaufman himself has described ‘Synecdoche’ as his version of a horror film. What we get is a drabber and more ‘intellectual’ version of the hang-dog whimsy of Wes Anderson, with all the joy squeezed out. The protagonist has health problems (or thinks he does), has psychological issues, and feels that he’s disappointed his wife, who takes off with their daughter and leaves him on his lonesome. He’s also highly ‘conscious of his own mortality’, and occasionally bangs on about how death comes to us all. Now isn’t that just heartbreakingly profound…

And that’s not all. Several beautiful women are inexplicably attracted to this self-absorbed, depressed, drably-attired man. Yet still he manages to remain self-absorbed, depressed and drably-attired, unable to offer reciprocal love. And here, in fact, we stumble on another problematic aspect of the film: its attitude towards women. Kaufman has defended himself against charges of ‘misogyny’ in an interview where he claims to have written non-stereotypical roles for the women in the film, but I’m not entirely convinced. The bedroom scene where Emily Watson and Hoffman strikes me as particularly ill-advised: the nude shot and casual talk about ‘fucking’ (to which our ‘hero’ responds with his usual depressed indifference) don’t get us anywhere, and put Watson in a vulnerable position for no obvious reason. Note that we see no naked men; a man’s vulnerability (or ‘frankness’) is limited to looking at the blood in his stool and moping around an empty house. And then we have our protagonist’s wife: her dedication to her work (which means she can’t go to the opening night of his dreary production of ‘Death of a Salesman’, though she does manage to make it on the second night) is implicitly criticized, but his own crazed scheme to create a ‘work of genius’ sees him playing with the feelings of others (although they seem perfectly happy to go along with all this, even if one of them does end up committing suicide) in a way that her self-contained basement painting-sessions, her daughter happily alongside her, never do. We see a magazine headline, in which she claims she wishes to spend her time only with joyous and healthy people. How crass, we cry! An independent female artist moving to bohemian, decadent Berlin (abroad! where they speak another language!), shirking her responsibilities to her needy, sick, depressed husband! This is made worse by the insinuations of lesbianism. Our first inklings of this come in the scene where Hoffman returns from opening night, having shaken off Morton’s advances (the promise of horny weed-smoking in her car), only to find his wife and her friend Maria still up and – surprise, surprise – stoned. The next night, when they all go to see the play, this friend stumbles along drunkenly and rudely disparages the production, leading the wife on a bad path where they just don’t care about the man’s hard work. Later in the film, this becomes a full-blown ‘sub-plot’: Hoffman is concerned about the negative influence that Maria is having on his daughter. He tries to see his family in Berlin, acting the part of the ‘innocent abroad’, sheepishly explaining to a museum guide that he has no German; in the end, the only person he gets to see is Maria, now speaking with a German accent, who callously dismisses his concerns about his daughter getting an intricate flower tattoo at the age of four, and tells him that she gave her the tattoo! As time passes, his daughter grows up and, covered in even more tattoos, dances naked in a glass cage where she’s watched by seedy old men. Then, on her deathbed (she’s dying because the flower tattoos have become infected), she forces her father to beg her forgiveness and to tell lies about abusing her and having a homosexual relationship that caused his family to leave him; after all that, she refuses to forgive him. To rub salt into the wound, Maria now shows up, unrepentant at having had a lesbian relationship with her (they had ‘passionate, aching sex’). What we have here seems to be a man’s inability to accept the fact that his daughter will grow up, will no longer be the little girl worried about pipes running under the floor and blood running in her body, and will become an independent, sexually active being; this is mixed in with jealousy of his wife’s best friend (a woman) and extrapolatory paranoia about lesbianism. (Although we might also note that there might be some connection with Jungian themes – male and female ‘versions’ of characters appear at various points, and the apparently non-existent homosexual lover named ‘Eric’ also seems to show up (though probably only as part of the ‘play’ constructed from Hoffman’s life)). This sounds like part of a satire on the central character – an exposée of the self-delusion and self-importance of the white western artist. Yet we actually seem to be encouraged to sympathize with Hoffman’s character, to mourn the loss that has been wreaked on him (if young women become independent, they will end up speaking only German, performing in peep shows, and dying in their thirties due to the machinations of predatory lesbians – much to their fathers’ understandable grief). The scene where Hoffman has to squirt artificial tears into his eyes might seem to suggest the falsity of his angst, but the film’s general aura of sadness and depression far counterweights that, particularly when paired with the (rather beautiful) piano music that plays through a number of scenes in the film, commencing when it’s performed in a bar where Hoffmann is meeting his leading lady (and beginning to lose his chance with Morton’s character). The Independent’s Jonathan Romney writes about “the (unheard) violins of pathos that follow Caden through life,” but the piano does the trick just as well, and is very much heard. The music’s glow is pleasantly melancholy, but the film itself leaves a far sourer taste – particularly when one considers its moral implications.

Ultimately, I’d like to claim (perhaps too sweepingly) that ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is a product of the kind of western (quasi-)intellectual culture that promotes the 'inner feelings' (and neuroses) of the 'individual' as the centre of the universe, and ruminating on them as a worthy occupation; one can extend one's own observations about one's depressed state, failed marriage, dull job, physical decline, etc, to the world at large, and use these to make sweeping statements about the futility of life, the inevitable progress towards death and the way we try to compartmentalize our lives in order to cover up this fact of death and to make some meaning of our existence. (This is all filtered through half-digested, superficial interpretations of existentialism, Bergman, Beckett, Kafka, Calvino and the like (these people stand in for 'great secular art'), and it’s a kind of ‘intellectual chic’ pose – even Lady Gaga has a Rilke tattoo on her arm. I’m not saying that Charlie Kaufman doesn’t have a certain amount of knowledge and a fine imagination, but ethically, I’m not sure that we’re not all much better off than we are with Gaga). One practices this solipsistic schtick to stand in for 'philosophy'; and one does this to stand in for any kind of criticism that takes into account other people, AS other people, as people who may have different cultural, sexual, moral compasses to our own (like lesbian Germans!), who may have different needs and desires, and who cannot be addressed from a position of total solipsism masquerading as universal existential angst. Therefore, one misconstrues the realm of the social as simply a way of covering up life's essential meaninglessness, whereas a properly social perspective might see the hero’s frustrations as the results of social dynamics: the power relations embedded in and frustrated by the templates for male-female and family relationships, and the dullness of job-focused, middle-class American life (although actually, if you think about it, the characters in this film are pretty damn lucky…). Andrew Seal brilliantly suggests that ‘The Lives of Others’ is a ‘capitalist realist’ film which promotes self-sacrifice in the service of the ‘job’ as a means of redemption (it’s well worth checking out the review in question at Seal’s ‘Biographia Literaria’ blog - Kaufman’s movie certainly doesn’t promote a capitalist work ethic in this way; however, it doesn’t attempt to propose any sort of alternative (and isn’t interested in doing so).

Well fair enough, you might say: you don’t go to a Charlie Kaufman movie to be presented with a utopian Leftist tract. And that’s not what I’m asking for; I just feel that the film’s social stance is very problematic. I see this as exemplified by the vague intimations of some wider societal collapse, of a dystopian future, towards the end of the film: the large alien ship/zeppelin-type aircraft which hovers over the city; muffled bangs which could be explosions or gunshots; the appearance of graffiti on the facades of previously ‘respectable’ buildings; the eventual death/disappearance of most of the members of the vast ‘theatre piece’. This is made all the more plausible by the film’s contemporary setting; 20 years into the future, there may very well be crises of this nature. Yet this element is just casually tossed into the film as a kind of mirror of its protagonist’s sense of ageing, regret and decay: corpses litter the place and the aftermath of explosions leaves buildings charred and smoke floating over deserted streets – but only as a way of reflecting his loneliness. OK, this may all be occurring in some kind of elaborate meta-reality, and it may all be schizophrenic or senile delusion; but apocalypse is not a backdrop to or reflection of the depression of an individual ageing white male, and social clashes are not pathetic fallacy for the individual ‘crises’ of such a person. In the film itself, this is a relatively minor issue – the vague suggestions of social crisis are just one toss-off from the huge pile of ideas that Kaufman threw into his script and ended up filming. But I still think it’s problematic to use societal collapse as a metaphor for the loneliness caused by impending death; and that this problem typifies the tendency towards solipsism and self-pity of what is, at times, an engrossing film.


Peter Bradshaw, Review in The Guardian ( “Of course, the action of the film can't be taken literally: no "genius grant foundation" would have enough money to sustain such [Caden’s] crazy scheme. Yet neither is it supposed to be a fantasy: this is not merely what Caden is imagining he might do. It is Kaufman-reality, unreality, irreality, and the film won't have the same impact if you are not prepared to grant it some kind of "reality" status.”

Jonathan Romney, Review in The Independent ( “ ‘Synecdoche, New York’ finally feels bitter, hollow and adolescent: like a gargantuan music video conceived for an emo band with a penchant for Pirandello.”

John Ott, ‘Synecdoche, New York’ Explained ( “The emperor may have no clothes, but his nudity is, nonetheless, profound.” Symbolic interpretation of various elements within the film – e.g. the burning house and Caden’s double.

Aaron Bady, ‘First Response’ to the film at his Zunguzungu blog ( “[This film is] an argument for why white people should not be allowed to use magic realism. It uses a monstrous caricature of homosexuality and an unselfconscious misogyny as tropes for life’s unfairness. It thinks selfishness is noble and its consequences, tragedy.” As the writer admits, this is a hastily tossed-off first response, and one might even call it a hatchet job; but I do find myself agreeing with the general sentiment. In any case, it makes a nice contrast to all those reviewers praising a film to the heavens just because they need to watch it a second time to ‘work it out.’

Adam Arseneau, Review at Cinema Verdict ( “ ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is…often barely recognizable as a film in the traditional sense of the word. It more resembles the inner workings of a mentally ill person; a place where puzzle pieces are assembled in random order, where time leaps in unexpected directions and distances, where memories and dreams coalesce into unrecognizable messes.”

David Moats, Review at The Quietus ( “Making a morbidly pretentious film about the perils of making morbidly pretentious art doesn't blunt the message, it just makes you resent the messenger.”

Blogposts at the ‘Wisdom of the West’ blog ( “ ‘Though complex, ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is essentially a love story, […] told with a lot of technical bells and whistles that bring in all sorts of let’s call them avant themes of identity, reality, representation, etc. Though colorful, the meta-fictional effects are peripheral to the essence.” These posts form part of a series of four entries on ‘Ur-Realism’ (which in turn form part of a much, much larger series of entries on ‘Ur-Story’). Scroll down to the bottom of the page to read the posts in chronological order.


Jim H. said...

Thanks for the kind reference to Wisdom of the West.

I'm sufficiently intrigued by your take on this film to explore further within your blog.

Jim H.

Smaldera said...

This is probably the best critique of the film that I've found so far... actually I'm doing a brief (turning larger everyday) but serious investigation on Kaufman films and I agree with a lot of your statements... I really appreciate your point of view... probably I'll write you again to debate further some elements, if you don't mind. Thank you so much.

david_grundy said...

Hi Smaldera - thanks for your comment - I would love to your read your Kaufman investigation when you've finished it.