Thursday, March 12, 2009


Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Runtime: 124 min.
Rating: ***
Genre: Horror, Drama, Comedy

        I see Fellini’s 81/2. I see Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. I see Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool. I read Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. And I wonder. Why is the personal truthful introspective memoir of a man supposed to center around the women in his life? Could the life of a man be learnt only in terms of these women? I go one step further and ask, does it really have to be shaped around them? I don’t know, but I sure as hell aint convinced. Even though I’m moved. And I wonder. Does this kind of a stripped-to-the-bare-bones autobiographical venture allude to the school of thought that believes deep down, at an intensely personal level, every person is essentially feminine? Does the larger-than-life part that is integral to all of us have no say? Or does it indicate that only such kind of a meditation drenched in self-pitying nostalgia sell as art, or find resonance? Let me tell you how much I thank God and Paul Thomas Anderson to have made There Will Be Blood and try and cause a little revolution of sorts in our culture of largely feminine-driven art. When I say feminine I don’t mean the gender, but the qualities. As Ms. Sandra Bartky, professor emeritus of philosophy and gender studies at the University of Illinois observes – We are born male or female, but not masculine and feminine. Everything else is imbibed as we go along.
        Such is the nature of Mr. Kaufman’s first film as a director, Synecdoche, New York, which honors its title so much that it almost overdoes it. Viewers enthusiastic of shorthanded symbolism will have a great time here, just like those to be found in David Lynch’s films. Such is the density that you might require multiple viewing just to unearth the multiple layers of synecdoche employed. I observed in my review of Hunger how masterful and ambitious its usage of the tool was, asking questions not merely human or existential but venturing daringly into the spiritual territories, at once merging something as specific as a life and as grandly general as mankind within the framework of four walls. Here, Kaufman uses it to lesser gains, often posing challenging questions but punctuating them with the downright rhetoric. But every which way, synecdoche is to be found at every step here. And the film spares no effort in ensuring that you know that everything here is not only to be taken at face value, but also attention is to be paid for the shorthanded jab at the larger picture. Does it make for great cinema, I don’t know, but it sure as hell doesn’t make for my kind of cinema.
        Caden (Mr. Hoffman) is a stage director. Synecdoche, New York is about his life through his state of mind. That kind of a single sentence description invokes a whole lot more than what is stated and even what is implied. The film knows that. It pulls itself (the film shorthand for life itself) through space (the stage) and time (the narrative) and tries to make sense of the organic mess it is. Caden’s recent play, a reworking of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with young actors consciously playing the older characters of Willy and Linda, has been greatly acclaimed by every newspaper around in Caden’s native Schenectady. He receives the MacArthur grant allowing him to create a personal piece of brutal and unflinching honesty. And he dives into it, with only an exploration of the self driving him, to create the most ambitious work of his life. Of course the ambition is not to be ambitious but to create a work of art that is rid of every hint of artifice to be a monument of truth.
        Synecdoche as a tool works when concealed, when the focus is on the shorthand while the allusion is only to be felt first and then realized. No point or no joy in someone telling you. At least at the movies. It is a tool given to subtlety, not obvious declaration. For all its cleverness, the synecdoche employed here is too apparent, and every image, every frame doesn’t seem to be existing or dwelling in the moment but instead serving its purpose to carve a chip of the bigger picture. For instance consider the segment of the Miller play Mr. Kaufman chooses to show, and the dialogs involved. Densely layered, quite funny and in a way foretelling what it believes lay at the end of it all. Linda calls out – Willy, you coming up? You got to admire the double entendre here, which at first sounds funny. Then we realize if Willy, on top of all his problems, is also having trouble with his willy? Then we realize Death of a Salesman was a synecdoche for all the working salesmen of the country, struggling through their individual lives. In the process their lives was a synecdoche for Caden and the people living through the supposed drudgery of life. Are they men enough, to their women, in every which way applicable? You got to realize Mr. Kaufman is a genius and this little excerpt from the film exhibits everything that is so special about the man – funny, layered, referential, irreverential, subtle and sharp. (Fans of Dev D ought to look here and see how it is supposed to be done.)
        But then that very genius kinda makes the film the grand and fascinating failure it is. Consider for example the sequence involving Caden and his therapist Madeline Gravis on the plane, where the sequence in itself is absolutely bland and has no resonance, but only gains weight when considered in its symbolic form. Such kind of shorthand actually tells rather than lets you feel. This is the time where the film starts falling into such kind of filmmaking, from whereon scene upon scene have no life. Mr. Kaufman is a scriptwriter and I believe it shows in the very literal way every thing unravels, with no sense of emotion or depth. There’s really no diversity in tone over the entire breadth of the film. Scenes here do not feel organic, do not feel spontaneous, do not have a life of their own. It feels, as if, somebody has edited them to make some sense of it keeping in mind some larger themes. It gets so heavy-handed at times that one feels the film is not wearing its themes on its sleeves but instead has made its sleeves out of those themes. Such kind of filmmaking pushes the viewer back into the regions of indifference, and I believe rightly so.
        Allow me to explain why. And in doing so, allow me to pose a question first.
        How do we learn about ourselves, our true selves or how do we gain a greater understanding of a life? By looking at big picture, i.e. by looking at his/our life as a whole? Or by looking at small, harmless incidents, which I believe, reflect the truth in their inherent spontaneity? What we learn about ourselves is in those small moments of life. Like why I asked my grocer to enter it into my credit though it was a small amount and I had that in my wallet? Like why I decided to cut short my mom’s call saying that I was busy when I sure as hell wasn’t? Like why would I let an empty bottle of Mountain Dew stay inside my car for the past four months always feeling too lazy to pick it up and throw it in the bin? What does tell you more about General Patton – that he drove Erwin Rommel back in North Africa, or that he slapped a soldier for being shell-shocked? What does tell you more about Mahatma Gandhi – that he professed non-violence, or that he was in the possession of his carnal desires and having sex with his wife at the very moment of his father’s death and he chooses to admit that to us. A job, a marriage, kids – these hardly present the true picture of a man. The Dark Knight is a big success not because the audience member straightway dug into the ideological crossfire between the Batman and the Joker, but because they found their way to it through the little moments interspersed throughout the very dense and very specific narrative of the film.
        And that Synecdoche, New York is about a man searching for the truth in his life, it doesn’t really structure itself with specifics, and instead deals largely and directly with sweeping life encompassing themes. It ought to be mentioned that Mr. Kaufman’s script, much in the tradition of his previous works, is largely aware of itself, and in the end remarks about that very nature of itself when Caden observes – This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. I believe Mr. Kaufman here is resorting to summarizing and, in the process trivializing. He has gone through all the trouble only to find the life largely uninteresting. There’s a reason why he comes to the conclusion. That is because he hasn’t looked closely enough at the little individual moments that define that large uninteresting life. All a matter of perception. When we look that closely art is made. When we look from that far off, as Mr. Kaufman seems to have, you get facts that correlate with some other facts deriving essentially into a framework of events joined together by some easy philosophical statements that take us nowhere near to the truth other than stating the rhetoric. In the larger scheme of things nothing ever matters, so what’s the point? The film suggests death is, and I find that hollow.
        One ought to remember that Mr. Kaufman’s previous scripts have all been stories, which by their very nature are specific and hence engaging. This one’s not intended to be a tale, and neither is there any exposition, so the richness got to arrive from the little details. The film is largely bland that way for there’s nothing to it that provides for an experience. Multiple viewings would only enhance on a narrative level, which is kinda pointless of the whole exercise of movie-making. One got to ask if there’s anything wholly improved in the transition from the page onto the screen. I believe I wouldn’t stand to lose much, or even anything, if I got down to reading the script. The way the film pans out, one feels all the discovery and exploration was done on the way to the script, and the filmmaking merely involved bringing what’s one the page to the screen. So much so that a sense of design runs through the proceedings, for Mr. Kaufman has already lived the script and is only trying to reproduce that. As a synecdoche for a writer one might view the film as a mild success, as a synecdoche for every man it is largely un-curious. An external element, like a director, who would have himself unraveled the script while filming it, living it in the process, would’ve been the ideal way to enliven Synecdoche, New York. In its present form it is nothing more than a novel being enacted verbatim.
        Which reminds me of Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, the novel that I am always suggesting to everybody. It is a great book, with a very clever narrative, and a very Kaufman-esque meta-narrative, but only that every word of it rings observational and hence true. Even for a work of literature it never once elevates itself to see the larger picture of its protagonist Peter Sinclair, and instead creates a bewildering world constructed of one specific on top of the other.
        Look, there’re great many themes in this film that could be peeled over multiple viewings. But nothing that you haven’t seen or read before somewhere. It is the kind of film where you got to read as many opinions as possible, and while doing that pay attention to the age, which might tell you an awful lot about the movie and about the person in question. David Edelstein of New York magazine gets it absolutely right in his review when he says – It’s heartbreaking how rich this failed project is, with enough poetry for several great movies, but not enough push for one. As for a guy like me who is still strapping his boots, this kind of summarization of life doesn’t really resonate. Maybe it would to somebody who is riding into the setting sun, but then I wouldn’t know.
        The way I see it, this is a grand failure, an ambitious film that seems to have been made too early by the wrong person. It is an interesting film nevertheless, but that doesn’t make it a good film by any means. The way the film it is, to watch it feels like a chore. One walks into a film to feel and be stimulated, not to be endlessly preached in dull somber monotones. Clever films like these do that, where there’s no point to the film other than to make sense of the narrative. Of course, more could be learnt here than most of the supposedly good movies doing the rounds these days. Still I find myself largely unconvinced. You see, why does it have to be Hanna Schmitz? Why does it have to be Shanti? Why does it have to be the mother? Why has it got to be only the feminine?
        Oh just a passing thought. How much of a success a synecdoche really is if you are already aware what it is representing?

Note: The opening shot of the film is an example where Mr. Kaufman gets it absolutely right, where the radio is the correct source to insert whatever that has to be inserted, while the framing beautifully captures the lonely existence. There’s no sound, nothing external to the surrounding apart from the voice of the radio. I believe that ought to have been the benchmark for the entire film.


Srikanth said...

I haven't seen the film. But Satish, this has got to be one of your best reviews.. .Good work.

man in the iron mask said...

Oh dear! thanks man.

Watch it in haste. I want to know your opinion.

Amar said...

I don't agree with you in large details. First, I want to clear the logic behind 'repeatedly watching the same movie'. There are many movie-lovers out there who don't pick out the eventual meaning hidden in each and every detail director spreads throughout the movie. I myself got shocked when I watched "Synecdoche" second time and saw the symbolism/irony hidden in the choice Samantha makes after the lady tells Samantha: "It's a big decision, where one prefers to die..." Secondly, there is so much to tell about the movie which, I am surprised to see, getting overlooked by many people. Making a play to find out the 'missing thing' in protagonist's own life, the roles each one of us plays in our daily lives, the difficulty to find out their true nature, their thoughts, the reason behind their actions...It is all so fascinating and sometimes heart-breaking. And who can forget the terrific performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman who clinically underplays the isolation and frustration of a less artistic (than his hugely talented wife Adele) human being ? Finally, I want to relate my experience of watching this movie with the Guernica painting. When I see Guernica, I don't get entertained by the massacre in the Spanish Civil War; but I get so touched by the art hidden in this single painting that each time I discover new things about it...

man in the iron mask said...

Amar, I do know the logic behind watching the same movie, for I do watch a movie several times. Most films, even the bad ones. Hey I do that for fun, because one never knows where one can learn something. I don’t know, but I’ve seen 2001 over 50 times. But then, I believe I have already learnt everything that I could. Now I only want to feel it.
See, when movie-lovers repeat-watch a film they do it because they connected. Nobody intends to subscribe for a theory class. They subscribe because they found a connection.
Is Taxi Driver heavy on symbolism? Not really. It is rather blunt. But people find a connection because it actually portrays and lives a truth, rather than summarizing it. People have watched it, and people will keep watching it for time immemorial because it is one of the greatest examples of synecdoche out there.
I believe it is not the purpose of the artist (director/filmmaker) to show us the synecdoche. That is something to be left for us to realize.

And what you say is overlooked is quite apparent in the film. I mean, it is one of the stuff floating on the surface. The predicament of art trying to imitate life and understand it isn’t exactly the first time it has been done, and it is rather quite obvious out here. What I find myself disappointed with is the bland nature of the way it is shown.

And as for Samantha, i.e. Hazel, I don’t think there’s anything hidden, anything subtle about her. She begs, she cries, and when she takes a burning house, I think you know everything you have to know about her.

Lastly I would want to make one key difference. Great art is created by an artist when he can feel, not think. Example? Kubrick’s The Shining. The struggle between the real and the supernatural is present in every frame. What was Kubrick’s God, I still want to know.

Amar said...

Very true. As a die-hard fan of Kubrick, I can hardly disagree with you on his film-making style. There are very few film-makers(Howard Hawks, John Ford, Hitchcock and Billy Wilder are others I think) in US who had made so many important movies in their life-span. 2001 is surely a motion picture which nobody had dared to surpass in last 41 years.

But at the same time, when talking about Synecdoch, I found out out the same connection with Caden Cotard which I found out with Travis Bickle and Shane in the past. I got fascinated by the universal theme and the fine details in the movie which will surely compel me to revisit it many times in the future. I suppose the enthrallment about anything differs from person to person. And the magical spell of this movie is one of them.

Having said that, I respect your opinion as it is always good to have the varied POVs on any topic. As Voltaire had said in 'Candide': "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Gaurav Parab said...

It has to be shaped around them my friend. It is always them

man in the iron mask said...

Aaaaah Gaurav, you sink me into despair.

But then, what of Batman? What of Clint Eastwood? What of Jacques Kallis? What of Adam Gilchrist? What of Glenn McGrath?

For that matter, what of my dad?

I don't see no reason why they don't deserve a film, or a book of their own.