September 14, 2008

Mute Witness

As threatened, a few stream-of-consciousness thoughts on Charlie Kaufman's latest...

When Synecdoche, New York premiered at Cannes, I remember being annoyed by how feeble the critical coverage on it was. But I get it now. This is a film I'm hard-pressed to describe, let alone review in depth, after just a single viewing. I can say that I see why Kaufman kept this one for himself rather than entrusting it to Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry—it's so dense and cryptic that it would be nigh uninterpretable by anyone but the source. Kaufman is a pretty meat-and-potatoes director, all things considered, but there are so many idiosyncrasies built into the material that it's stylish by default.

The film itself suggests an X-ray of a self-loathing artist's soul (he wrote without any intention of qualifying it). A miserable theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) receives the MacArthur Genius Grant and what he does with it transcends mere navel-gazing: he erects an exact replica of his life in a cavernous warehouse, eventually hiring actors to shadow him and his inner circle. (Synecdoche, New York reaches some mad crescendo when the boundaries between representative and actual realities have blurred such that doubles for the actors themselves start cropping up.) Once Kaufman started taking his games off court, so to speak, for instance by casting Emily Watson as Samantha Morton—the two are often mistaken for each other offscreen, and are certainly doppelgangers here—I found myself wondering if even Kaufman/Hoffman was a planned coincidence. That’s the kind of insanity this movie breeds.

The term “Lynchian” is bound to come up a lot in reviews of the film and for once it's not inappropriate (and moreover not an insult to Lynch). Yet I suspect it will still be misapplied to Synecdoche, New York's surreal humour when it more accurately describes its existentialism; the picture is nothing less than a distaff Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire, climaxing in a quiet apocalypse worthy of Week-End's closing title declaration: "END OF CINEMA / END OF WORLD." This is not to accuse Kaufman of making a pastiche—indeed, he might be the only other American filmmaker to whom these nested narratives come naturally.

Bottom line: Synecdoche, New York is hilarious, heady, intoxicating, heartbreaking, and more than a little maddening.

I saw another film at this year's TIFF that I feel woefully unprepared to write about without a second look, Astra Taylor's Examined Life. A rebuttal of sorts to What the Bleep Do We Know!?, it may be too broad for its own good (Taylor literally asks a handful of noted philosophers (Cornel West and Judith Butler among them) to spout ten minutes of arbitrary rhetoric apiece and calls it a documentary), but it's as compulsively watchable as its animated counterpart, Richard Linklater's Waking Life. It's also so linear and compartmentalized that it feels like the first filmed blog, with viewers destined to take its scene transitions as unconcious prompts to complete the cycle of interactivity in public forums afterwards.

(This post dedicated to the memory of David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008.)


theoldboy said...

Been mourning DFW all day. I'm ashamed to say I haven't read nearly as much of his work as I'd like to, and have now made a commitment to reading Infinite Jest very soon, but his essay about David Lynch is my favorite piece of film writing not written by a film critic, and I think a chunklet of it could stand with some of the best film criticism.

Here's a link to the Premiere magazine edit of the piece:

Synecdoche is probably topping my must see list at the moment, if I were to have a formal must see list.

jacksommersby said...


Regarding your "WarGames" review, I have a friend who worked at Los Colinas Film Studios in Texas, and Barry Corbin came by for a tour, and my friend told him that his favorite line of Corbin's of all-time was "Hell, I'd piss on a sparkplug, if it'd do any good.", and Corbin said that was something he and other kids said during their childhood and he ad-libbed it and director John Badham loved it.

Jefferson said...

There's been talk of a film version of Infinite Jest for some time now, which I think would be impossible. But Kaufman/Jonze et al might be up to such a challenge. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that DFW's literary approach has either deeply infuelnced the way we communicate now in words and visual media, or simply crystallized foresaw the forms that communication would take. Divine madness, man, and I'm sorry that it overtook him so completely.

Jefferson said...

Addendum: I will say that although Wallace was a writer like few others, his journalism was not the kind that suffered from editing. His beautiful logorrheawas fine in his literary work and deployed for specific purpose, but it was always improved by a strong editing hand in his factual pieces. (See Oldboy's Premiere link above, then compare it to the long version in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. They're practically unrelated.)

DaveA said...

Trailer for Synecdoche, New York:

Berandor said...

Great piece on the Godfather set. I must admit I've always hesitated to watch Godfather Part III, though I've seen the over films several times.

Is it actually worth watching Part III for more than closure and completeness?

Bill C said...

Thanks, Berandor; that's a good question.

I think PART III is worth watching mainly for "closure and completeness," alas, but I'll say this: it comes closer in spirit to being a card-carrying member of its franchise than CRYSTAL SKULL does.

One of my less abstract problems with the film is that it takes shortcuts. It's basically a mirror image of the first film, with Michael's progressive frailty necessitating a restructuring of power within the family, but Andy Garcia's ascent to the throne feels preordained not by a sense of fate but by a narrative taking the path of least resistance. He's also impetuous and not very intelligent, which adds to an unacknowledged rashness in Michael's decision to promote him.

Yet there's a melancholy to the PART III that seems to get more palpable with age. (Mine, not the film's.) I laughed at the end of the film as a glib teenager; I got choked up this time around. The GODFATHER stuff is really a pretext here for a rumination on regret. And Pacino is riveting.

Every time I watch PART II, I find something new to love; every time I watch PART III, I find something new to dislike. But I'm pretty Peckinpah about it these days: it ain't like it used to be, but it'll do.

Anonymous said...

Similar props to Ian on the Chucky set - good stuff.

What the fuck is this shit?

Bill C said...

I'm pretty sure Rog is having a laugh.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, anon.

That final, heartbreakingly appropriate shot more or less justifies the existence of The Godfather Part III in my eyes. Still, all snark aside, I seriously do wonder what would have happened if Coppola got to make The Death of Michael Corleone with Rebecca Schaeffer/Winona Ryder.

Bill C said...

If anyone's interested, my Blu-ray player just went on sale at Amazon US for $200, which is $300 less than the list price.

In case the link is shite, the player model is the Sony BDP-S300.

Bill C said...

So much for that--it already sold out. They're hawking the next model up for $306, though.