Last night Dan and I saw Charlie Kaufman’s newest film, Synecdoche New York. I had high hopes, mostly because I have found his other films (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) to be playful and inventive while not feeling hollow.
Synecdoche started out OK. We are introduced to a strange, overweight, neurotic Caden Cotard, a theatre director who is afraid of life, afraid of death and seems completely stuck in his discontented, lonely life. There are some really nice moments towards the first quarter of the film between Cotard and his wife and daughter. My favourite is when they are all in the car together and Cotard explains how plumbing and pipes in houses work by comparing them to veins in the body, which are little tubes transporting blood. The little girl starts shrieking, “I don’t want blood! I don’t want blood! I don’t want blood!” The two adults in the car respond in a muddled way as they simultaneously try to calm her down without lying to her. When Cotard eventually gives in and tells her she doesn’t need to have blood if she doesn’t want to, his wife rebukes him for being dishonest. It’s a really nice and poignant moment.
There are speckles of these beautiful little pieces throughout the film. I love the miniature portraits Cotard’s wife paints (done by an artist called Alex Kanevsky). I love the strange, colourful house that is always on fire that one of the characters lives in (though I have no idea why it is on fire).
Unfortunately these beautiful snapshots feel like moments that don’t have much of a connection to what is going on in the film. That they are there at all is the film’s only saving grace, especially as the plot begins to meander into a dream-like and self-indulgent hallucination that Kaufmann can’t seem to shake off. He wanders off the path and though as an audience member I was rooting for him to find it again, sadly he never did.
The reviews I’ve read of the film today are surprisingly positive. The thing I find the most disturbing about them is that more than one says that to appreciate and ‘get’ the film it needs to watch two, even three times. I found one, two hour sitting to be excruciatingly painful as I inwardly rooted for Cotard to just die already so that I could get on with my own life. That is two hours I will never get back. I am pretty certain that there isn’t anything so brilliant about Synecdoche that it will make me throw good time after bad.
It’s hard to say what this film was about, but in terms of what happens, there is a director who is abandoned by his wife and child, wins a big grant, and in his desperate attempt to control and understand his life, he decides to stage a massive theatre production where he recreates New York and casts actors to play the characters of his life. This outline makes it sound much better then it actually is!
At times I felt like Kaufmann was being purposely elusive about what was going on. At times I wasn't sure he really understood things himself. For example, one character inhabited a burning house. It was a pretty and strange effect, but it was distracting as he gives no clues to why the house is burning and how it fits in with all the other incongruous scraps. Other times he slams his audience over the head with meaning. There were short bursts about mortality, the constant reminder that we are all going to die and that the human condition is essentially one of loneliness and loss. Sigh. This movie is like a hazy, foggy mess interspersed with moments that are supposed to feel like enlightenment. Instead, Synecdoche begins to feel like a muddy slog up a steep, wet slope through the fog wearing damp shoes, weighed down by something oppressive and heavy. Once can only hope that the summit is just around the bend, which in this case it isn’t. This film feels very long.
What critics seem to say most often in response to Synecdoche is that it is either a masterpiece of a massive miss. I think Kaufmann is a genius. But this film is not a masterpiece and is barely watchable. Just because it is by Kaufman (generally a great film maker), doesn’t mean we should give it the benefit of the doubt and watch it over and over again (surely a form of torture) until somehow its genius is revealed to us. It’s a pass, which is followed by a sincere hope that his next effort is better.
The Guardian has done a round up of what the most prominent critics have said about Synecdoche. In some cases, the critical response reminds me of the film’s character Claire (played by Michelle Williams) who is constantly in awe of Cotard, regardless of how stupid or self-involved he becomes. She is always there to look at him with wide, trusting doe eyes and to tell him he’s a genius. The saving grace is that she does eventually tire of it and leave him.
“Kaufman has outdone himself, for good or ill, with the strangest, saddest movie imaginable, a work suffused with almost evangelical zeal in the service of disillusion. It’s a film of mad Beckettian grandeur about the terrible twin truths of existence: list if disappointing and death inescapable. And it supplied a third insight: art is part of life and so doomed to failure in the same way.” (Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian)
“[It] is [Kaufman’s] most demanding and ambitious work. Afterwards you will feel not only that you have walked a mile in Charlie Kaufmann’s shoes, but that you have also plumped up his pillow, pilled back his dirty sheets and finally snuggled up inside his skull. For all Kaufmann’s intellectual brilliance, his films have great heart, and there is something enduring and moving about Caden Cotard’s fruitless struggle to memorialise his life as it is occurring.” (Matthew De Abaitua from Film4)
“I think you have to see Synecdoche twice. I watched it the first time and knew it was a great film and that I had not mastered it. The second time because I needed to. The third time because I will want to. It will open to confused audiences and live indefinitely.” (Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun Times)My last word: sad.
(Quotes taken from the Guardian.)