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It's virtually impossible to summarize my feelings on "Synecdoche, New
York." This astonishing brain teaser from the mind of Charlie Kaufman
affected me deeply, probably more than any film I've yet seen this
year. I can't say it's necessarily enjoyable, because it's full of
uncomfortable, brave truths about what it means to be human, and it
goes places most movies don't dare to. But watching it is a bracing
experience, and it's encouraging to know that there are still
filmmakers willing to use film as a means of challenging their
audiences and picking at scabs that most people would prefer to remain
solidly in place.
I can't begin to tell you what "Synecdoche, New York" means, and it wouldn't matter anyway, because I think it will mean different things to different people. A basic summary goes something like this: Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a morose, depressed theatre director who's convinced that fatal diseases are lurking around every blood vessel, and who decides to stage a monstrous, ambitious theatrical work that will leave him remembered after he dies. Soon, the work as he's staging it becomes confused with the life he's living, so that he finds himself directing a version of himself through a story that seems to be made up as it moves along.
If this sounds like an act of mental masturbation by a pretentious intellectual with too much time on his hands, rest assured: "Synecdoche, New York" is not one of THOSE films. I didn't become impatient with Kaufman or his characters, like I have with some of his previous projects. In fact, this film made me uneasy because of how much of it I DID relate to. The conclusions it draws are that we are all alone in this big universe, life doesn't necessarily have any meaning other than what one brings to it, and there is not a higher power who is going to make sure our passage through the world makes sense. It was a bit of a wake up call to hear these beliefs, beliefs that I happen to share, stated so boldly, for while I'm confident in what I believe, that confidence doesn't make the beliefs themselves any less scary.
But depressing and nihilistic as those beliefs might sound, the film is life affirming in its own way. It suggests that too many of us spend too much time trying to make sense of the world and not enough time living in it. We pull back in loneliness and fear when faced with things bigger than ourselves rather than turning to those who can actually help, namely the other human beings with whom we share our time on this planet.
"Synecdoche, New York" will not likely find a big audience, as most people will either not want to work at understanding it or won't like what it has to say. But if you're willing to go into it with an open mind, you might just find yourself amazed.
To start, let's make it clear that this movie will not be for everyone;
I don't think any form of authentic art is. There is no flaw in this
truth or in the people who do or do not find themselves moved by the
art in question- it just is.
I do believe there are people who more intuitively and naturally reflect inward, on death, on life- the meanings of all these things; it is a natural state for them. And I believe there are people as equally blessed and cursed to not think very deeply on these matters. I think this film will find a comfortable home in the hearts of the former. Now, of these "inner seekers"- I believe you have all variations of folks- those that seek deeply and find beauty, connection, and great joy. There are those seek deeply and find isolation, grief, and deep wells of sadness. There are those who find some semblance of balance between the two. I myself lean more towards connection, and subsequent joy because of that I found this movie to be profoundly moving- on almost a primordial level- and I believe- in a hopeful way. Don't get me wrong, I cried many times during the movie and didn't want to leave the theater when the film was finished. I held back the wells of whatever it was that was welling up in me until I got to my car and then unloaded some body shaking tears. It wasn't sadness, though it was something else. I don't really know yet. One thing I do know is that all of Kaufman's films seem to affect me in this manner. After the initial viewing- I know distinctly how the movie has affected me emotionally- I can FEEL it. I am not capable of defining that feeling, or explaining why that feeling has erupted (it is clear to everyone that his plot and content are generally all over the board and it usually takes several viewings to pull any real intellectual analysis from them)- but I certainly am conscious of something new and fresh happening inside my emotional hard wiring. I find that a phenomenal feat in the face of a sea of art which relies on very standardized ways of pulling it's consumers in emotionally. Do you remember how you felt after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? I remember walking out and feeling very hopeful about the nature of love- in a whole brand new way. Not in the contrived, standardized Sleepless in Seattle kind of way not to judge that- but there is something amazing about an artist who can make you feel things you are not sure you've felt before. That, to me, is authentic art. This really isn't about valuing one thing more than another- just offering great respect to someone who has taken your mind and heart to places it hasn't been before. It is nice to visit those old comfortable haunts, but this well, like all of Kaufman's films- will take you somewhere entirely new- if you are predisposed to that kind of wandering.
I got to see a screening of this in Boston, and let me admit to the
fact that I consider this film a masterpiece. It is a rare entry into
the market: an ambitious film, a gamble that, sadly, makes me question
how much success it could garner in the mainstream box-office.
Charlie Kaufman, however, is not a screenwriter/director who inherently aims his sights on the box-office or the mainstream (anybody who questions this has to question Being John Malkovich). Instead, his greatest strength is a boundless creativity and insight into the qualities of humanity, and Synecdoche, New York is no exception. Rather, it is the apex of Kaufman at his most insightful, his most ambitious, and (as his directorial debut) his most hauntingly beautiful.
The plot itself is a contradiction of simplicity and complexity: to say that it is about Philip Seymour Hoffman trying to put on a larger than life play is an accurate statement, yet it completely fails to capture what Synecdoche, New York tries to convey. It is not a conventional film, but instead it is ambitious: a mixture of conventional narrative and surrealist cinema, one where the beauty of the film does not solely lie upon the plot, but the way every minute quality of the film ties together to form the tapestry.
The actors all do their parts brilliantly. I am hard-pressed to find any performance that was weak or, for that matter, standard of the Hollywood formula. Hoffman is brilliant in a role that utilizes his physical and acting gifts, and he takes the character through the spectrum of its possibilities. All the other actors also performed brilliantly, although what struck me as wonderful about the acting choices are that the majority of the actors present are not "glamorized" for the screen. Rather, the blemishes, the age, and the imperfections that make them ordinary are ever present in the film, making Synecdoche, New York seem beautiful in a strange, "dirty" way. Much like a city, its majesty lies not in grungy street corners or clogged rain gutters, but in the whole image that is comprised of such small, necessary imperfections.
And that, ultimately, is why Synecdoche, New York is such an ambitious, beautiful film. It is not a perfectly crafted standard screenplay, nor a perfectly executed piece of cinema. At least, Kaufman's work is not perfect under the current criteria of modern cinema. Synecdoche, New York is a gamble; a mixture of images and music and dialogue and acting that follows Kaufman's heart and his meditations on several ideas: namely, those on life and death and the connections all around us. It is dark yet funny, evocative and haunting. It is perfect in being a work of art that tempts us to find explanation, yet ultimately needs none compared to the feelings they evoke in us.
Viewers who are looking to see the difference between "art" and "entertainment" need only see Synecdoche.
What a trip. You can't expect a conventional picture from Charlie
Kaufman, but this was super weird! So weird that half the people left
the theatre before the end, either confused or offended by what they
saw. Poor Charlie witnessed the whole scene and I suspect it really got
The film's very much Spike Jonze in style, but grander and more ambitious than Malkovich and Adaptation. The first hour is hilarious, next half an hour is still good and you're struggling not to lose threads, the last half an hour gets really messy and tends to drag a bit. It might be due to Charlie's inexperience as a director, or it might be intentional and a means to express one of the points of the film (futility and dragging of time), or the topics simply grew too difficult to deal with, but it seems to me that the last part could have been made a bit more compact for a stronger impression. Seven to ten minutes less would have helped, if that was possible.
Perhaps Jonze would have done a better job in terms of pacing and craftsmanship, but the content is still really strong. The film had been five years in the making and you can feel the issues that Kaufman wanted to address brimming over. Illness, death, transience, love, relationships, passion, devotion, art, theatre, identity, hope, so many topics dealt with in a painfully sincere way. You both laugh and get emotionally affected all the time along with being confused by the twists of the plot and the grotesqueness of the imagery. You get many 'this is so true' moments that you completely identify with and then you suddenly get struck by a completely surreal scene. The film certainly reinforced my impression of Kaufman as a bastard son of Woody Allen and Tom Stoppard.
The cast is wonderful. Philip Seymour Hoffman has to be singled out for his magnificent performance. I have never been much of a fan of his and I was somewhat bothered by the idea of him as a lead in the next Kaufman movie. I didn't think he had a presence for that, but did he prove me wrong! Appearing in virtually every scene, the man has carried this film on his shoulders. He has created a completely lovable and ludicrous character and conveyed Kaufman's ideas splendidly.
Catherine Keener is as fun and adorable as ever! As a fan, I was really overwhelmed by this experience. I saw it two nights in a row, and spent hours discussing it with friends. The film is a bit difficult to comprehend instantaneously and Kaufman himself insists it requires a second watching. It is an amazing picture, rarely thought-provoking, and I can't wait to see it for the third time.
syn⋅ec⋅do⋅che: a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole
or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for
the special 'Synecdoche, New York' marks Charlie Kaufman's directorial
debut. A monumental event on its own right. It is a maddening venture,
a staggering project to face life's greatest of mysteries. Kaufman
takes us on a soul-searching journey, one that he is taking every bit
as much as we. It is a trip unlike any I have ever seen, and to say
that I enjoyed it would be a very difficult thing to say. But
'Synecdoche' seems to be pointing towards something very profound, as
undecipherable as it may appear. A flawed masterpiece, and a risk
Kaufman seems willing to take.
There's nothing easy about 'Synecdoche', it is one of the most difficult films I've sat through. It's the sprawling story of one man's life, a tragic life. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a harrowing performance as his character attempts to create a play of realism and honesty. And even as he dives head first into his work, his own life is in a perpetual state of free fall. A wife who leaves him, a daughter out of his life, relationships that crash and burn. His play, inside a warehouse where he has reconstructed New York City for people to live our their ordinary lives, becomes a fruitless and maddening descent into unhappiness and destruction.
What is 'Synecdoche' about? Is it one man's search for meaning in the midst of meaninglessness? That in order to appreciate the preciousness of life, we must accept the inherent chaos. Existence is what we make of it, and it is the choices we make that shape and define who we are and the lives we lead. Every choice brings with it a million different consequences, some seen and others that go unnoticed.
Kaufman tells us we are one in a world of many. We each play a starring role in the story of our life. People we meet every day, those we know and love. Never will we truly know them, their thoughts, or why they do what they do. And maybe it's not up to us to decipher what we will never understand. We must look inward, not to others, to find peace and insight.
If life is a play, the world is our stage. We only have this one shot, no second chances. We try to control our projectories, cast roles that need to be filled. In the end, what does it matter? Will the world miss us when we're gone? Life is what you make of it. 'Synecdoche, New York' dares to search for meaning, reconcile paradoxes to which there are no answers. But that doesn't keep Kaufman from giving it his best, as tedious and heart-wrenching as it may sometimes be.
More reviews: rottentomatoes.com/vine/journal_view.php?journalid=219276&view=public
Note: This works MUCH better on a repeat viewing, practically a
masterpiece, and one of the perfectly sad comedies ever made... though
the last ten minutes is a slog (perhaps intentionally, as it's near the
end of the tunnel... but it's still unbearable).
Over the course of my teenage years I've seen Being John Malkovich through Eternal Sunshine (those two the M-word, masterpieces, with Adaptation and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind near-great, and Human Nature a fun minor work), and he's always given something to chew on for the brain. He's an incredible wit, maybe too incredible, like something that could combust with the amount of ideas and ruminations and skill at defining what's important to us as people and what we want out of art. Synecdoche, New York could be seen as his life-summation of what concerns him as a writer. And to call it art is simple, because it is: it is, alongside the something like Inland Empire, the most challenging work to come out of American cinema. To say that either one is flawed may come as something as a given, but for Kaufman it's somewhat more troubling.
This is a big film of ideas, crucial, life-affirming (or life-damning) thoughts about love and death and loss and forgiveness and, essentially, the process of trying to recreate and recreate and recreate this. But at the same time the intellect to engage full-tilt by Kaufman the writer, the director couldn't engage me as a viewer emotionally - at least at first. This changed on a second viewing - I'm reminded of Woody Allen's assertion on multiple viewings of 2001 that Kubrick was much ahead of him on what he was doing - but on a first impression I have to wonder, with everything going for Kaufman the satirist, the original, the sad dramatist, what the movie's audience really is. Like the play that is rehearsed for decades that Cotard never brings to his audience, what can one take away from Synecdoche, New York as far as connecting with the characters, or just Cotard?
Maybe it reveals something about me just talking about this; indeed this is probably the film of the season, if not just the year (Dark Knight fanatics take note), that you will want to talk about after it ends. As far as puzzling works of art go it's great for a good argument, especially if one is familiar with how Kaufman's work has been leading up to this point. It's not exactly that the film is ever so confusing that one will want to walk out - there is a logic, in a sense, to the life imitating art imitating life imitating art etc etc aspect that makes sense.
When Kaufman, as director, makes his film this time about as hopeful as Franz Kafka rewatching the Zapruder film on a loop, even the scenes and moments that *do* feel somewhat powerful emotionally (i.e. Hoffman seeing his daughter in a nudie-booth, or the final scene on the bed with Hoffman and Morton old and in bed with the house, once again, on fire) don't hit their mark - again, at least at first. It's almost as if seeing the film again it becomes deeper, more resonant; like any work of art at another point in one's life, it could change, and if one gives it the chance it does.
Certainly the cast makes it worthwhile to watch: Hoffman is what he is, brilliant at transforming physically as age goes by as Caden Cotard, and at delivering subtle moments of humor amid his health-decay; ditto in her own right to Morton, who ranges from bubbly and lustful to anrgy and dejected (Michelle Williams, too, shows this range); even a bit part by Dianne Wiest is appreciated. They all help to give life to what is a big, somber meditation on (quoting Douglas Adams) Life, the Universe, and Everything.
And yet, expressing my (initial) disappointment over the length (at 124 minutes it feels twice as long) or the music (did Kaufman order "kill-myself-piano-tunes-you'll-love off of ebay for this?) or the personal problem of connecting emotionally with some of the characters as they (intentionally) don't really grow, shouldn't, I hope, diminish recommending Synecdoche, New York for anyone who wants something to challenge them, provoke thought and discourse, to engage and disrupt brainwave patterns. Perhaps there should be some disappointment; like life, and the art pulled out of it with pliers, it's not always a pretty sight, especially near the end. But it is a unique journey I was glad to take, and I hope every few years or so to come back to it, and see if it changes me, or if I've changed, since seeing it last.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Synecdoche, New York" expands on the basic subject themes of all
Kaufman's work, but mostly on "Adaptation". And it makes "Adaptation"
look like an exercise for kids compared to this.
It's one of the best hypochondriac's film, one of the best films on struggling with paranoia and, in the end, being defeated. It brought in my mind some of Ingmar Bergman's characters and, of course, Woody Allen's, but without the liberating sense of humor. Liberating for the characters, that is. Here there is no salvation for the protagonist- just like in Bergman's case.
The film flirts with being a bit pretentious, although it surely pokes fun at nearly all the intellectual blah-blah and clichés one sees all around the art world. So, I guess it rather saves itself that accusation. If it only was 15 minutes shorter, then I wouldn't know what to nag about.
It seems that Charlie Kaufman was not afraid to challenge his hip followers, did a difficult to appreciate movie, dark, that really makes your stomach and your brain hurt with with over-activity.
It's a great film.
One of the movies Synecdoche brought to mind for me was Bunuel's "The
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" in which two different actresses
play the same character with no explanation of any sort offered within
It's always refreshing to me to see events in movies occur without the writer/director/actors seeming to feel any need to "explain it" to the viewer. As with (m)any other filmmakers who are genuinely engaged with film as a unique art form, it seems quite clear to me at least that Kaufman requires the spectator to meet him on his own wavelength.
This is what a significant portion of artists in any medium do: they take the constraints, conventions, and materials of their chosen form very seriously and explore their own perceptions, ideas, and emotions plying the tools of their medium on their own personal terms.
At the opposite end of this artistic spectrum is the sort of pandering manipulation of a Spielberg or the painter Thomas Kincaid. Their works are only "personal" in the sense that what is most prominently on display in their work is their own desperate personal need to have their intended message "understood" (and even experienced) by all spectators in exactly the same way, so that "the artist" can in turn feel his own personal worth has been validated by public and critical responses - "Hah, I must be a great artist, because I succeeded in making you think and feel the exact thing I wanted you to!"
I'll grant that this "spectrum" is a very broad one, and I won't discount the work of anyone along it, but that doesn't mean I have to enjoy things I see as technically accomplished hackwork. I don't, and never will.
I'll take an artist who refuses to telegraph his "statement" to me any day. I prefer works that wash over me, entrance me, and lead me down paths to new or long-buried thoughts and feelings.
I feel GREAT after having seen Synecdoche this evening. I laughed, I cried, and I see the world just a little differently now. I feel like a group of people I have never met (Kaufman and the others involved in making this wonderful movie) shared something with me that was very important to them. I wish I could thank them, because I think it takes a great deal of courage to share with others things that are so personally important in such an honest, unapologetic way.
I think it also takes a lot of courage for investors to throw millions of dollars at such a personal vision. It gives me hope for humanity that such a thing is possible.
The Day the Earth Stood Still gave me a tiny little glimmer of this sort of hope last weekend. But that movie was like a vending machine bag of chips compared to the full-course-meal of Synecdoche New York.
In a fit of pretentious grad-school psychobabble I once sarcastically
meta-critiqued a fellows students sculpture as being a "simulation of a
simulacra" Now looking back at it... I don't think I knew what I was
talking about, or why having crafted a "simulation of a simulacra"
would have been a bad thing?
After seeing synecdoche new york, I think I now have a tangible example for that expression... and this film is going down as one of my all time favorites! Kaufman & Hoffman are perfect doppelgangers! They certainly complement each other better than Jim Carry, Nicolas Cage or John Malcovich did. Kaufman has illustrated his self-reflexive neurosis in a dark comedic way that has more angst and gravitas than Woody Allen or Michel Gondry. The film was so existential and dark I swear I wanted to cry at the end but was too perplexed. He portrays his life as a play within a play and has created actors to play him self and others to play those playing himself, like a hall of mirrors. There are moments that become so interwoven that even Borges & Baudrillard would have a hard time keeping track of the characters. In certain respects the film reminded me of Shane Carruth's 2004 film Primer, in which the protagonist has multiplied himself into a stupor that he needed to write his own short term crib-notes to figure out what to do next. If you haven't yet seen it .. run don't walk.
"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players . .
Synecdoche, New York, like the literary term in its title, might stand for all our lives as director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) attempts a gigantic stage construction of to depict his tumultuous life. Hamlet 2 it is notit's a serious attempt by cerebral and creative writer Charlie Kaufman to deal with the muses and mistakes of a life worth noticing, in this case where Caden has won a MacArthur.
Caden eventually creates a discursive and massive stage play peopled by ex lovers who help him try to gain meaning out of a sometimes bleak Brecht or Beckett landscape. Kaufman takes us into and out of time and place, characters and ideas, so that to survive the viewing, we must allow him to digress and symbolize to distraction. The recurring motif of a house on the brink of burning down signifies the nearness of insanity and even death.
The specter of Death overshadows all else and serves as a catalyst for the artist's grand opus. It also allows him to muse on the meaning of life and the challenges of art, the former leaning toward a pantheistic notion that we are all made up of the people we have loved. Shakespeare's notion of the world as stage is more appropriate here than ever.
Artistically Kaufman is more in David Lynch land than anywhere else; I'm comfortable with that although the producers should not wait for the profits to roll in anytime soonit's a challenging mess.
Caden Cotard: "I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due."
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