Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Synecdoche, New York: Kaufman left to his own devices
Anyone who saw the preview for Synecdoche, New York anxiously awaited what promised to be the king of Kaufman films. The trailer guaranteed all the confusion of time and space that has become Kaufman’s signature with a bewilderment bonus in the credits, this time Kaufman would direct! In the past screenwriter Charlie Kaufman enhanced the surreality of his scripts with the creativity of music-video directors Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich,) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Human Nature.) However, in Synecdoche, New York Kaufman is left to his own devices to either soar in amnesia or drown in self-pity. He decidedly does both.
Synecdoche, NY is the most ambitious of Kaufman’s work, perhaps because it is the most self-referential. Therefore one imagines that Kaufman carefully considered our nation’s finest actors before choosing Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who won an Oscar for Capote) to play the agonizing hypochondriac. Although Hoffman’s ability and range cannot be denied, his talents seem lost in the circular world of Kaufman. Where Truman Capote went from a witty and gay best-selling author to a morbidly intoxicated loner, Caton of Synecdoche, NY changes more through age-altering make-up than through character development. We know that Caton is a talented artist because he wins a prestigious grant to write and direct a play, yet no statements or actions worthy of such awards are apparent. Moreover, one assumes that despite his gut and negativity, Caton attracts beautiful women (Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis) because of his artistic genius; on closer examination the women’s enchantment with Caton appears only as the icing of a generally dystopic, but fully hetero, male fantasy.

In short, this is a study of one (white male) artist’s consciousness, of his internal fears, failures and desires-- a fact which could improve or ruin the film for you depending on how much you identify with Caton. Obviously Kaufman identifies with the director of his creation, and in fact the director/character relationship is not dissimilar to that of Fellini and his alter ego Guido in 8 1/2. In both films macro- and microcosms blur while exploring the interior world of a creative mastermind, (a man whose imagination is really none other than that of the film’s director.) And although casting the overweight Hoffman as oneself is much more self-deprecating than casting pretty boy Mastroianni, it is fully appropriate in a pessimistic film with a depressive perspective.
Yet where Guido’s failure ultimately becomes a triumph in 8 1/2, Synecdoche, NY ends as a post 9/11 failure. The world Caton attempts to recreate in a warehouse swings out of proportion until Caton is left wandering through the remnants of a war-ravaged industrial city. The last 30 minutes, which drag steadily closer to Caton’s demise, simulate his fatigue and despair leaving the audience equally exhausted. This oversight in editing overshadows Kaufman’s circular mirroring twists which kept the script alive in the film’s first half; eventually what was as grotesque and haunting as a Francis Bacon self portrait, becomes tired, dull, and repetitive. Yet this might be precisely the view of life Kaufman wanted to suggest.

1 comment:

johnb said...

Enjoyed the review!

Didn't enjoy the movie, however, and that despite the fact that I should (obviously) have identified with the auteur's status as a white, male, hetero creative genius.