Covering Cinema From All Across The African Diaspora

FILM REVIEW - Synecdoche, New York

I saw Synecdoche, New York earlier today, and, frankly, I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

This is the way it usually works: the artist has a vision; he/she creates from that vision, presents their creation to the world, and the world consumes, and digests it all, hoping to have gained something from the experience.

I would love to sit down with Charlie Kaufman and ask him the question that I'm sure was on the minds of many after watching his latest obfuscatory piece of work: "what the heck was that all about Charlie?"

The smart answer he could give would be, "well, Tambay, what do you think it was about?"

And then I'd probably get frustrated with him and smash him in his goddamn face like William Buckley Jr would :o)

But in all seriousness - this was a tough pill to swallow. I could give you a broad idea of what it's about; however, don't ask me about specific moments, because there were a few that left me perplexed; and even after thinking about them some more, I'm still not so sure what they all meant.

Charlie Kaufman must not be the happiest fellow around. All one has to do is take a look at his entire oeuvre; it's safe to infer that he's quite the dour one. Or, maybe he's exactly the opposite, and his work is all pure fantasy, and not at all reflective of who the man is.

I should make it clear that I actually love most of his films - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my all-time favorites. It's one of those films that, as a filmmaker, I wish I had created. So, I'm in no way putting the man down in this post.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that he is someone who must constantly live in his head, as just about every film he has written, involves the mind, and how it negotiates reality and fantasy.

Synecdoche, New York is no different. However, this has to be one of his least interesting films - maybe the worst of them all. Although, Charlie Kaufman's worst is far superior to the best of many others, who shall remain nameless... for now. One has to applaud his gusto! The man takes risks, and makes no apologies for them, and Synecdoche, New York is probably his least accessible film, and biggest risk to date - partly because he not only wrote the screenplay, but he also directed the film - his first attempt in the director's chair.

Broadly speaking, it's a film about death, and the fear of it. Or, you could also say that it's about life and living, and one person's desire to do something memorable and affecting before his clock stops ticking (hey, that rhymes)!

It's no accident that the film centers on a theatre director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his attempts to stage a grand production of the mundane. The Shakespearean phrase, all the world's a stage, immediately comes to mind; Hoffman's character is essentially directing his life - as if he's not fully participating in it, but rather watching it unfold from the outside, as it takes on a life of its own.

It left me feeling depressed! I was already emotionally occupied before going into the theatre to see the film, and I felt even worse after I'd seen it.

But, maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it served its purpose.

The film touches on subjects we don't like to discuss (until we are faced with one of them, whether directly or indirectly), even though they are all very real, and should be fully acknowledged and reckoned with.

Who wants to talk about death? Or the meaning of life? Those kinds of existential conversations only reaffirm our limits as human beings, the somewhat fatalistic nature of life, and what awaits us in the end. How depressing, right?

Well, not really. These are things that I think about daily, and don't understand how anyone couldn't. But maybe that's my problem... if I wasn't so consumed, I could be a regular VIP on P Diddy's annual White Party guest list...

... Or something...

I'm sure Charlie Kaufman knows exactly what he wants us to get from the film - at least, I'd like to think so. I've never been a David Lynch fan, even though I've seen nearly all of his films. If I could slap a label on Synecdoche, I would call it "David Lynch lite." Not that Lynch has a monopoly on unorthodox narratives flushed with surreal, nightmarish and dreamlike images. But, he's likely the most recognizable name working within those boundaries.

There is a narrative, certainly. However, I stopped paying attention to it about an hour into its 2-hour running time, and instead found myself trying to make sense of each and every moment, like pieces to a puzzle, but forgetting about the entire puzzle altogether, once I felt that I had a good grasp on what the grand picture meant. So, it feels rather pointless to dissect it as I would, with any other review.

At just over 2 hours, it felt unnecessarily long, and could have packed more of an emotional punch if it were 30 minutes shorter. Spike Jonze who directed Kaufman's first feature screenplay, Being John Malkovich, was original supposed to direct Synecdoche as well, but he opted out to direct Where The Wild Things Are instead. Thus, we will never know what could have been, because I think the screenplay for Synecdoche would have been better handled in the experienced hands of Jonze, instead of Kaufman's.

It's a film you just have to experience firsthand. And once you do, I'd be interested in hearing all your thoughts!

If I had to rate it, using the star system, I would give it 3 stars out of 5 - if only for the effort.

This was probably the first "non-review" review of a film I've ever given. But, the film deserves it... if that makes any sense :o)

Go see it!


  1. The Wendilicious Wonder said...

    You took the words right out of my mouth when you said he lives in his head. And maybe he's a better screenwriter than director. As someone who tends to have such outlandishly obscure yet fascinating ideas, maybe he needs a director to navigate the unfamiliar narrative and make his stories more viewer friendly.

    So perhaps it isn't that Synedoche NY is his weakest work to date as a screenplay, but maybe he was too close to the work to do it any justice as a director. Ater all it was, as you pointed out, his directorial debut.

    Regardless, I've been looking forward to seeing it since it was at Cannes earlier this year and will certainly go and see it when it opens here, in London.

    I'm not expecting it to be straightforward Hollywood fare (it's Kauffman, afterall) and, from what I've heard about it so far, I'll go in with the same 'watch it and see' attitude with which I saw Coppola's last opus, Youth Without Youth. I came out of the cinema after that thinking... hmm, OK... but I can't say that I hated it.

    So I expect to at least like Synecdoche NY the way I liked Youth Without Youth... wanting to ask questions of the writer/director that would probably best be addressed in a long 'meaning of life' conversation. Not a bad thing, in my book.

    Actually, I'm almost expecting a Felliniesque 8 1/2 but without the Italian 60s flair. I love/d 8 1/2.

    Anyway, thanks for not giveing away the plot... or maybe it's just that you wouldn't know where, or how, to start!

  2. Prometheus Brown said...

    Feel you 100% on the reaction to this film. One part of me thinks another director would've tightened up the all-over-the-place screenplay. Another part appreciates the irreverence.

    My review:

  3. The Obenson Report said...

    TWW - I see you changed your name after all :P I was really looking forward to seeing this as well, and should have seen it much sooner, but kept procrastinating. 8 1/2-esque? Maybe... it is about 1 man and his harem... a much more somber version... minus Fellini's trademark visual flair - cinematography and camera work especially. I wish it was 8 1/2-esque actually - would have made it much more of a joy to watch.

    But I'd say more Lynch and less Fellini.

    PB - I'll check out your review.

  4. Geniusbastard said...

    I disagree with all of y'all.

    Synecdoche, NY is my favorite film of the year thus far. It is the best thing Charlie Kaufman has ever done and I thank the gods Spike Jonze didn't direct it.

    This is the cinematic equivalent of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (which makes a brief cameo). It tackles all of the big issues of life with wit and more imagination than Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson have in their entire bodies.

    You want to talk about directing, how about an opening scene wherein weeks elapse (which you'll miss if you aren't careful). That takes skill to pull off, and not just as a writer.

    Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding, as is the rest of the cast (but since he isn't impersonating a famous person there'll be no nomination for him). Samantha Morton has never been more charming or appealing.

    I've never seen a movie tackle the sad up and down, waxing and waning of love and life. Most films are not this ambitious, and for good reason. This kind of ambition is seldom rewarded; people would rather go see Slumdog Millionaire.

    Admittedly, as someone who is going through a divorce right now, I am predisposed to relating to this film. But I really don't think a better, more challenging, more brilliant, more original film has come out this year, or last year for that matter.

  5. The Obenson Report said...

    GB - I was almost as moved by the film as you were in the first hour or so... but into the second hour, I felt like screaming, "ok, I get it, I get it, I understand... now please move on."

    It meanders on laboriously, unnecessarily I'd say, making it feel monotonous (although, one could say that was the point), and could have been much more effective with some snipping here and there.

  6. Geniusbastard said...

    Well, I suppose this comes down to that subjective matter of taste place. I thought the second half built beautifully on the first and I was engaged all the way through. The movie continues to be so inventive all the way through it's final scene that I wasn't bored at all.

    The fact that this movie is being ignored by all the end of the year critics circles as so many genuflect over piffle like Slumdog Millionaire makes me very depressed.

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