Friday, November 21, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

I’m probably not going to get this right, but I’m going to give it a shot. I watched Synecdoche, New York last Thursday night, and almost immediately got the impression that I would need to see it again to be able truly to absorb all of it and to say whether or not I liked it - altough that’s not entirely true. I know that I liked it; I’m just not sure that I can adequately explain why, and I’m positive that I will make errors if I attempt to explain too much of the story.

See...Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a director of plays who has been trying to be successful at staging plays for so long that he has let everything else in his life pass him by. Catherine Keener plays his wife Adele, a successful artist who has grown weary of treading water in her marriage and her life with Caden. Hazel (Samantha Morton) works the box office at the theatre where Caden stages his plays and pines - at first secretly, and then, later, not so much - for Caden. Claire (Michele Williams) is the female lead in Caden’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman (I can’t make up my mind whether the symbolism here is just obvious or both obvious and heavy-handed) and appears to worship the ground on which Caden walks.

Or the whole thing might be an illustion. That’s part of the attraction of the pictures that Charlie Kaufman pens - Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, the very excellent Adaptation - that reality is malleable and transitory. Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s first turn behind the camera, so I suppose it’s natural to expect that reality will be even more bendy here than in his previous work.

To wit: Early in the film, Hazel buys a house - a cute little bungalow with lots of space, the only downside to which is that it appears to be on fire. She tells her realtor that she likes the house, but that she’s afraid of dying in the fire. The realtor empathizes. The scene is played straight. Not strange enough? Okay. The house used to belong to the realtor’s mother, and her brother still lives in the basement and has no plans to move. More? Later in the film, Hazel briefly dates this person.

Adele, the successful artist? She paints postage-stamp-sized canvases that people look at with tiny magnifying glass eyewear at her shows - think very small opera glasses attached to the head by way of a headband-like device and a room full of people standing inches from the pictures hanging on the gallery walls. She has a show coming up in Germany and says that she would prefer to go without Caden and to take their daughter with her. While Adele is gone, Hazel ramps up her flirtation with Caden, and then points out to him after a year has passed that it’s apparent to everyone but Caden that Adele has left him.

So Caden cleans the house. (This is not a metaphor.) The MacGuffin comes in the form of a letter - Caden has won an important grant to mount a massive stage production that will showcase his talent to the betterment of himself and the audience and society at large. Utterly certain that he is equal to the task, Caden proposes to stage a production of his own life, and takes space in an enormous abandoned building (picture Conseco Fieldhouse if it had been part of the Site B project on Isla Sorna). Stagehands build sets that re-create Caden’s apartment. He hires Hazel to be his assistant. Later in the film, the production casts two characters to play Caden and Hazel, so the production set now contains a real Caden and real Hazel, and a fictional Caden and fictional Hazel.

Caden is in love with Hazel, but their first attempt at getting together is unsuccessful. Caden then takes up with Claire, but that doesn’t last for long, and she walks out on him during rehearsal and storms out of the fake version of their apartment on the set. She tells Caden that she wants him out of the apartment - the real one that they live in - and then looks around at the fake one she is about to storm out of and says, “You can keep this one.” The fake Caden gets into character so thoroughly that he starts to fall in love with the real Hazel.

And on and on.

By the time we get to the end, both roles and genders have been reversed and then - poof! - it’s over. As a character study, the film is unquestionably a masterpiece - perhaps not the “miracle movie” that one review calls it, but certainly a remarkable achievement. And if it feels maddening or incomprehensibe or never-ending, consider this - how suffers the artist who knows how to do the work but doesn’t know quite what he or she wants to say, nor quite how to say it? Must it not be maddening for the artist to have the building blocks at hand and yet be unable to make anything personally satisfying with them?

Synecdoche, New York is ultimately about coming to terms with one’s life and one’s limitations and how those two things impact one’s abilities. For the deeply conflicted, those can be difficult things to sort out. Kaufman approaches the story from this angle unflinchingly, never going for the easy out and certainly not for the happy ending. Does he goes a bit too far around the bend? I don’t think so, but it’s awfully close. At two hours and change, the movie feels long by fifteen to twenty minutes; but it’s satisfying - especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to keep thinking about a movie long after the credits have rolled.

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