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Film Review: Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York (2008; Directed by Charlie Kaufman)

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is sometimes interminable, sometimes tendentious, and very occasionally inspired. It also smugly undermines its own strengths with self-reflexive mental gymnastics to such an extent that when it winds towards its climax and we’re asked to invest emotionally at last, we’re not really sure if Kaufman even really wants us to, or if he’ll roll his eyes and mock us as easily-manipulated rubes if we do.

This is the central reason why Kaufman stands as American indie film’s reigning Wanker-in-Chief: his scripts deconstruct the very tenets and assumptions upon which modern film narrative and signification are based. This is often quite impressive as an intellectual exercise, but doesn’t always make for a crackerjack viewing experience. Still, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it seemed that Kaufman had found a way to reconcile hermeneutic cleverness with emotional heft; for once, the great magician’s tricks told us more about ourselves than they did about the magician himself.

In full charge of his own script for the first time, however, Kaufman finds himself somewhat at a loss at what to do with the camera. His previous screenplay efforts have benefitted from the ability to lean on talented visualists like Spike Jonze and especially Michel Gondry in adapting them. Left to his own devices, Kaufman has little visual flair and even less facility for pacing. The first hour of Synecdoche, New York is flat, drab, and endless, adrift in formless critiques of marriage, therapy, the theatre, and medical practices. That it’s watchable at all is a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman and (particularly) Samantha Morton; Kaufman retains his fine ear for dialogue and actors of the calibre of these two should well be able to make his words sing as they do.

One of these is my grocery list. I must find it before I starve to death.

The film coheres a little bit in its last half, as Hoffman’s aging theatre director constructs and manages his enormous theatrical piece in a life-sized simulacrum of New York City and faces down the loneliness of his life and the inevitable deflation of his own mortality (or, more accurately, doesn’t). Still, as mentioned, Kaufman’s film twists its knife in so many film conventions that it feels like a cop-out for it to fall back on stating so baldly that it’s simply about life and death and that we should feel empathy for other people and then it’ll all work out, more or less. Or maybe it’s a cop-out to read it as only signifying that.

But really, it’s all so hard to tell with Kaufman. My ultimate issue with his oeuvre is not that he demands a lot of interpretive effort from his audience but that there’s also a smug undercurrent to his work that seems to intimate that interpretation is pointless. For all his Mobius strips and philosophical calisthenics, Kaufman is ultimately a sentimental anarchist at heart. His centres cannot hold, if they are there at all. Viewers are meant to gaze with wonder at his elaborate silver-screen Rube Goldberg devices, but what are we gaining out of the experience besides this vague, formless sense of wonder? Maybe something, maybe nothing. But I’ve got the distinct impression that Charlie Kaufman doesn’t much care either way.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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