Wednesday, June 17, 2009

“Synecdoche, NY” Revisited

To my loyal readers,

Thanks so much for your patience with my rather infrequent blog posts of late and kind words of encouragement in e-mail, as I try to finish this film project that took up WAY more time than expected.

But on to the subject at hand! To this day, I get curious e-mails referencing my script review of
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and politely wondering if I’ve finally seen the film.

Yes, I’ve seen it. God help me, I’ve seen it.

I kept putting it off. I finally had to ask myself, “Why are you so scared to watch this film?” So I tried to articulate the reasons: because the script was the most deeply excruciating read of my entire life; because I felt emotionally tortured by all of those constant deaths and suicides; because there were many scenes I didn’t want to see, like all the various shades and colors of Caden’s shit, like the moment in the script when Hazel hits a dog with her car, runs over to it, and we are forced to see the bloody, gory mess of that poor dog, which was still alive and whimpering, or like the moment with the Salvation Army Santa spastically clawing at his own beard and revealing a tortured blue face right before he gasps and dies.

And then I thought, “ya know, those are damn good reasons.”

I sucked it up. I cracked open an Evan Williams single barrel straight bourbon whiskey bottle, the black label, and drank my way through it.

Two things:

1) Reading a screenplay is always a much more intimate experience than watching a movie. Don’t you think? You have the words of the script dancing in your head and you’re participating more in the experience of the story as you’re visualizing what’s on the page. I think you’re more deeply affected by reading a story than watching it.

2) Interesting how your feelings about a character can change when you put a quality actor in that role. On the page, I hated Caden with every fiber of my being. He was passive to the point of extremes. He let the things that are important in life slip through his hands. As a man, he offends me. He is the poster child for everything an artist (or a man) should not do, what not to say, and how not to live your life. Yet, I love watching Philip Seymour Hoffman. So what’s the result of this weird combination? Caden wasn’t as unbearable on the screen as he was on the page. At times, I almost felt for the big oaf, but mostly, I wanted to give him a swift kick in the ass. I guess, for me, there is value in watching the film if you view Caden as a tragic figure and walk away feeling that you don’t want to make the same mistakes he made.

To Kaufman’s credit, much of the finished film was different than what I read in his 152-page emotional lobotomy of a screenplay to the point where many of my complaints were actually addressed. There were fewer death scenes, only one or two shots of Caden’s shit, no dead dog, and no blue-faced Santa clawing at his beard. Whew! Without a doubt, there were isolated scenes of brilliance, but the story as a whole left me... less depressed than when I read the script.

Ebert gave the film
four stars. He said, “This is a film with the richness of great fiction. Like Suttree, the Cormac McCarthy novel I'm always mentioning, it's not that you have to return to understand it. It's that you have to return to realize how fine it really is. The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman.

Another critic I enjoy reading, James Berardinelli,
said of the film, “I walked out of Synecdoche, New York feeling frustrated and a little cheated. If I look hard enough, I'm sure I could find something meaningful in the wreckage, but I don't feel compelled to dig through the detritus. Kaufman is inviting meaning-seekers to enjoy his masturbatory ride. He has sacrificed plot, character, and logic on the altar of self-aggrandizement. Yes, parts of the film work. Individual scenes are funny, or poignant, or thought-provoking. But the picture as a whole is a mess. Some will call this art. I'll content myself with thinking of it as an ambitious misstep by a creative individual who failed to realize what he was trying to represent.

All I know is that I will read or listen to anything anyone has to say about the film, but I hope to never see it again.



Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

Yes, it's much more intimate to read the screenplay than to watch it onscreen. It's like you're naked in bed with the screenwriter, as he/she whispers sweet nothings into your ear, narrating the story for you and just for you only. Heh.

I hope to never see this movie again. it wasn't horrible but it was just painful. I feel like this is something only really old people or cancer survivors can appreciate.

I am not really a fan of Charlie Kaufman's works, but I do admire his style, though.

E.C. Henry said...

A post Billy Mernit had a couple weeks ago reminded me to get it at the video store and rent it. Finally last Friday night I watched it.

1st impression: Wow is it ever dark.

2nd impression: Yes, Charlie Kaufman IS brilliant.

"Synecdoche, NY" is a brilliant character study in someone desperate for meaning, yet his love interests cloud and frustrate that search. To me the story's that simple.

"Synedoche, NY" is a trajedy. Expect that going in and the ride's not so bad.

The key is, as a member in the audience, can you watch someone's trajedy unfold? Did you like "There Will be Blood?" To me that's a VERY tragic story. Like that, you might like this.

My mom saw 1 scene in it and said it was pornographic and walked out. But though this story is rife with sex, and sexual inuendo, none of it, except for maybe the stuff with Hope Davis was errotic.
I actually laughed my ass off when Cadin visists Germany and thinks one of the srippers in a glass booth is his daughter Olive. "Olive, it's daddy. Olive, it's daddy." I guess it's sick humor. It's just crazy set-up after crazy-set, and after a while I just disconnected and had fun with it. I chalked it up to emotional distance: Caden stuggle was so out there, special case stuff, I couldn't relate. Thus I found the transition drama to comedy an easy one.

Mystery Man, like you ONE time with "Synecdoche, NY" is enough. I'll never watch it again. Though Charlie's creative way of telling stories never ceases to amaze and inspire me. What does Charile do so well? He twists concepts on their ends and takes them to exteams. First time out of the gate, you never quite know where he's going. He's hard to figure out. He makes you think...

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Matt said...

"All I know is that I will read or listen to anything anyone has to say about the film, but I hope to never see it again."

I could not agree more. It wouldn't even be worth it to see if there was anything I really missed.

I rarely watch something and actively worry about the mental state of the author(s), but watching Synedoche, I kept wondering/hoping that somebody was watching after Chuck 24 hours a day. For somebody to tell a story that's ONLY about the misery - only about the death, the disease, the sadness - without one singular, happy moment... you wonder where that person is coming from, psychologically.

And on a personal level, it's upsetting because I really like Charlie Kaufman, and I think he's a genius - but he seems able to only write about How Charlie's Feeling Today, and nothing else.

Christian M. Howell said...

I agree that the read is different. I haven't seen it but Kaufman isn't my cup of tea. The weird brooding stuff is a turn-off.

I watched Adaptation once and it made me not want to watch Eternal Sunshine. His style is reminiscent of Shymalan in that it's trying to be a certain thing but that prohibits a lot of cinematic elements

I'm more into "mainstream" cinema, even if it's SciFi or "cerebral."

Caitlin said...

I found Synedoche, NY impressive, intriguing, and way too upsetting to ever watch again.

It would be wonderful if Kaufman would write something with a protagonist who isn't so painful to watch and empathize with. And if that protagonist could be played by someone more appealing than Nicolas Cage or Jim Carrey.

DJ FOX said...

I thought it had some great dialogue. But no, I could not sit through it again. But at times I laughed out loud.

Hey. I've seen worse.

Laura Deerfield said...

I've made the decision not to see the film, despite the contention by many, including folks like Billy Mernit whom I deeply respect, that it's a work of genius.


I don't need to have life stripped bare to show me how much ugliness and pain there is. I went to school with writers. I'm familiar with the contention by some that "important" work is difficult to get through and puts you into the dark places we all like to avoid. I just disagree with it.

To *me* the highest function of art is to elucidate the connection between people. To communicate - as in to actually commune - with others.

Work like this does exactly the opposite. It separates us, makes us feel the distance between us. It's modern day suburbia - where we all drive to our jobs, work in a cubicle, and drive home into our garage without ever seeing our neighbor. As EC says "after a while I just disconnected" ...

I have no desire to either disconnect, or to feel the disconnection of this man from his life.

Yeah, I'm judging something without seeing it, so I will never pretend to be "right" about it... but, much as I love Eternal Sunshine, I'll sit this one out.

Mystery Man said...

deaf - I sure hope that naked screenwriter is me.

e.c. - ya know, I agreed with every word.

matt - re: what Charlie's feeling today - exactly! Sometime a great artist should look beyond himself out into the world, shouldn't he?

christian - You should go see "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." You'd probably enjoy that.

DJ - Me, too, man.

Laura - I read Billy's post, and I was surprised he defended something so extremely anti-formulaic. I still look back at my script review talking about how Caden responds to everything that's happened, which was to crawl into his own little hole and let the world pass him by and concentrate on his art, and that's so wrong even if you are an artist. You know?


LindaM said...

Not a fan of Charlie Kaufman. Period.

punyjosh said...

its no that i dont agree with some of things people have posted here but i do have to say "LIGHTEN UP". these are films not directives on how to run your life. of course everyone is allowed their opinion and everyone is allowed the choice to see or not see a movie but i think you should make that decision based on whether the subject matter interests you, not on what you think you might be able to read into it.

my take on this film is that its either your new favorite film or you hate it. there is no middle. if you take 1 part "spotless mind" one part "blue velvet" and one part "brazil" you'd have a good representation of this film.

i applaud charlie for making choices in this film that aren't served up to the audience on a silver platter. sure it may be heart wrenching or ugly but it makes you think and follow and feel. of course if thats not kind of movie you're in the mood to see then yes i agree with all of you. skip it.

DH said...

In defense of the film. I have to say I think it is a masterpiece, and like a lot of truley great work it takes some getting used to.

The film is radically different on a second or third viewing and I would urge anybody with an interest to take the chance. I understand that a lot of people wouldn't even dare because they found it so off-putting the first time, but it's quite exceptional when you work out what's been accomplished. I'd like to add that I didn't particularly enjoy it the first time around either.

The reaction of the film to me tells me more about the general mood of the country than anything else. It's a film about a man striving for perfection (or truth) in art and falling short as entropy kicks in. Realising that relationships are the thing that he should have been bothering with all along, rather than the replication of them.
I think that's a pretty good message to be sending out.
It's a good, extremly complex story that can be read in many different ways and it certainly doesn't hold your hand.

And I think that's the main problem with it. We are so lost as a people right now that we want an 'escape' not a reflection of the truth. And we want to be pointed in a clear direction.
So we'll go and watch Star Trek instead and praise a film about a cheating, smug, prick who bluffs his way to the top.
This to me is more depressing than a million Synecdoche's, like 'There Will be Blood' got a happy ending.

SP said...

There is an interesting review of Synecdoche here:
in which it is compared with a Coetzee novel 'Youth'. See what you think.

Mark Bourne said...

Like DH, it struck me as a film that you just shouldn't expect to absorb all in one gulp. It does unfold like weird origami with subsequent viewings, and that initially helped push me toward regarding it as some sort of dense and engaging masterpiece.

Nowadays, with the "Whoa, dude" rush of the experience faded, I'm less sure what I think of it, and am not inclined to see it again anytime soon, but I'm glad I gave it a good three viewings (well, 2.5) ahead of my review of the Blu-ray at --

At the time it utterly defeated me when I tried to write about it for that audience, but I'll stand by the assertion that it's Kaufman mind-melding with Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka while Salvador Dali is pouring the drinks and M.C. Escher is doodling on the napkins. It's the _2001: A Space Odyssey_ of existential funk, and David Lynch without the bubbly joie de vivre.

It struck me as very much like a Beckett play in tone, "meaning," and Theatre of the Absurd style, so how you respond to Kaufman's film might correlate to how you'd take in an evening of, say, _Waiting for Godot_ with an ace cast and abundant CGI and the seat next to you perpetually on fire.

Frankly, I'm amazed that _Synecdoche, NY_ got made at all, it's so far out there. And typically I'd shy away from it simply because so much of it is so grim and joyless. But I came away grateful for a movie that seemed crafted to interact with me on a gut, personal level, that respected me enough as a viewer to ask me to wrestle with it, and that didn't tell me what I was supposed to feel scene by scene.

I don't know if it's a masterpiece -- hell, I don't even know if it's "good" -- but I enjoyed the first "Wow, that was something I've never experienced before" feeling I've received from a movie in years.

Mystery Man said...

Linda – I love the man.

Punyjosh – “LIGHTEN UP” is what I wanted to say to Charlie Kaufman!

DH – Interesting. Thanks.

SP – Interesting. I liked this: “In searching for truth and reality, Caden finds that the only thing which can represent this is everything. He sets about his production (of a production) of events containing authenticity and significance from his life, the only thing (or so he thinks) that can end his suffering. But he finds truth is everyone’s life; we are all a fraction, of a fraction of anything.”

Mark – I loved this: “it's Kaufman mind-melding with Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka while Salvador Dali is pouring the drinks and M.C. Escher is doodling on the napkins.” That’s just hilarious. I love that.


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Irreversible is a movie I might consider not watching again. But this I think affords a second viewing just to unwrap some layers. It pays not to be dismissive: there are many overlooked redeeming qualities in most films.

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