Monday, June 8, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Just went to see Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, and thought it was brilliant. Kind of a crossover between 8 1/2 and a Woody Allen movie. It also reminded me in part of A Bothersome Man, a Norwegian film by Jens Lien which I saw at the Cinémathèque Français in 2006 and which made an impression on me for its strange, wacky kind of black humour and a delight in the grotesque.

Synecdoche, New York is a film about a theatre director who wins a prestigious MacArthur grant, with which he decides to direct a play about his own existence - and recruits an enormous cast of characters to (re)enact his life. However, things get more and more confusing as reality and fiction overlap.

Kaufman's film focuses on the great 'crisis of the artist' but also addresses a wider human fear of loneliness, failure and, ultimately, mortality. But like Fellini, Woody Allen and Lien, Kaufman combines these ponderings with humorous touches highlighting the banal superficiality of everyday modern life. In 8 1/2, Fellini exposes the contradictions of Italian society through his juxtaposition of showbiz, luxury, egotism and night-time decadence with the brisk, clean whiteness of nuns and doctors at a plush, sunny health spa. In Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman creates a running motif of sickness, hospitals and endless visits to a shrink. Ironically, the protagonist, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), doesn't seem to know that much about what he is actually suffering from, and the director doesn't make it clear whether his illness is real or metaphorical. In tandem, his shrink - an attractive, middle-aged blonde who has published a prolific array of self-help books, many of which focus on her own beauty and sexual allure - seems more in need of psychological counselling than any of the other characters.

The emphasis on health - physical or psychological, and the presence and absence of it - also reminds me of another fantastic film starring Seymour Hoffman: The Savages, directed by Tamara Jenkins. This is another film set in the artsy, often pretentious milieu of American East Coast intellectuals, and a film which exposes the ridiculous side of human relationships.

Synecdoche, New York is a funny, disturbing, uplifting and saddening film - perhaps a little too long, but then again if it weren't, then maybe it would be too comfortable, too easy, and ultimately less satisfying.

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