Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cross-media Monster Mash interlude: Synecdoche, New York blows my mind(s)(')

Those parentheses are my clumsy way of trying to add deeper layers to the post title.

EDIT: Somehow, I mentally substituted Emily Watson for Samantha Morton.  I don't know how that happened, especially since Morton is one of my favorite actresses.  And look, her name is right at the top of that image!  I feel dumb.

Synecdoche, New York
2008, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman



Charlie Kaufman is one of the most brilliant writers making movies today, and I would probably consider him such even if he was just all about the wacky ideas.  But he's so much more than that; he combines crazy, bizarre, strange, surreal concepts with deeply human stories, bringing so much more to the whole picture than simple (or complex, rather) novelty.  He's been fortunate to work with some good directors in the past (especially Michel Gondry, whose whimsicality and delightful visual sense brought out the best in him), but with this film, he gets to strike out on his own and present his unfiltered vision.  And it's a doozy, definitely the most ambitious and complex work of Kaufman's career.

As critics have mentioned, it's the kind of movie that requires, nay, demands, multiple viewings to even begin to understand, so a single screening of the DVD almost certainly doesn't suffice for this "review".  But even several experiences probably wouldn't be enough; it's hard to figure out where to even begin thinking about the movie, much less analyzing it.  One could spend hours, days, months trying to unpack everything that's going on here, drawing timelines and flowcharts to try to understand everything and contstantly rewinding and pausing to try to catch the incidental details that overflow from the screen.  So consider this incomplete, a reaction rather than a critique, and a kind of overwhelmed, enthused one at that.

The plot, if it matters (which it does, but explanation will probably fail to do justice to the actual story, and also get plenty wrong anyway): Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director in Schenectady, New York who is unsatisfied with his life and his marriage (to Catherine Keener, an artist who paints on tiny canvases of only a few square inches) and worried about his failing health and eventual death.  Even though he receives good reviews for such ideas as staging Death of a Salesman with young actors playing the leads, he wants to do something more, something true.  When his wife leaves him (taking their young daughter with her) to move to Germany, where she is hailed as a great artist, he nearly falls apart, but a MacArthur genius grant revitalizes him, and he embarks on a massive undertaking, slowly transforming the interior of a giant warehouse in New York City into a full-scale replica of the city itself, populating it with a huge cast of actors that he can direct with complicated instructions, even though it seems that an audience will never see the results.  This whole process takes years and years, but the time passes subtly; we can mostly tell by the old-age makeup that accumulates on Hoffman's and other characters' faces.

Over the years, Hoffman takes up with other women, including Samantha Morton, who starts out working the box office at the Schenectady theater and ends up being Hoffman's assistant, and Michelle Williams, the "lead" actress.  But he also pines for Keener, along with his daughter, who grows increasingly distant; he sees news articles about her being transformed into a living canvas through tattoos, and he somehow keeps receiving her diaries and learning about her life, including how she has replaced him with her mother's friend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who starts speaking with a ridiculous accent once she moves to Germany).  At times, he tries unsuccessfully to reconnect with her, even working as Keener's cleaning lady so he can surreptitiously interact with her in some way.

Does any of this make sense?  Probably not, but it fits together in Kaufman's weird way, and all the surreal touches add to the experience.  Morton lives in a house that is perpetually on fire.  Hoffman suffers strange physical maladies, including breakouts of facial pustules and the inability to produce saliva.  His therapist (Hope Davis) gives him strange instructions, and has him read her book, which makes little sense and manages to somehow interact with him outside of its pages.  A man who follows him for twenty years (Tom Noonan) auditions to play him, having stalked him in order to research the role.  This leads to the hiring of an actress to play Samantha Morton's role, and the real Samantha Morton is the one who apparently ends up getting the part (maybe not, but I would like to think so).  And so on; the strangeness piles up upon itself to the point where it's near-impossible to keep it all straight.

But underneath it all, the character development is what's important.  Hoffman seems to be delving deeper and deeper into his work in order to forget the loss of his family.  He talks about "truth", but everything he does seems to be artifice, no matter how intricately it is constructed.  One way of looking at all this is that it's in his head, and he's insane (or maybe he died early on, or ended up in a coma, and everything that happens afterward is an afterlife-dream of some sort), but he's still trying to make connections with real people, especially Samantha Morton, who starts out as the person who is more supportive and affectionate toward him than his wife, and ends up being the one most affected by him and his work.  Michelle Williams also fills in intermittently; he ends up replacing his wife with her, even having a daughter, but they seem like an afterthought, and he grows to treat her more and more like characters in his play.  

Eventually, everything gets out of control, and he is forced to give up and assume a role (other than himself) in his own play.  And that seems to be the real heart of the movie, and the point where it connects the character, audience, and creator.  Rather than trying to create something massive, he embodies a single person, getting to know her at a deep, personal, soulful level.  It's heartwrenching, the acknowledgment that each of the people in his complex creation (and thus, the world) is a real person, not a container for his pretentious ideas.  He has to give up the idea that he's the important one, that he knows what's going on with everything, that he has any sort of control over his own destiny, much less that of everything around him.  It's enough to bring tears to the eyes, and to haunt the soul of those who engage the film.

That's what I got out of it, anyway.  On multiple viewings, I might find something different, and any other viewer could come away with totally opposite findings.  But it's not just an empty pile of quirks; there's something there, a real heart and soul to Kaufman's creation, and something that's going to stay with me for a while.  I doubt that I will see a better movie from 2008.