For the first time since the birth of our son, Jules, last night Stacy and I went out on a date to see a movie, handing the kid into the very capable hands of a babysitter friend. Given the rarity of this occasion, I scanned Metacritic to make the most of this choice. I dismissed our initial impulses towards safe, fun, and likely forgettable (Quantum of Solace) and we instead saw something that has polarized critics, Synecdoche, New York. Charlie Kaufman is not a slam dunk for me (I loved Eternal Sunshine, and deplored Adaptation), but I know that this movie would incite passionate response.
Well, this morning I woke up still thinking about the movie, which I take as a sign of remarkable success. Though I cannot say that I loved Synecdoche, it has captivated me, and I find myself turning characterizations and story points over in my mind.
Other reviews acknowledge how this film shares many similar themes with Kaufman’s other work (memory, neurosis, love, melancholy) though one crucial quality they neglect to point out is silliness. Whether it’s the New Jersey Turnpike in Being John Malkovich, the stoned techs in Eternal Sunshine, or in this movie, Tom Noonan’s initial appearances, or the house on fire, Kaufman revels in the silly. It’s probably worth remembering that Kaufman got his start in TV sitcoms, and he can still make an audience laugh. I don’t mean to suggest that silliness implies a lack of depth — in Kaufman’s world, it becomes a tool or irony or absurdity, the humor forcing us to reconsider just what it is that we’re seeing.
What most surprised me about this film, compared to Kaufman’s earlier work, is how he engages with the body. From the moment of Olive’s bright green poo, to the Caden’s head trauma, pustules, bloody urine, the therapist’s feet, tattoos, flab, thinning hair, and more, this Cronenberg-ian in it’s bodily obsessions.
The other filmmaker that came to my mind was David Lynch, in terms of the matter-of-fact surrealism that abounds. Perhaps Bunuel would be a more apt reference. This will be the single quality that most frustrates most viewers, because today’s audiences can’t handle the truly fantastic. Explanations are required. So, for example, *why* is Hazel’s house on fire? *Why* is there a divorced man living in its basement? The answer is, “Because.” I found that it felt right, and went with its flow.
The construction of the film made me think of Joseph Cornell’s assemblages. It’s remarkably taut, precise, and eclectic.
For the bulk of the film, I found the narrative to be so cerebral that while I was intrigued by what I was seeing, I wasn’t emotionally invested. That began to shift in the last quarter or so, where the heart-tugging actually worked. The performances in the film are solid throughout, but Dianne Wiest, who comes in around that last quarter, is amazing, and takes the movie to a whole new emotional depth.
(I must say I also love seeing Tom Noonan get a meaty role. His screen presence is so compelling, and pretty much always rewarding.)
Anyway, if you care about cinema, and are dismayed at how few filmmakers are trying to do anything interesting with the form or medium, I recommend viewing Synecdoche. You might not like it, but you won’t help but have a strong reaction.