(2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman came to be known as one of the most innovative and challenging screenwriters working in Hollywood since the first of his scripts was produced into Being John Malkovich (1999). Other films produced from his screenplays include Human Nature (2001), directed by Michel Gondry, Adaptation (2002), directed by Spike Jonze who had also directed Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) mishandled by George Clooney, and perhaps most successfully, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which Michel Gondry also directed. Somewhere along the lines, Kaufman must have decided that if Clooney could do it, it couldn’t be that hard to direct a film himself. And Synecdoche, New York is his first film as writer/director.
The thing about Kaufman, for my money, is that he is indeed inventive, disruptive, imaginative, and interesting, in ways that no one else working in Hollywood’s mainstream is. Synecdoche, New York is a “mind fuck” as many of his narratives wind up being. In this case, we have a self-loathing theater director and playwright, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, as his world devolves and his health frightens him, he decides to create a play that is about everything in his life. With the help of a grant, he rents an enormous warehouse and rebuilds Schenectady, New York, the town in which his characters initially resided. He then hires and populates his microcosm with actors playing the characters of his life, eventually replacing himself. As life unfolds, he is recreating it, analyzing it, replaying it, reconstructing it, an ever-increasingly interior version of his world, to the point it becomes like a visual, emotional echo chamber or hall of mirrors.
Kaufman works the absurd in clever, self-conscious ways, with the aging Hoffman, following the character of himself through the set of his play, critiquing his own direction and critique. The multiples of occurence fold over on themselves to the point that it’s hard to tell what has really happened from what is only reconnoitered in his interpretations. What I’d read about this film was that critics had admired the fact that Kaufman is dealing with “big” issues: life, death, creativity, loneliness, addressing more solemn and significant themes than one sees in an entire year’s worth of Hollywood films. Perhaps this is a more European consideration (or perceived to be). But with Kaufman’s black comedy and self-loathing.
Self-loathing is exactly what has troubled me about Kaufman’s films. When I first saw Being John Malkovich, which has the wonderful absurdities of the half-floor on the building to the portal into the human body of John Malkovich, I came to quickly realize that his characters are all not just self-loathing, but loathsome. There is a misanthropy that is so palpable that you come away from his films just feeling kind of sick about humanity, not hopeful, not chuckling at the humor therein. And this is totally valid and I appreciate it as such. It’s just it makes you feel unhappy and ill. And that is kind of the intent. As clever and interesting his work, it simply isn’t made to entertain and make you smile. It’s almost intentionally nauseating, nauseating the spirit.
And I have to say, for my money, I don’t “look forward to” his films, though I am drawn to them for their intelligence and innovation. But sort of knowing that it will leave me feeling sick to myself and unhappy. Again, I think this is all valid, but I guess this is why when someone gave me the DVD of Being John Malkovich, since I had ended up seeing in twice in the theater by happenstance, that I never watched it again. It’s clever and bizarre, but upsetting and no fun.
As a director, I can’t fault Kaufman. He certainly did better than Clooney did with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I thought that occasional sequences were paced too quickly in editing and occasional dissonances therein brought my mind to that place, but overall it’s a very competent first film in that sense. The dark, drabness is depressing. And I think he managed to achieve his intent.
Lastly, I want to note that Synecdoche, New York is a pun. It’s not Schenectady, New York, though it’s a virtual homynym. The meaning that I read was interesting. Click synecdoche for dictionary.com’s reference. It’s evident that Kaufman has a layered construct here, deeper and more to it than one glance through. I’d tell him to “lighten up” but he does what he does and he does it well. More power to him. May he make more and more interesting films.