Saturday, 9 May 2009

Film Review: Synecdoche, New York

If I didn’t know any better, and I’m not sure I do know any better, I’d have to regard Synecdoche, New York as writer and first-time director Charlie Kaufman’s stab at a cinematic suicide note. So from the outset if the prospect of witnessing the chronicled dwindling on a man towards inevitable painful death is not something that appeals to you I’d strongly suggest that you join the line of easily pleased customers queuing for Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past right about now.

Even if you’re the sort of filmgoer who relishes the kind of intellectual challenges that a film like Synecdoche, New York throws in your path I would still advise caution. Having one’s mind bent and patience tested by the temporal jigsaw puzzle that Kaufman languidly invites you to piece together might just possibly appeal to those of us who fancy the idea of a game of Sudoku with no starter numbers in the grid, but only just. Furthermore, if you’re at or near the age most associated with the symptoms of mid-life crisis, this is as much a drab shop widow display of forthcoming ‘attractions’ as it is a depressing personal meditation on the diminishing returns of the creative process, and about as appealing and satisfying.

An early scene shows the central character, theatre director Caden Cotard (played for the most part by Phillip Seymour Hoffman with all the suitably lumpen weariness and dread of a bee-stung orang-utan on death row), probing his own excrement for signs of blood, an obvious indicator that an awful lot of protracted paranoid self-examination will shortly follow. Audio-visually speaking, it takes a good forty minutes or so for the film to rise up from the mud of incoherence. You know you’ll be lingering a while in the under-lit recesses of Cotard’s (Kaufman’s) mind when the only flash of early colour is the unexplained green poo produced by his four-year-old daughter.

Hoffman’s carefully palsied performance is matched in these initial stages by that of Catherine Keener, underplaying the part of Cotard’s ex-wife Adele with all the bleary ennui she can muster. Adele’s own artistic success, based on a series of postage stamp sized paintings that require a pair of magnifying lenses for the onlooker to appreciate, leads her to relocate to Berlin, robbing Cotard of access to his daughter. The nearest thing to amusing irony in the film is that the success of these miniscule works of art manages to overshadow Cotard’s own vast creative enterprise.

A huge and unexpected MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant (an award given each year to a handful of US citizens who show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work, in case you were wondering) allows Cotard the chance to mount a gigantic dramatic recreation of his own life inside a cavernous Manhattan warehouse, played out on a sprawling recreation of the city, the synecdoche or stand-in of the title. Cotard populates his set with stand-ins for the people that have touched his life, and as the ‘production’ peters along over months, years, the stand-ins themselves become inveigled in the director’s experiences and inevitably wind up being portrayed by further stand-ins, each iteration embodying a less and less focussed representation of the originals.

One might expect this gradual ‘Russian doll’ disassembly of layers to reveal hidden truths about Cotard’s character and life, but the result ultimately is a blurring of reality, an ironing-out of detail and meaning. Perhaps regrettably this is the truth, or at least the truth of the creative endeavour as Kaufman sees it. The more one pursues the meaning of art, the less distinct and quantifiable it becomes. The film’s final gradual fade to grey-white caps this notion succinctly. It is the ashen colour of physical death and also the blank page or canvas of creative death. Quite what Kaufman will follow this with is anyone’s guess – is there life after death?

Recommending a viewing of Synecdoche, New York is a little like ringing your mates up to let them know there’s a guy about to jump off the building across the street from them. Except it's not quite as exciting as that. So forgive me if I pull back from the brink of a full endorsement, even though I feel compelled to by its anti-mainstream posturing. I would anticipate that even Kaufman fans will struggle to digest it; it makes the intricacies of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation seem about as unfathomable as a Kate Hudson romcom. This much I can say by way of advocacy: the supporting cast, numbering Brits Samantha Morton and Emily Watson in their ranks, are as committed to Kaufman’s thesis as Cotard’s players are to his. As such the direction is firm-handed although for the most part the visual palette he deploys is some way off the realisation of a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry (who’s promo video for Björk’s Batchelorette this partly resembles) and his editing style possesses a dry truncation that will annoy rather than intrigue.

If you do choose to go and see it, and I fear the queue will be short, I can at least relieve one possible anxiety for you. It’s pronounced ‘sin-eck-da-key’.

Jez Conolly

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