Wednesday, March 11, 2009

DVDebut: SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK Kaufman's challenge pays off bigtime

How often do you confront a film that offers a view of life, death, character, identity, love, loss and real estate, then slowly takes you into a surreal realm that, oddly, has even more to do with the life you lead? A movie that challenges you to think and grow-- then rewards your effort with such consistency, intelligence and feeling that you emerge from the experience blessed in a manner that most movies never approach. Consider this a rave review.

I am in awe of Charlie Kaufman (above), who, as a writer, has now outdone everything he's given us previously -- which was very good indeed: Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

His latest film, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, just out on DVD, for which Kaufman acted as both writer and director, suggests that he may be by far the best interpreter of his own work. His conception seems to me so original, and its follow-through so correct, that Synecdoche (pronounce it with the same lilt and accentuation as you would the city of Schenectady: sin-NECK-duh-chee) becomes one of those rare films in which, even when you may not always follow it intellectually, you'll still manage to stay on-track psychologically and emotionally.

The movie that most comes to my mind in connection with Synecdoche, is the Swedish film Songs from the Second Floor by Roy Andersson. The latter is a masterpiece, I think; made in 2000, it seems even more prescient now than when it was first released. The two films have little in common plot-wise: Andersson's is a collection of events united by enormous humanity (the filmmaker's for our own); Kaufman's, in its odd way, has a quite linear plot, although his world keeps opening and widening. Both films are united by their enormous imagination and the grace they bestow on their characters and the viewer.

If you have any acquaintance with the ways of legitimate theater and/or performance art, (actors, scripts, venues, role playing and the like), you'll more quickly follow along Kaufman's antic road. As the film progresses, characters not only change but double- and triple-up, and identity becomes comically, amazingly malleable. The notion of the director-as-god rears its head but finally this, too, is engulfed in a vision of life and art that leaves us with but a single idea. This is never spoken, mind you, but it comes through more strongly than any other: We are all one.

How you will define the house-on-fire is another matter. It's here that the movie takes a first major leap into the surreal, with a marvelous image/idea that may be loopy-Wagnerian or simply a metaphor for how any first home-buyer might feel in committing to that long-term "mortgage"?

One of the hallmarks of a successful collaboration is how well actors disappear into their roles. Among the all-star cast assembled here (all-star in terms of independent film) are Philip Seymour Hoffman (above, right, as the character whose story this is), Catherine Keener (above, left), Tom Noonan, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Dianne Wiest. (Ms Watson, below left, and Ms Morton, below right, manage a delightful duet on the same character.) I cannot help but wonder how Kaufman communicated to his enormous cast what it was he wanted from them all, and how, and when. Somehow they seem to have understood him -- or simply placed themselves, as actors do, in the hands of their writer/director and hoped for the best. That's what they got, and so, I believe, will you, once you've experienced this major jolt of creativity.

All photos are from the film, except for that of Mr. Kaufman, top, by Steve Granitz - © - Image courtesy


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