Sunday, 21 February 2016

Synecdoche, New York: All the Whole World's a Stage Within a Stage

Pretension is a strange thing. That sense someone is trying to impress by ascribing a sense of importance to a thing which it doesn't deserve or say something with the appearance of self-importance. Or in other words, having your head up your ass.

Look, I get it. We all want to feel like the work we doing is special or that we're saying something unique or insightful about the world. And sometimes we want to express ourselves or what we want to say in clever or impressive ways, that seem to really say something about the world, you know?

"Yeah man, I know. I know."

And it's hard to avoid accusations of pretension when you have big ideas and express them in what could be unnecessarily convoluted or opaque ways, like layers of meta-textual self-reference. Think of any Christopher Nolan movie that doesn't feature a man in a batsuit who punches bad guys in the face.

As I discussed in my review of whether Inception holds up five years after it was released, Nolan is an amazing writer/director who tackles big ideas with visually stunning and epic films. However he does have a tendency towards pseudo-intellectualism and grandiose pomp which gives his films an air of self-important pretension.

Kaufman comes under fire for a similar critique of pretension in his work. His characters don't suffer from expositionitis and his films don't have a grand sense of the themes they are exploring like Nolan's often do but Kaufman does tend to become very insular and self-referential with his writing.

"Whatever do you mean?

Kaufman's film nearly always have a sense of their own artifice but ultimately fall into a labyrinth of metatextual layers, which if you haven't been sold on the premise or characters, can be accused of being highly pretentious or overly arty.

The reason I've spent so much time discussing pretension so far in this review is because of all the films he has written, Synecdoche, New York is probably the most divisive and the one most often accused of being too pretentious for its own good. It was also the first film Kaufman directed himself. But perhaps before I get into all that, let's describe the plot of the film.

Note: This film came out in 2008 so this review is obviously going to contain all the spoilers. If you are the type of person who hasn't seen a 6 years old movie but is still upset by spoilers to the degree that you weep with rage, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Spoiler: The pink box was a gift he sent his daughter.
She threw it out because she was told he left their family to have anal sex with his homosexual lover, which wasn't true. 
Cradle the pink box of spoilers as you rage-weep.

The film follows the lifer of theater director Caden Cotard. He is a man who suffers from numerous physical ailments which seem psychosomatic and grows increasingly distant from his wife, Adele, in the first act as he puts on a production of Death of a Salesman. Adele eventually leaves him for a new life as an artist in Berlin, taking their four-year-old daughter, Olive, with her.

Caden receives a MacArthur Fellowship following the success of his Death of a Salesman production. This fellowship apparently gives him unlimited financial resources to pursue his artistic interests. He becomes obsessed to create something brutally real and honest, something into which he can pour his whole self. 

So naturally he finds a gigantic theatre warehouse and instructs his cast of actors to live out the constructed lives of their fictional selves. The set and play growing increasingly more complicated as fiction mimics real life. As the film goes on, actors play characters playing actors playing characters as Caden incorporates more of his own life into the play as he struggles to get a hold of his personal life story. It gets a little complicated.

These are just the notes for the first scene.

Throughout the film, Caden has an off-again/on-again relationship with Hazel and has a second marriage with Claire, an actress in his play who is playing herself in the play about his life.

The years pass as the continually expanding warehouse becomes isolated from the deterioration of the city outside. The line between reality and the world of the play is increasingly blurred as Caden fills the cast and crew with doppelgängers. Sammy Barnathan, a man who has been stalking Caden for 20 years, is cast in the role of Caden, while a Sammy lookalike is cast as Sammy to follow Caden as played by Sammy. Confused yet?

Eventually Caden's personal life spirals out of his control as his sneaks into his ex-wife's apartment at night to clean it as "Ellen", learns his daughter has grown up into as a tattooed dancer in a peep show and has a lesbian relation ship with the manipulative Maria, and his second marriage inevitably falls apart. Drained, he lets the actress who played Ellen in his play take over his role as director and he takes on her role as Ellen. 

He lives out the dying years of his life in the model of Adele's apartment receiving directions from the new director through an ear piece while something destructive and unexplained occurs in the warehouse leaving ruins and bodies in its wake. He emerges from the apartment and rests his head on the shoulder of an actress who seems to be the only person who survived. As he slowly dies, Caden says he now has an idea how to do the play when he gets his final cue: "Die."

"Doesn't sound that complicated," said the actor playing Sammy who follows Sammy when he's playing Caden. 

I know I've just spent a large chunk of this review simply describing the plot of the film in more detail than you ever should have to read in a review but it was for a reason. Detailing the complexities of the plot highlights the full spectacular scope of Kaufman's ambition while also underscoring the fact the movie is utterly labyrinthine in its narrative and themes, resulting in a convoluted mess to some.

The film does seem to be reaching for something which it never quite grasps although one could argue that was the whole point of the film, that in creating art we can only grasp at the reality of our existence, never fully encapsulating it. Or perhaps that is too pretentious a reading.

And the film is quite aware of its own pretension, at least in the beginning. Caden often makes remarks that mock his own need to over-complicate things and the film constantly brings attention to the artifice involved in attempting 'realism' in art. It's not quite as critical of self-pretension as another of Kaufman's films, but we'll get there when we get there.

"Do you think he'll ever get round to giving his opinion on the film? Wait, is that the point? Like a meta-commentary on the pretense of the film by mimicking it in his review? Are the words I'm saying in this caption just a metatexual joke?" - Caden, probably.

I enjoyed the film quite a lot despite its issues. It definitely is a type of movie that you need to be in the right frame of mind to absorb to appreciate what it is trying to do. And there are issues with pacing, especially in the last third which drags a bit. But then again, this could be seen to enforce the themes of slow decay in the inevitable crawl towards death. I'm starting to think might be a Kaufman trope where slow pacing has a thematic point but nevertheless is a valid criticism.

The film is full of memorable visuals and quotable quotes. I haven't even discussed the constantly burning house that Hazel lives in, although I mentioned it in my review of Anomalisa. And I think the burning house is an apt metaphor for how we must live with the consequences of the choices we make, Hazel knows that she will die from the fire if she buys the house yet does so anyway. And dies by smoke inhalation towards the end of the film since Kaufman is a writer with a dark wit.

"Flameo, it's smoking in here" - Actual dialogue (possibly).

I think where the film could have lost some people is in its protagonist. Caden is a pretty miserable and self-centred person, unable to really connect with his family or those around him due to his focus on himself. However, that is completely the point. His self-indulgence is the focal point for the self-indulgence of the film itself. It is an exploration of that self-indulgence, that pursuit for art which reflects reality until reality reflects art.

And Philip Seymoure Hoffman is naturally brilliant as Caden. Few actors who aren't Philip Seymour Hoffman can bring the delicate balance of making a completely unlikable and self-conceited character like Caden still relatable and human. He anchors the film as the emotional core at its heart with his performance, and let's be honest, this is a film which needed more than one anchor.

"It's okay, you did great."

All in all, I think Synecdoche, New York is a fabulous film that despite its pretentious layers of pretension, admirably explores themes of death, art, and the lines between fiction and reality. Its rough edges and inability to fully grasp the themes that it is tackling make it a flawed masterpiece but one which makes it all that much more rewarding to rewatch.

Musing Rating: 4 Musings

A film which you will want to talk about long after it has finished but with more focus on what actually was going on towards the end there or whether it was too pretentious than on the themes it explores.


Synecdoche, New York Wikipedia page

Synecdoche, New York IMDb

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