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

Friday, 19 February 2016

Anomalisa: Making a Connection in the Puppet Age

It's tough to find a genuine connection in the world. One which makes you feel alive, which reinvigorates your soul. A connection which allows you to be open and share something with another honest-to-Betsy person, removing the puppetry of everyday life. It's especially difficult if everyone you see looks and sounds exactly the same. Also, it can't help if you happen to be a puppet.

Charlie Kaufman's latest film Anomalisa explores themes of loneliness and isolation though its protagonist Michael Stone, voiced by Remus Lupin, a man who sees everyone else in the world as the same person, with the same face and same voice, regardless of gender, age, or presumably race. Also, the story is told with puppets in lieu of physical actors which adds a hint of surrealism to the film's quite human story.

She's apprehensive about all the 'wooden' jokes which are about to ensure about her performance.
Get it? Because they're puppets. Ah, you get it.

Unable to feel a real connection with anyone in his life since they are all share the same face, from his wife to his son, which is why I assume he can't look his wife in the eyes while they make love any more, Michael heads to a conference in Cincinnati where he is giving a speech on providing expert customer service. It's also a cover for his more covert ulterior motive, to secretly meet up with an ex-lover because marriage is difficult when your partner has the same face as everyone else.

The meeting with the ex-lover doesn't really go as Michael had planned but he bumps into Emily and Lisa, who are staying in the same hotel to attend his speech at the conference the next day. Michael is immediately drawn to Lisa since she sounds different to everyone else. She also has her own unique, and scarred, face which distinguishes her from the homogeneous crowd of mannequins that Michael sees around him. Emily is shy and self-conscious but somewhat in awe of Michael. And they share the night together, two lonely people trying to make a connection with each other.

This the scene after Michael asked if he could play with her strings.

I'm not going to say any more about the plot of the film from here on out. Mostly for fear of invoking the wrath of the spoiler trolls which rampage the internet bringing woe and poorly substantiated outrage on those foolhardy enough to describe the plot of a movie which they probably weren't going to see anyway.

Which is a shame since people should see this movie. Like all of Kaufman's films, there is more going in Anomalisa than a simple plot synopsis can explain. While it seems like a movie aimed for your head, with ideas of conformity versus individuality, isolation versus connection, reality versus puppetry, it is actually a film which goes for the heart.

Kaufman is a writer who uses the surreal to explore the every day, adding unfamiliar curls to the familiar in order to highlight the struggles of the human experience. That is, he makes things weird to heighten the human emotions he is trying to explore.

"The existential terror I'm experiencing is truly heightened by how weird things are!"

The hyper-realistic puppets used in the film offer a sense of reality yet they are obviously not real. That said, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson manage to do something with puppets that is rarely accomplished. They make them feel real. Now a lot of this comes from the writing since the characters feel human and talk like actual people not characters, but what I'd like to focus on is the eyes.

The biggest issue CGI animators have with human, or humanoid, characters is animating the eyes right so they seem alive. If done incorrectly, which happens more often than not, the eyes seem lifeless causing the uncanny valley effect, when something looks living but isn't - the inanimate mimicking the animate. So they just seem cold as though they have no soul, for lack of a better phrase which doesn't bring in the philosophic question of whether we possess souls or not.

A good example of this uncanny valley effect is The Polar Express, that Christmas movie no-one ever saw because didn't I already mention the uncanny valley thing? In that film, Robert Zemeckis directed a motion-captured Tom Hanks to spread delightful Christmas fear.

One of these is a man dressed in a gimp suit with dozens of tiny balls attached to his face, bearing an animated expression.
The other is a soulless terror. Don't stare into the eyes. For the love of all that is sacred, don't stare into the eyes.

But the eyes in Anomalisa feel alive. They emote genuine emotion and warmth, even when they are on the same face of the drones Michael sees around him, for drones need love just like everyone else does.

Kaufman and co-director Johnson have created a touchingly human film. For example, there is a sex scene which is one of the most realistic depictions of sex on screen I have ever seen. That is a sex scene with puppets which is more real and true than most of what Hollywood has ever offered with physical humans.

If there is a flaw with the movie, and we can find flaws in the film, the pacing is painfully slow, particularly in the first half. I understand that is deliberate in order to set up the drudgery and monotony of Michael's life as a self-conceited lone individual amidst a sea of identical drones but it did make the film slightly hard to get into at first.

Come on, get on with it.

On first viewing, I was slightly disappointed that Anomalisa didn't go further with the weird. Being accustomed to Kaufman's work, I am used to the strange little details or peculiarities such as Floor 7 and a half's low-ceiling offices in Being John Malkovich or the house which is constantly on fire in Synecdoche, New York which are considered normal parts of those films' fictional worlds.

Therefore, when there was a moment in the film where it seemed it was taking a turn into a more weird and paranoid direction, setting up a more insidious and surreal world, I was all on board. Until it was swiftly revealed that was nothing more than a red herring served on a plate of misdirection and the world of the film was always rooted in the mundane everyday.

"I sure hope this leads somewhere."

At first, the fact the film didn't go full out weird like hinted seemed like a let down but then upon reflection, I realised I was wrong, the film works better set in the mundane. I've been talking a lot about isolation and connection. Reviews like The Atlantic's David Sims, alleges that Kaufman explores these themes through the lens of a man who has forgotten to connect with people, and who is by most accounts a rather unlikable person.

I'm not going to dispute the fact that Michael is an unlikable protagonist, a man who travels to a conference with the secret motive to meet an ex-lover, who has walked out on his past lovers without knowing the reason why himself, and who seems destined to make himself miserable. However, I think Michael is more than just someone who has forgotten to connect with people. I think he actually has a mental disorder called the Capgras delusion.

This "is a disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a friend, spouse, parent, or other close family member (or pet) has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor".

How can you connect with someone when everyone looks the same?

By using an actual mental disorder with the added surrealism of puppets but in a world rooted in the mundane everyday, Kafuman pushes home just how hard it can be to make a connection in what can sometimes seem like an increasingly homogeneous world.

Note: My rating system works a bit different than most. Rather than a simple, "Good/Bad" five star rating. I'm going to rate these films on how much you would be likely to muse after seeing them. That is, the likelihood of wanting to have a discussion about the film after you've finished watching it.

Musing Rating: 3 Musings

Enough that you'll immediately want to discuss certain elements and clarify a couple of things (like "what did you make me watch?") with the person who made you watch it with them but not enough that you'll continue to think about it too much the next day.


Anomalisa IMDb page

Anomalisa: An Agonizing Love Story, With Puppets - The Atlantic

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Announcement from Another Star: The Kaufman Musings

As some of you might have noticed, on Friday I published my first post since my hiatus at the end of last year. Well, after some time off gaining XP from not doing anything a lot, I've finally have leveled up enough to get back to my writing and have a couple of things I'm working on which is exciting.

First thing I'd like to announce is the next series of Musings. Following the release of his latest film Anomalisa, I've decided to do a review of each movie written by Charlie Kaufman. In reverse chronological order of course, because why not. This might be followed by another similar series focusing on a specific writer/director/actor/character/entity or it might not. All will be announce at a later date.

The other thing I want to announce is that I'm writing a short novel! A science fiction comedy called The Zeppulian. It's about these two friends Zo and Qin who steal the the fastest ship in the galaxy, a ship with a navigation drive so advanced it can find places you weren't even looking for. The ship also has the coordinates for the fable lost planet, a planet so lost no one knows its name or why it's even lost. Problem is, they have no idea how to pilot it aside from taking off and going straight.

I've often come up with random story ideas which I never see through past the "okay, the basic idea is this..." phase. But I've decided to actually commit to this one since I like the idea and thought I might as well. It's still in the early stages and I'm still writing it while working on how to distribute it but I'll keep everyone updated on its progress.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Stars Wars: The Safety Inspector Strikes Back

Facility: Starkiller Base
Organisation: First Order
Inspector: Zubenelgenubi Quarkrunner

Opening Comments: Well, okay. First impressions aren't that great to be honest. Not sure who thought converting a mobile ice planet into a gigantic space station with a sun-depleting super-weapon would be a good idea but I'm not here to critique architectural aesthetic, just assess the safety of the facility and its staff.  Alright, let's get on with this.



Is training provided for each person newly assigned to a job? 

Yes, their training is actually quite thorough. Each soldier is taken from their family at birth before they can properly form familial bonds. They are then assigned an unit designation instead of a name to take aware any sense of agency or self and further subjected to years of propaganda to ensure their loyalty and obedience to the First Order.

Does initial training include a thorough review of hazards and accidents associated with the job? 

This aspect of their training does seem little lacking. There is little discussion of on the job hazards like getting force-chocked by your superior or the likelihood of a small group of plucky Resistance fighters infiltrating the base to rescue their captured friend and throwing you in the garbage compactor. Needs to be addressed.

Also, while Stormtroopers are correctly indoctrinated to hate the Resistance and traitors, their training does skip over the realities of blaster battle. This could conceivably lead the occasional stormtrooper to reject his life long indoctrination with the awakening of his sense of morality following the trauma of his first battle. 

"Note: This doesn't look like a soldier who is happy with the slaughter of innocents which the job calls for. 
Might be worth having a friendly chit-chat over coffee about his work expectations."


Are resources available to deal with very hot or very cold conditions? 

Each soldier is equipped with armor made up of overlapping plastoid plates and synth-leather boots. They wear this armor in all manner of conditions, including dry hot deserts or the cold snow climate of the Starkiller Base's planet surface, This apparent is supposed to disperse energy, protecting the wearer from glancing blaster bolts but it's not clear how effective this is or how the armor could be suitable for both extreme heat and freezing cold. It also looks like it is hard to see a thing in those helmets, a possible safety concern.
Are work surfaces and grip surfaces safe when wet? 

Surprisingly yes. Apparently, no one has ever slipped in the history of this facility, which is kind of remarkable when you think of it due to the sheer vastness of the base. It is literally a planet yet no one has ever slipped on a wet surface since construction. Even more surprisingly, I don't think the surfaces have even ever been wet but I can't confirm that.

Work Process:

Are repetitive motion tasks properly paced and kept to a minimum? 

Understandably as a military operation, there are a number of marching drills which are an expected requirement for soldiers to undertake. However, it does seem that the repetitive nature of these drills are extended past what one would consider acceptable practice, even for a empirically inclined militaristic regime bent on subjugating the galaxy to its rule and eradicating Resistance scum.

"Due to exhaustion from repeating the same motions over and over again, these Stormtroopers hardly now where to look now.
The one in the middle seems to be having the worst of it and looks utterly confused."

Fire/Invasion Emergency Procedures:

Are drills held regularly? 

As noted before, since this is a military operation, a lot of emphasis is put on drills and they are held quite regularly and on an acceptable schedule. However, the invasion drill itself does seem a bit unusual in that is consists solely of running and/or flying about randomly with no formation in the hope of possibly capturing or shooting down enemy targets if they run into them. No fire drill to speak of.

Are there enough extinguishers present to do the job? 

Not a single extinguisher in the entire facility, which again I must state is the size of a planet.

Means of Exit:

Are there enough exits to allow prompt escape?

Since the facility encompasses an entire planet, the only real exit is by taking a ship and flying into space. A cursory investigation didn't find enough ships on world for the extremely large number of crew and Stormtroopers. In light of a crisis, it appears most Stormtroopers would be left behind on the planet with no means to escape catastrophe. Let's hope nothing happens in the near future which would necessitate such an evacuation.

"It's not like a X-Wing starfighter would be able to get past the planetary shields and blow up the thermal oscillator, right?"


Is the Intergalactic Electrical Code adhered to in operation, use, repair and maintenance?

A more conclusive inspection might be require to verify but in my findings, I can't see that the electric wiring follows any of the guidelines of the Intergalactic Electrical Code. From what I can see, any surge in power or disruption will result in either short circuits, an electric fire, or even explosion. The workstations are particularly poor and seem almost designed to shoot off sparks in the event of attack.


Does lighting produce glare on work surfaces, screens, and light panels?

So much glare.  The walking surfaces are incredibly shiny and the light just bounces off them as though mirrors. I imagine many Stormtroopers would complain about glare-induced headaches if they could see a thing out of those helmets.

Is the level of light adequate for safe and comfortable performance of work?

The facility is superbly lit with bright lighting, from the well-lit corridors, which have LED lights built into the walls, to the blinky light panels used in workstations. However everything is tinted blue for some reason, especially in the corridors. It's kinda dehumanising and can't help moral too much.

"Still not sure what's up with the blue tint. It's rather menacing to be honest. Maybe that's the vibe they're going for.
Again, not here to judge aesthetics."

Medical and First Aid:

Do all employees know how to get first aid assistance when needed?

I don't think I could locate a single first aid kit in the entirety of the entire planet which comprises the Starkiller Base. Considering the fact that this is a military space station with the threat of possible attack, this seems like a huge oversight but again, hopefully no enemy forces will get through the planetary shield before this can be rectified.

Are there employees trained as first-aid practitioners on each shift worked

There are medical bots spread sproradically across the facility but bizarrely none of the Stormtroopers are given any first-aid training but rather are just expected to let their colleagues die in an emergency. That is very poor safety right there.

Employee Facilities:

Are cafeteria facilities provided away from thermal oscillators?

Yes, the facilities are far removed from the thermal oscillators which contain the tremendous energy needed for the superweapon which lies at the heart of the planet.

Are facilities kept clean and sanitary?

Like the rest of the base, the employee facilities are extremely clean and quite sanitary. Quite up to standard. So much so that sometimes superior officers like Kylo Ren will dress in disguise to have lunch in the cafeteria with the regular soldiers.

Here, "Matt the Radar Technician" enjoys a healthy cafeteria lunch with other members of the First Order.


Are the elevated platforms properly secured and do they have handrails? 

The platforms are properly secured, that's for sure. But do they have handrails? Is this a serious question? No platform ever has handrails. Especially not those which transverse over the impossibly deep chasms which are favoured by mobile space station architects the galaxy over. Is there a reason for the utter lack of handrails for precariously perilous platforms? None that I can determine. Is this a safety hazard? Probably, I guess. Whatever.

Final Thoughts (Not for publication):

Who designs these things? I mean, really who would think this would be a good idea? None of this makes sense. All I get from looking at them is an overwhelming sense of "What? Why even? For serious? Okay then, I guess." That's every day on the job for me. Just a never-ending series of incomprehensible architectural designs sure to make any safety inspector cry out in confused frustration.

Do floating city architects and galactic engineers even consider reading through basic safety guidelines when designing their latest gigantic mobile space station for the Empire, or First Order as they call themselves now?

And it's like the First Order would fire their devastatingly destructive superweapon with no concern for the safety of their soldiers on the planet's surface for the mere spectacle.


You know what? Nevermind. I'll just pass it so Supreme Leader Snoke can have his Death Star Mark III vanity project.

I'm out.