‘Synecdoche, New York’ or — Just a Bit But Not The Whole.
For years my friend Colin has been trying to convince me to watch Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Synecdoche, New York’ (2008).
“But why?” I would ask him.
“Because I’m curious as to what you’d make of it. It deals with issues you’re obsessed with: the dangers of solipsism; mortality; the impossibility of genuine meaning through art. Yet it’s also done in such a self-indulgent and quirky way, and of the type I know you hate, that I can imagine the movie both depressing and infuriating you. You should check it out.”
“You want me to watch a movie because you want me to get depressed and annoyed?”
“Not really, but it might induce an existential crisis in you.”
I have such great friends.
With such a ringing endorsement it wasn’t a surprise that it took me ten years to get around to watching the movie, something I finally did last night. And my friend Colin was wise to give me a warning as I have to admit to the very unpopular opinion of not being a fan of Kaufman’s work. I found ‘Being John Malkovich’ (1999) excessively quirky to the point of generating a murderous rage in my nervous system whilst watching ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’ (2004) just kept wishing everybody in it was dead and that there was a machine that could wipe the experience of watching it from my brain. Watching ‘Adaptation’ (202) put me off script writing for life.
But it is undeniable that Kaufman is a talented and intelligent writer, even if he does continually rake over the same issues (solipsism, loss, frustration in art, death) and that I am in, by far, the minority with my irritation of his style and writing so I thought I’d give ‘Synecdoche’ a try.
So did it induce an existential crisis in me? Unfortunately not as that would’ve at least been a stronger reaction to the film than the one I had, which is that it was exactly what I was expecting: a self-absorbed, overly-intellectual slog that is not as deep or witty as it thinks it is (how’s THAT for a film being solipsistic? And who knew it was possible to capture self-importance so easily on film?).
Plus, the epic sentiment is there but it is the execution that feels lacking. Sometimes there are so many ideas competing in ‘Synecdoche’ yet Kaufman doesn’t have the deft touch (or the visual nuance) needed to really make those ideas work or manifest on screen. The film might be, in part, about death but watching the movie certainly feels like giving up the ghost and has all the energy of being induced into a coma or that for us to grasp the idea of our inevitable mortality that Kaufman is, literally, attempting to bore us to death. But maybe that’s the point. Yet in terms of portraying, and visualising, the dangers of solipsism it comes nowhere close to the clarity, style or finesse of ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (1961) or Antonioni’s ‘L’Avventura’ (1960) in cinematic terms. I just didn’t find this an interesting film to watch and Kaufman is a better writer than he is a director and that really made the film drag for me.
So yes, the movie is a self-indulgent lament that is furiously digging down below the last vestige of hope in the misguided belief that going down means going deep. But Kaufman is about uncomfortable truths so maybe we all might learn something and grow from all this pain — after all, I’m convinced most writers want to be therapists and most therapists dream of being writers (hell, the film itself even seems to be arguing that point). But no ‘great truths’ are revealed except the ones we know going in and those are laboured over to the point of boredom.
Yet amazingly, I didn’t hate ‘Synecdoche: New York’ possibly because the message felt universal for a change with Kaufman rather than so rabidly introspective and idiosyncratic. After all, we all die one day but few of us get into arguments about script writing with Robert McKee… and I think I’d rather take death than the latter. And, despite the bulk of the film leaving me cold the ending is surprisingly effective and moving with a number of issues being dealt with (I guess I can take that little part, that synecdoche, and see the whole film in there so that’s something). So it’s not just a case of life is something that can go by without us noticing but it also asks the question to whom this thing called life is happening to? What is our identity? Who are we, really, and what will the shock be like when we find out?
There’s a lot going on in ‘Synecdoche, New York’, so much so that it easily supports (or even demands) repeat viewings. The only problem is I have no desire to sit through this film again.
So yes, one day we are all going to die… now get out there and live! Maybe by watching a different movie?