Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2008
A note from the author: My apologies for my recent hiatus from "At the Picture Show." It was only temporary, as I was in the middle of a cross-country move and a new job. But the hiatus is over and reviews will be forthcoming on a regular basis from now on. I appreciate all the e-mails from readers wondering about this column's whereabouts, and am happy to be back.

The beautiful confusion

Kaufman turns the camera on inside his head and reveals a 'New York' all his own

Synecdoche, New York
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest and Hope Davis
Rated R / 2 hours, 4 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Charlie Kaufman's mind is a realm of the beautifully bizarre, a battleground for the intangible truths of human neuroses, fears and insecurities, and a nuclear testing facility for the limits of storytelling. It is capable of explosive bursts of creation - and so it's only fitting that so much of his work is about the very heart of the creative process.

Consider his and director Spike Jonze's 2002 masterpiece, Adaptation. - about Kaufman's very own struggles to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. Now, six years later, Kaufman has made his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York, and it - while stylistically very different - falls in a similar vein with its focus on the abstract gymnastics of creativity.

It's almost like we're seeing his own creative process laid bare in front of us. Synecdoche is a brilliant, cluttered tsunami of ideas, a menagerie of surrealist and absurdist impulses all channeled through the perspective of a tragically neurotic playwright/theatre director named Caden Cotard, who is attempting a "massive theatre piece" designed to speak to the gut truth of every person. (It only makes sense that Kaufman's arguably over-ambitious screenplay would feature an even more ambitious work of fiction within it.)

Cotard is played by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of those performances that you can't imagine anyone else playing - a fact which itself becomes something of a point of irony when his character, his profession and even his gender start getting mixed and matched as the play takes on a life of its own.

But there I go, getting ahead of myself again.

Then again, with a film like this, it's irrelevant to start at the beginning and work forward anyway.

Suffice it to say that it begins and ends at 7:45 in the morning. And that it begins in a bohemian/suburban home and ends in some obscured post-apocalypse. Specific events, moments of inspiration, snippets from here and there are all scrambled together to form an appropriately messy concoction of memories and embellishments and creations. Passing phrases reference things that happen later on. Climactic moments from the end of the film are seen, briefly, on a TV in the background or a wall in the kitchen -- at the birth of their own inspiration - near the beginning.

When the lovely Hazel (Samantha Morton) innocently tries to seduce Caden, he asserts that he and his wife aren't really separated - she's coming back. "She hasn't called . . . it's been a year," Hazel answers. "It's been a week," Caden earnestly insists. To which she casually responds, "Someone's going to have to get you a calendar."

This seems as appropriate a time as any to mention that Hazel goes on to buy a house that is quite literally on fire, and proceeds to live there amid the flames and smoke for the rest of her life.

Or that Caden opens up and reads his 4-year-old daughter Olive's diary one day, and proceeds to read new entries for years to come, as she gets older and older . . . even though she's off living in Germany the entire time.

But back to the play - which is to be Caden's crowning work. Even if he is constantly changing his mind on what to do with it. Even if his every action and decision in his real life changes the direction of it. Even if, ultimately, it cannot feasibly, cannot possibly be completed.

After all, what are we to make of Sammy (Tom Noonan), the man Caden hires - at Sammy's own insistence - to play the role of Caden? The two men become virtually interchangeable . . . but of course Sammy is just doing his job as an actor. As Caden. What about Sammy himself? Does he have a self?

Those are the kinds of dilemmas the film tries to tackle. Some of the most fascinating and clever scenes involve the casting of characters, the re-casting of them, the additions of new characters to represent actors playing the characters, and so on. Sometimes they argue about what each character should do in a particular moment, with the actress playing a character contending that she should act one way, while the person herself - who is playing a different role as another character - argues that she never would.

Through it all, we see not only the impossibility of the task at hand, but the persistence of Caden's discontent not only with his play, but with his life . . . which is also, now, his play.

The play, he says, is about all of us, but naturally he seems most concerned with himself - specifically with his own impending death, and the perpetual act of dying. He visits doctors who diagnose him with all sorts of strange maladies - some of which may be Caden's own hypochondriacal inventions, for all we know - or who won't give him a straight answer at all. He finds a sort of absurd muse in his therapist (Hope Davis), famous for best-selling self-help books with such titles as Getting Better and I'm Not Feeling Very Well Today.

Synecdoche, New York is as bleak a work as Kaufman has ever written - and Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had their fair share of bleakness, too. But at the same time, it is often morbidly and hysterically funny - with some of the funniest moments thrown into the grimmest scenes of death and dread and loss.

It is probably true that Synecdoche, New York is the result of an all-encompassing Big Idea that can't actually be accomplished - but Kaufman has come about as close as you could get. Still, for a film with those kinds of impossible odds, it manages to crescendo with a long, astonishing final sequence that - aside from featuring the best closing line of the year - conveys all the consequences and regrets and fears and dreams that Caden has been trying to reconcile all this time. And in those moments, Kaufman reconciles every one.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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