Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Go on, pronounce it, I dare ya!

If ever there was proof that Charlie Kaufman doesn't care for commercialism, look at that title! I swear when I was getting my ticket, two people in the queue behind me were debating whether or not to go to it simply because they couldn't pronounce the word 'synecdoche'. Well, I'm not too proud; I couldn't pronounce it either, which is why the publicity department have helpfully printed the phonetic pronunciation on the poster (sin-NECK-doh-kee, I think). Unfortunate as all the other variations I was coming up with sounded far more graceful. (Once upon a time I did know the correct pronunciation, but, like Kafka, it doesn't turn up in the conversations I tend to have these days, and such knowledge becomes lost without practice.) I wasn't going to miss this though. I've been waiting for it for a long time and it has taken its time to get here. So I practised and managed to get the word out. The cashier, however, asked 'Which one?' She meant which showing (well, obviously the next one, dumbass!), but I thought she was just getting a sadistic thrill. I smiled broadly and said it again. There, you cheeky vixen!
Was my ordeal worth it? Yes, though I am conscious I will be on one side of a very divided general opinion.
In 'Synecdoche, New York', Philip Seymour Hoffmann plays theatre director, Caden Cotard, a man falling apart in every aspect of his life except his profession. When he wins a fellowship providing him with unlimited funds to create a dramatic work of art, he develops an ambitious project to make a drama of his own life. This provides the gimmick we are all meant to go to the film to see, because this is an ongoing piece of drama, almost simulataneous to his life. It involves creating a simulacrum of New York in an airplane hangar and casting actors to play not only him and those around him, but the people playing them in a Russian doll type scenario that quickly gets out of control. None of this should be taken too literally (as if you could), but instead plays like 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' where the 'stage' represents the surreal setting that Jim Carrey's mind played in the last movie. Anything goes and does.
This is Kaufman's directorial debut and, though slightly rough around the edges at times, is a coherent vision that continually impresses. (I had seen a Bruce Campbell directed movie, 'My Name is Bruce', earlier today, so I know what an industry player out of their principal element is capable of.) There are a lot of strange things happening and a lot of changes in chronology, so to keep it reasonably sensible is some achievement.
The script has comedic elements, but this is dark stuff, dark in a profound way. Yes, Kaufman is resolutely downbeat, and the constant intimations of mortality are not going to win the film any friends from the Bebo set, but this is vital material. Instead of just mouthing the usual platitudes about life being nasty, brutish and short; or how we should marvel at that one life we live sandwiched between stretches of oblivion; or how we are all fundamentally similar in our dreams, fears and desires yet are doomed to loneliness; instead of these and other truths being merely said, Kaufman dramatises them much as his protagonist does. We feel their truth amidst the chaos of the story. And somehow we do not want to slit our wrists after encountering that truth.
That is not to say the film is flawless; very far from that. When a writer investigates himself this obsessively and this publicly you sometimes want to take him by the shoulders and shake him. (Ironically that's exactly what he has a character do when he pushes Dianne Wiest's character to the foreground.) The constant repetition central to the primary conceit also becomes a little repetitious. Ultimately though the ideas it deals with are so central to us all, that it's hard not to respect the power of the film.
From the sublime to the ridiculous (though 'Synecdoche, New York' is not quite sublime and...

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