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Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman (2008)

Totally messing with my own mind this morning, catching up with comments on spring break cultural intake. I thought BSG was going to be the highlight and it left me feeling like I’d eaten a whole bag of Chee Wees. From this movie, on the other hand, I expected to get the same kind of frotteuristic meta-pleasures I did from Kaufman’s earlier pseudo-avant outings, and hoo, was I wrong. This movie is a punch in the gut and a poke in each eye. Its difference from earlier Kaufman vehicles probably has a lot to do with the fact that this is the first time Kaufman’s directed. His fame till now has been based entirely on his writing, to which the descriptor “quirky” seems permanently affixed. This movie could have been merely quirky; the script would have permitted that. Behind the camera, Kaufman won’t let that happen. The leaps here — in time, space, emotion, idea — are frequently breathtaking and always substantive. There are moments which, incredibly, demand respectful cross-reference to 8 1/2. The instant this ended I wanted to see it again, and I don’t think that’s happened to me with any other movie made this decade. If the film has a flaw, it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can’t quite keep up with all the different selves the script needs him to be. But seeing as Hoffman’s probably one of the five best actors alive, even this cavil feels a little like praise.

Hoffman plays an upstate theater director who gets a big grant and uses it to create a theatrical production which, as it assymptotically approaches total mimesis, gradually ceases to distinguish between art and life. Oh, OK, self-consciousness, postmodernism, got it, been there, done that. Well, yes, I guess I can’t argue with that, but somehow this feels different, it feels less like what and more like how. It feels, I’m extremely emberrassed to say, like I’m in this movie. Others have played with the fourth wall like this in the theater (Ariane Mnouchkine, for example), but in film it’s a bit more difficult, since there’s no there there for the viewer to move through. Kaufman’s solution, I think, is in his editing, which through its refrains and rhythms creates a kind of in-the-round effect, except it’s the drama that encircles the audience instead of the other way around.

I’m babbling. Sometimes a thing just works. Last semester I was reading the Duino Elegies with my students. One morning I happened to come across information regarding Cotard’s Syndrome and couldn’t help thinking that Rilke would have been fascinated. Being in a state of existence defined by your certainty that you don’t exist. Anyone afflicted with this syndrome might well have seemed to Rilke “angelic,” don’t you think? I brought the matter to the class and it made for a useful discussion. Watching Synecdoche, New York, I kept flashing back to this and wondering why, beyond the obvious, until I realized that Hoffman’s character is named Cotard, and early in the film, he quotes Rilke’s “Herbsttag.” See? I’m in the movie. Still babbling. See it, though, and write to tell me it’s pretentious reheated tripe. I won’t argue but I won’t agree either.

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