Monday, October 26, 2009

Synecdoche, NY(2008): dance of the wounded

 Director: Charlie Kaufman(1958--)

When I first saw this film last year my reaction was, "what a morose guy"( the Kaufman character). Ebert described it as a great film which needed to be seen twice. And I have become humble enough to realise that some films are not mere movies but serious artistic creations deserving the same degree of respect as a work of litrature. The long pending second visit was materialised today.

If cinema is to be more than mere entertainment to kill time, one may on occassion need patience to ferret out the treasure. Why should it be necessary for a film to have a plot, any more than Ullyses did ? All that is required is that it should have something to express, express it, and express it well. It's better for a creation to be  hard to understand than to be not worth understanding. Life is too brief to fritter on triviality.

To quote from Ebert's review:

"The subject of "Synecdoche, New York" is nothing less than human life and how it works. Using a neurotic theater director from upstate New York, it encompasses every life and how it copes and fails. Think about it a little and, my god, it's about you. Whoever you are."

I cannot make any claim to have understood the film, or to have even followed whatever plot is there, or to have been able to distinguish dream and reality--or to have shared the perception that it was as extraordinary a film as the great critic found it.

What is sure is that it was never a drag as many action films are ( which at this time of year usually give me  dejavus ). There is something interesting in every scrap (green poo) and the scraps are loosely strung together as is our ordinary consciousness, hopping from one thing to another. Elation, gloom, hunger, boredom, etc follow one on top of the other shifting kaleidoscopically from moment to moment. The film never fails to be interesting in it's observation of the. mundane occurences of everyday life. Our seemingly banal existence is always underlined by deep anxieties-about worthiness, sickness and mortality.

Caden Codard( Philip Seymour Hoffman), a scholar, is abondened by his wife Adele and daughter who proceed to Europe where she finds success and acclaim as an artist. Caden in the middle of his various abortive romantic entanglements and numerous ailments recieves a McArthur grant ($500,000 payable over five years in quarterly installments) to pursue creative work. He sets himself the task of creating an ambitious drama to capture life in it's entirety. The present film is that drama. This  enterprise, lasting for two decades is the fulchrum of the story, in the course of which he loses his parents, his daughter as a young woman from "tattoo poisoning", remarries, has affairs, while the drama in the making progresses tortuously, year afte year. The dreary tale is punctuated by several dreary funerals, an attempted suicide and a successful one. And....curtains.

Along the way there is pathos, humour, surprises,  always a what-next feeling, tragedy, boredom--it's a variety show. It's a play within a movie within the drama of life. It is an exploration of the inner universe. The drama which the film is about, the film itself and the drama that is life--they are all one. As Ebert puts it, the title says it all.

Hoffman's portrayal of "the seven ages of man" is electrifying. He is always supressing a sob, always on the brink of tears, in  perpetual mourning.

Ordinary life is in fact anything but ordinary. It is in fact the greatest of wonders.

To quote from the drama within  the film:

.....even though the world goes on for aeons and aeons, we are here for a fraction of  fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years waiting for a letter or a phone call or a look...

Perhaps it is with compassion that the film-maker has glimpsed the comedy-human-- people, all of us, in our desperate gasping to find meaning in the finitude of our existence. To become human beings from human animals. It's funny, it's pathetic, it's downright tragic, and above it's very mysterious.
Another quote from the script:
....what was once before you, an exciting and mysterious future, is now behind you--lived, understood, disappointing. You realise you are not special. You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it.This is everyone's experience, every single one.The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone. So you are Adele Hazel, Claire.And the people who adore you stop adoring you. As they die,as they move on, as you shed them, as you shed your beauty, your youth, as the world forgets you, as you realise your transience, as you begin to lose your charactristics one by one, as you learn there is no one watching you....
Perhaps the message is that men are born to sorrow. But how true? The defiant and optimistic fire of Beethoven is missing in this Synecdoche.

Twice was not enough. I have to come again. There is nothing of the trivial here. And as Ebert says, the third time will be sheer enjoyment.

Synecdoche: the word implies a part which represents a whole like "a pair of hands" represents the whole person. As a drop has the qualities of the sea, so one life represents all lives.

Roger Ebert's review 


Anonymous said...

I was so sorry to miss this film last year at TIFF!

Couldn't agree more with this:

Ordinary life is in fact anything but ordinary. It is in fact the greatest of wonders.

Sounds like a daunting piece of work. I'll see if I can track down a copy. This seems like the kind of film to own instead of borrow.

S. M. Rana said...


Thanks for dropping by.

The movie started growing half way through and seems set to join a short list of perennials.


Literary Dreamer said...

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
-Percy Bysshe Shelly

Thanks for including quotes from the film. It makes it sound that much better.

And since you mentioned Ulysses, didn't Joyce mean for that book to be a synecdoche? Isn't one day in Dublin in Harold Bloom's life representative of all days in all places in all men's (and women's) lives? Maybe I can watch "Synecdoche, NY" instead of trying to blow through that monster of a book. :-)

Also, if you liked the subject matter of "Synecdoche, NY," you might want to seek out "Waking Life." It's about life, death, dreams, and reality, and I enjoyed it more upon viewing it for a second time, broken up into chunks for easier digestion ;-). But, both times I viewed it, I found it FASCINATING. To paraphrase etheriel, another one to own, rather than borrow.

S. M. Rana said...

@Literary Dreamer

Ozymandias used to be in our school syllabus.Napolean told his soldiers in Egypt that the pyramids would be the witnesses to their performance that day.

I'm going to see Waking Life.

How's Seattle and I'll pray (I do that)that you find what you seek!

Nathanael Hood said...

Quite simply, this film is a miracle. No if's, and's, or but's about it.

One of these days I'll write about it on my own blog............

S. M. Rana said...

@Nathan: I too am toying with idea of another see--the imprints are worn, and it will reveal new things.