SFC12: Synecdoche, New York

Here we go!  The last review of the Summer Film Challenge 2012 and, in continuing with the established tradition, of course it will be released well over a full year after the Challenge ended. 🙂 The year has been wonderfully busy and I have seen a great number of phenomenal films since the SFC12 ended (look for a big review extravaganza coming eventually).  Now I am finally about to (almost) finish the Challenge by reviewing the last film Ryan gave me.  I still have my Show to review, but that is going to take some work.  However, for now, let us content ourselves with trying to unravel the masterfully crafted, impossibly complex work that is Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.

How apt that some of the opening lines spoke about things ending in September [when I actually watched the movie :)]!  This film was the perfect one with which to conclude.  What more complicated, poignant, powerful, reflective film could I have finished with?  A beautiful examination of what the self-examined life looks like, Synecdoche is a masterpiece for the artist to examine his own role in society and in his/her own life.

What most enthralls me about the film is that it is a work that stops you.  Often, we see films that are fun or exciting, sometimes even poignant, yet they fail to leave us with anything worth pondering. Every rare once in a while, we come across as film that we physically cannot ignore.  Something about the message or the storytelling strikes such a chord with us that we are arrested in thought and must stop to consider what we have just seen.  Thus, Synecdoche.  

Simply put, this film required of me my complete attention, as well as several hours of contemplation beyond the credits (much like 8 1/2 did at the beginning of SFC12).  It forced me to examine why I do what I do and how I attempt to bring truth to people via film.  It reminds me, very simply, that I do not understand Life.  It is a fickle, unintelligible thing.  The film works at laying people naked like a great poem does, getting at the core of humanity and showing us who we really are.  Extremely self-reflective, Synecdoche asks us to join it in being exploratory of our own existence.

But what I most respect about the film is that it reminds you of how small you are in the grand scheme of things.  We all need this occasionally – a glimpse of our lives in the global, chronological perspective.  There are about 6.2 billion people in the world and that only accounts for the present.  When viewed with the understanding that we are only 1 of the countless humans to have ever existed, one is quickly reminded of their place in history.  As the film says, “you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born.”  You aren’t, then you wrestle for a short time, then you die.  God made the human machine to produce beautiful things that reflect Him, and each person is but a tiny tile in a grand mosaic of God’s beauty.  Or perhaps a better metaphor is this: we are but extras on the great stage of life.  By the way, that quote by Shakespeare about all the world being a stage – that makes so much more sense to me now!

To move beyond the esoteric examination into the cinematic critique, let me say that I am not sure that I fully get it, and that I believe this to be a good thing.  Synecdoche, New York is certainly Kaufman’s least accessible film, though I do not think that fault is due to the fact that he himself directed it.   The nature of the story is simply much more complex than his other works (to order them from most to least accessible, I would say start with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindmove into Adaptation, and follow that up with Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche last).

The story is told in a rambling, “C’est la vie” attitude – promoting a sort of hyper-realistic slice of life story.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a Kaufman-esque protagonist just given a large grant to create a unique work of art.  He turns this into a scale model mockup of a large portion of New York City, hires actors to live their character’s life, and then casts himself and all of his loved ones.  All this is an effort to understand his purpose – perhaps by gaining a truly external view of himself – and thus understand his role in the cosmic play around him.  It is a fascinating mix of the Truman Show and Inception, where everything is fake but everyone is in on it.

Synecdoche does a masterful job of wrestling with the most challenging task of life:  to figure out why we are here and then act upon that knowledge.  It asks the question “what if you tried living a Supporting Role in your own story?”  And further, in trying to be real, Cotard undertakes an effort at making something remarkably unreal (and I do not know that he fails in his quest).  Simply put the film is a philosopher’s dream and an artist’s battleground, and the film handles these elements perfectly.

Aesthetically the film is fun, crafting a uniquely enclosed feeling with the color palette and shot choice so as to remind the viewer and Cotard that they are trapped in the depths of the warehouse.  One of the most fascinating elements of the movie *SPOILERS* is that inside of the large storehouse where Cotard builds his mockup, they included a scale version of that very building.  At the end of the film, Cotard is left alone in his creation and journeys literally and metaphorically to the heart of the city (the warehouse) and himself and find that in each depot another microcosm is found.  He travels through several layers of this world within a world until he finally rests in the innermost part.  Kaufman crafts a fascinatingly simple visual equivalent to the inward journey of his character and it pays off in a beautiful manner.

And please do not even get me STARTED on the acting!  Phillip Seymour Hoffman has grown in my mind as a towering giant of an actor who takes daring risks and fully invests himself in whatever role he takes.  His performance in this film should have earned him an Oscar, so it is sad that it only won a few Ensemble cast awards.  Speaking of ensemble, both Catherine Keener and Tom Noonan give performances to last a lifetime and make the most of what had to be a confusing and challenging script.  Every detail of their performances magnificently mirrors that of Hoffman and sells the idea of the film perfectly.  Synecdoche is amazingly directed and beautifully performed.

Ultimately, I cannot say enough good things about this movie.  Synecdoche, New York is a masterwork of cinematic expression and intellectual contemplation.  Kaufman proves once again that he is able to cofound the greatest of us and humble us all with our true nature.  I think the only way to pay it proper tribute is to leave you with the full portion of the quote I gave earlier and leave you to ponder what it means in your own life.  My deepest thanks to Ryan for sharing such a beautiful and stopping movie as this.

“Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved.”

Rating:  10//10

Trio

And there you have it!  All Sixteen films of the Summer Film Challenge 2012 complete and reviewed. Because of the delay in writing this post (and the fact that Ryan and I never quite figured out our upload space issues) it may be some time before we can get a podcast out for this and his final movie, The Fountain.

Thank you so much for reading over the past eight-ish months!  It has been a great pleasure to do these reviews and I hope you enjoyed them.  And they are not done!  As I said earlier I still have a TV show to do – Firefly – and the movie that accompanied it, Serenity………yeah.  That one is going to take some time (not as much as this one, I assure you) but please do stay tuned for that.  Further, I plan on doing a couple of Quickee posts to sum up as many movies as I have seen since the challenge ended.  So be looking for those sometime in the future.

Again thanks and I will see back here for a breakdown of FireflySerenity!

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Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

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