Saturday, October 8, 2011

Synecdoche, Schenectady

The final item my friend Ferris was going to do before he left the movie forum we both participated in was to watch Synecdoche, NY and make a line by line audio commentary on it.  We were supposed to get together and comment together, but it just didn’t happen, which is sad.   Ferris and I are both in our forties and we both could appreciate the considerations of late-life themes in the film and the struggles of the protagonist.  Ferris claimed that he had a specific concept of the theme of the film, which I never heard.  Perhaps it is not too late, but we shall see.

So I watched it on my own and below I give my own thoughts of this film  I have to say that for about two years I was quite enamored of Charlie Kauffman, but this has become less so of late.  I still appreciate his unique approach to storytelling and his themes are significant.  However, as a unit, his films seem a bit whiney.   Certainly, though, Eternal Sunshine is going to make my top 100.  So what about Synecdoche?

Technical—5/5—For a first film, Kauffman did a fine job on this. Especially the creation of the town and the theatre as the town within the town was marvelously done.  The acting was top notch and the script was intellectually fascinating.

Interest—4/5—There is so much going on in this film that it is hard to turn away.  I’ve watched it almost three times and I feel that I would need to watch it three more times to even catch all the main themes.  There are allegorical pieces, like the house on fire, that seems to conflict with the more realistic approach, but that only increases the mystery of the basic question, “What the hell is this film about anyway?”

Tension—2/5—There isn’t really much tension in the script.  It is just one damn event after another, and while they are all connected on the surface, one thing doesn’t really lead to another.  Events come out of nowhere, unexpectedly.  Thus, no tension is really built.  The only tension, again, is the meaning of the film.

Emotional—3/5—While the structure of the film makes it difficult to feel emotionally connected to the events, still Phillip Seymour Hoffman makes an empathetic character.  Kauffman’s script doesn’t make this easy, however.

Characters—4/5—Like Ikiru, this is really a one character film.  It is about Caden’s experience of the second half of his life, and everything we see is from his perspective, and most of the lack of realism is because his perspective is so skewed by his constant vision of death.  Thus, in a sense, the entire film is about character.  But this character is so confused, so horrified by his dismantlement of all that was significant in his life, that it is hard to appreciate this perspective.

Theme—5/5—The whole movie is about theme, really.  It is about one’s life when death is at the forefront of it.  There is much made of a near-death experience that gives one a new perspective on life.  However, this film could show the opposite of that.  What if one becomes so focused on death that life becomes meaningless?  So concerned about guilt and regret and health and powerlessness that life itself is simply a regurgitation of itself?  SNY is the perfect example of how obsession, even on a general positive thing, can be taken out of balance so that it becomes destructive, sucking in not only your life but the lives of those around you.

Ethics—5/5—Caden’s self-focus is so complete in this film that no one else really matters (except, on occasion, Hazel, excellent portrayed by Samantha Morton).  Finally, even he himself doesn’t matter and he allows Dianne Weist to direct every action in his life.  What I don’t know is whether Kauffman is making a sad commentary on Caden’s life—this is what we should avoid—or whether he is saying this is what we all experience.  We will all, eventually, be directed by others to do what we do, we all, at times, obsess on death and we all make errors because of it along the way.  Whichever the case, it is thoughtful and encourages thought.

Personal—3/5—As important as I think SNY is, it doesn’t connect with my life as much as I would think it should.  I am the right age, but perhaps not the right temperament to really see myself as Caden.  Sure, I think about death, although usually in a way looking forward to the break than anything else. 

I think that Synecdoche is an important film about death and life, as important as anything that Bergman has done.  I also think it is a difficult film: it is often unpleasant, often confusing and sometimes seems masturbatory on Kauffman’s part.  It is like a distasteful medicine you take because its good for you, a difficult class in college you take because your major requires it, but there is little pleasure in it, except, perhaps the intellectual pleasure of obtaining a hard-won nugget of knowledge.  It is on the edge of my top 100, but I don't think it will make it this year.

As time goes on, I find Mr. Kauffman's films to be more smart and intellectually satisfying than enjoyable.  But as I keep watching them over and over (and I will) perhaps they will grow on me again. 

I think I still have much more to say about this film.  It isn't like a straight forward narrative, in which a plot outline adequately summarizes it.  Rather, it is a film like A Serious Man or perhaps even Tree of Life, which is conceptually driven, and plot is secondary.  However, it has more details (perhaps) than either of the other two films and so requires even more careful study.  I shall return. 


  1. I'm a big fan of Kaufman's. I love ESOTSM as well as Being John Malkovitch and the not quite as commonly celebrated Human Nature. But SNY didn't click with me for some reason. I remember it as meta-meta-meta, but in a pointless way, and that I kept falling asleep, bored out of my mind. Seeing how much love it gets on the Filmspotting board I suppose I should give it a second chance to see if I "get it". The first time I'm afraid I didn't. I just felt stupid because it was so way over my head.

  2. SNY is certainly not for everyone. It is a favorite of mine, but a good portion of it is because of the puzzle it presents. It is not a film we are supposed to get the first time. Maybe not the second time, either. In the end, once I figure it all out, I'm sure I'll just be stuck with a morose film, but the process of understanding it is exhilarating for me.