Rather than hit up another top ten list of films from the last 12 months (mine would probably include The White Ribbon, A Prophet, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Milk, Fish Tank, A Serious Man and Encounters at the End of the World amongst others) I instead decided to put one egg in one basket.
Its a weird egg too so I must apologise.
You know one of those ones with two yolks in it or a smaller egg? One of those that people might say is actually from 2008… you know?… one of them…
Over the last 8 months I have seen Charlie Kaufman’s almost unpronounceable first film as director, four times. I suppose its power the first time around was its comedy (yes it is in there) and its overwhelming ambition as a piece of film-making. In short at first glance I thought it was fascinating, exhausting and totally unique. Like forcing yourself to go for a run. The subsequent times, going over it, revealing in the details and the mood, the surprises and the brilliantly confusing road it treads, Synecdoche, New York has, has, in my mind now formed a completely amazing puzzle, a piece of work that I will no doubt see countless times.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Coutard, a death obsessed play-write. His marriage with his artist wife (Catherine Keener) is on the rocks and after she leaves with his daughter for Berlin and success he gets to work on his masterpiece, living his life though it. A world, built as a play, mimicking and devouring his years.
As far as the term “in a nutshell goes”, that’s about it but the amount of balls out, mind boggling ingenuity that Kaufman has pumped into the two hours is nothing short of staggering. Art and life mix together, time slips by and the film becomes almost a means to its own end. There are jokes within jokes, film posters and books referenced within which have only been invented mere scenes earlier, burning houses, clues, potholes, dead ends and total and utter frustration but above all else it has more imagination and smarts than anything in recent memory.
It is granted that Adaptation had a similar theme, where film and artist were looked at as Auroborus. A snake eating its own tail, a sign of infinity and unending. What Kaufman does with that concept here is more frightening and complex and much, much more sad. Character’s become real, and unreal, Coutard’s set (a giant airship hanger of sorts) becomes a replica of the city its built in, complete with a smaller airship hanger, it’s as if every aspect of the film is a Russian doll. The performances are even treated so;
Samantha Morton’s horny/gawky box office girl is, played by Emily Watson within the “boundaries” of the play, while her brief affair with Coutard is mirrored outside it, while a stalker of 20 years, who may or may not be a manifestation of Coutard’s dead father is brought on to play the director himself. Hoffman’s performance is absolutely perfect as is his support, the editing is bizarre, layered and beautiful, Jon Brion’s score is as dream like as anything he has ever done and the film and passes years like seconds and there are as many amazingly sad moments as there are beautiful ones.
The film/play becomes more melodramatic to watch towards the end in much the same way that Adaptation became riddled with cliché, mainstream film twists and pop music. Despite this its leaps in bizarre developments come thicker and faster almost devouring itself. Whether or not this is on purpose or unintentional seams of little consequence as when the sheer weight of the films final 10 minutes presses down on you it’s suffocating.
Yes, it’s confusing, yes, it’s over reaching to a fault in places, yes it’s dark and to be brutal, quite depressing. In talking with numerous people young and old over last year it would seem to me that this is generally nowhere near as revered as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation or even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the causal cinema goers book but as Kaufman’s first film as a writer and director it really is most the most astounding achievement. A voice so strong in his writing that you get the feeling that has been a powerful tool in locking Spike Jonze into the style he now makes feature films in. Kaufman, some how manages to come across much darker, mixing David Lynch and Alain Resnais.
I have always felt left with when Caden gets his final cue from his new “director”, is not a sense sadness or pretension that hits me, but one of wonder and intrigue in a true mystery of a film that has not yet diminished ever after multiple viewings and which I’m certain will survive many many more.
The darkest, strangest, grandest and most head destroying film of 2009.