2008, Movies

Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)

I’ve finally gotten around to watching the film that temporarily killed Charlie Kaufman’s career as a director. If you don’t know Charlie kaufman was one of the most acclaimed American screenwriters of his era, and then he made this film. Though it is now regarded by some of one of the best movies of that decade, at the time it was panned by a lot of people, so many that I avoided seeing it for…(checks notes)…14 years. (I was a massive fan in 2008, so I didn’t see it then.)

This is an extremely Kaufmanesque film and I guess a lot of what you think about it depends upon how much you like Charlie Kaufman’s films. As as a big fan of Kaufman’s films prior to this one, I have a high tolerance for the Kaufmanesque, and so I am certainly more receptive to what some people would label “self indulgence.”

There are people who think this is a great movie and there are people who think it’s a terrible film. As is usually the case with something so divisive, the truth is somewhere in between.

There’s a lot to like here (at least I think so). Hoffman has rarely been better and it’s sad that, given his reputation, more people haven’t seen this performance.

And the film is full of ambition and ideas. To say it is thought-provoking would be an understatement. Yes, they’re the usual concerns of Kaufman’s film, about the nature of narrative vs. reality, about neurosis, depression, about the relationships between creative people, and the like. But nowhere else has he created such an ambitious attempt to say something about the nature of life itself. It’s a noble attempt.

But, as others have noted, Kaufman is not the filmmaker that Spike Jonze is or Michel Gondry is. Kaufman is far more willing to violate standard film narrative practices than those two filmmakers, both of whom have a reputation for violating film conventions. There are few concessions to traditional narrative structure. Sometimes it works – I really do prefer this approach to “crazy” than the camera tricks we so often see – but it can be frustrating due to how disorienting it sometimes is.

And I’m just not sure how coherent the whole is. In order to really assess whether or not it’s coherent, I think I’d have to watch it again, maybe more than once. And I’m not sure how willing I am to do that.

With just the one impression, I felt like there wasn’t enough tying of loose ends. I think Kaufman is likely making some kind of narrative point with how “loose” all of this feels – everything Kaufman does is to some kind of point – but I’m not sure that’s fully conveyed with what’s on screen. (Again, this is movie that has enough going on in it that I’d really want to watch it a second time to be more definitive.)

To me, the idea that this film is a disaster or so much of a mess that it isn’t worth watching is preposterous. I understand that I’m a fan of the guy’s work, but I have a hard time imagining getting nothing from this. That being said, I also think Kaufman’s more famous work is superior, and I also think Anomalisa is. These films challenge narrative conceptions while entertaining and feeling like coherent stories. I laughed during this movie, and I was provoked, but I don’t know if this is as coherent as my favourite Kaufman films.


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