In his directorial debut, Charlie Kaufman created something rather spectacular. A strange, sad, surreal and intense look at the two ugly truths of life: It never goes to plan and death is always around the corner. It shows us that the creative temperament is always a burden and that every venture we undertake is ill-fated. We are destined to fail.
It’s hard to tell if the film is a masterpiece, deserving of the highest praise, or if it’s self-indulgent, derived from Kaufman’s own self-loathing. Either way, it is a work of grandeur. Kaufman’s distinct voice is still fresh and is as witty as ever. But with Synecdoche, New York it’s clear that he has a new found confidence, reflecting the style of his biggest influence, David Lynch. So those of you who liked Kaufman’s previous works (Being John Malkovich, or his Oscar-winning, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) will love this.
Charles Stewart “Charlie” Kaufman was born on 19 November 1958 in New York. From a young age he wrote plays and made short films. He moved from Massapequa to West Harfort, Connecticut in 1972. In high school he performed in school plays as a comedic actor, and went on to study drama in Boston University but decided to move to New York and study film production. He worked in Minneapolis at the Star-Tribune in the late 1980’s. Charlie moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to work on TV sitcom, Get a Life. Between working for sitcoms he wrote the screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Which he sent to Francis Ford Capolla, who forwarded it to his daughter’s husband, Spike Jones. Who directed the feature. Jonze cited Kaufman as an insparation for his his latest film, Her.
The plot follows the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Caden Cotard, through his unsatisfying marriage with Adele, Played by Catherine Keener, who leaves for Berlin taking his Daughter, Olive, with her. When she leaves him he receives the McArthur Fellowship. With an endless budget, he attempts to create an elaborate play that is honest and true. He compiles a cast of hundreds to play out fictional lives in a life-sized copy of New York, built within a warehouse in Manhattan’s Theater District. His extreme commitment to truth and realism forces him to work outside the boundaries of reality. As the city grows bigger he must build a life-sized copy of the warehouse inside the warehouse. Inside this warehouse is another life-sized copy of New York City.
As his production expands and expands he realizes his estranged wife has found great success in Germany, because of her miniature paintings. When Caden goes to Berlin to visit Olive, he discovers that she is being raised by Adele’s friend and is not permitted to see her. He is traumatized and his life spirals out of control, as he pours more and more of himself into his magnum opus.
The intricate workings of Kaufman’s mind come into play as the story seamlessly leaps in time. In the beginning, Caden is in his forties, his daughter is four. Now, he’s fifty and she’s twelve and within the blink of an eye Caden is in his sixties, sitting at Olive’s bedside. She’s thirty. She’s tattooed. On her deathbed, she’s wrongly accusing Caden of neglect. The passage of time becomes so blurred that Caden himself loses track of the years as they pass him by.
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Caden Cotard is arguably the best of his career. “When he’s crying in a scene,” said Kaufman, “which he does a lot in this movie, it’s like he’s going through it, and of course the camera records that. It hurts. And that’s what I needed for this character, and I got it.” When watching him you can’t help but feel as if, like Kaufman, he’s burying himself in Caden. You can’t help but notice how alike Hoffman and Cotard were. Both were relentless artists. Both were flawed. The heartbreaking truth of Synechdoche, New York, and the philosophy of Caden Cotard were fulfilled by the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Film and theater actor and director Philip Seymour Hoffman was born on 23 July 1967, in Fairport, New York. He became involved in high school drama and then attended New York University’s Tisch school of the arts. He made his on screen debut in Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole (1991) and the following year he was in his first major release My New Gun. He broke through with his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1996). He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as Truman Capote in Capote (2005). On 2 February 2014 was found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment. He died of an accidental drug overdose.
Working alongside Hoffman are Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Diane Weist and Tom Noonan. All of whom were outstanding. But the performance which really stood out to me, besides Hofmann’s, which didn’t get a lot of recognition was Robin Weigert’s performance as Caden’s daughter, Olive, as an adult. Best known for her performance as Calamity Jane in the HBO hit TV series, Deadwood. Although her part in Synecdoche, New York was small her dedication to the part is admirable. All of her lines were in German and were executed perfectly. She had to undergo twenty hours of tattoo artistry for her part, due to her character’s body being covered by large floral tattoos. But these efforts paid off in her final scene, where, over a translator-headset, she wrongly accuses her father of abondoning her. We feel as if she’s letting go of years of pain and suffering. An absolutely tremendous performance.
The film premiered at the 61st Cannes Film Festival in May 2008, and was released in selected theaters across the US in October of the same year. It was generally well recieved. Some critics compared it to the work of Fredrico Fellini. Renowned film critic, Roger Elbert of the Chicago Sun-Times stated that it was the best film of the new millenium. He said, “After beginning my first viewing in confusion, I began to glimpse its purpose and by the end was eager to see it again, then once again, and I am not finished.”
Most of the negative critics stated only that it was “depressing” or “self-indulgent”. Sonny Bunch of the Washington Times stated that the film was “Inaccessible and endlessly frustrating, Synecdoche is replete with art-house pomposity and the type of muddled profundity one sees in an introductory philosophy seminar.” which proves that this film isn’t for everybody. If you don’t enjoy thinking, if you hate the idea of reality and death, if the thought of trying to create something beautiful scares you, you will not enjoy this film.
Like myself, you are all, most likely, wondering what is next for Charlie Kaufman. He is currently working on a stop motion short, Anomolisa. He’s writing a novel, and is waiting for funding for his next feature, Frank or Francis, which will be a musical satire starring Jack Black and Steve Carrell. There a rumours of Charlie writing and directing the Chaos Walking trilogy. There are also rumours of him teaming up with Spike Jonze again, who directed two of his previous films, to make a political satire. Whatever the plot of his next film, there is no doubt it will be highly anticipated, thought provoking, and an endlessly facinating look into the complex mind of Charlie Kaufman.
Saw this at the IFI today in 3D.
I’m glad i saved it for the big screen.
What a film.
Once again blown away by the Master of Suspense.
New original song.
4 of my favorite bands all in one weekend.
I can’t wait.
Can’t wait to get on stage.
Never played with a sax player before so should be something different. ;)