Monday, October 20, 2008

CIFF '08: Synecdoche, New York

As a writer, Charlie Kaufman has always been interested in exploring large concepts in his work, from identity in Being John Malkovich, to memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and directors Spike Jonze (Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine, Human Nature) have helped thread those ideas into what essentially end up being love stories. Directing his own screenplay for the first time in Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman has rid himself of the love story, and has this time thread his characters and plot around his ideas. In this case those ideas include theater, death, illness, death, gender, marriage, art, death, and the color of stool. Picking up a visual aesthetic that combines Jonze's and Gondry's, and a score from Eternal Sunshine's Jon Brion, Kaufman tells the story of a theater director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, after receiving a genius grant from the MacCarther Foundation, attempts to stage an "honest," massive theater piece that "truly reflects who he is." Or maybe not. In a Q&A after the film, Kaufman said he attempted to write with dream logic, and though the film doesn't offer the pat conclusion that it was all a dream, it helps to explain the tone of the film and things that comprise Kaufman's mise en scene. One indicative example is Hoffman's assistant, played by Samantha Morton, who moves into a house that is constantly on fire, which her real estate agent explains drastically reduces the price. Other such oddities fill the film, but don't seem to be there just to be eccentric, but rather, as Kaufman said, exist to externally reflect the characters' state of mind. An abundance of characters play into the story, with a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Dianne Wiest. As with his previous films identity plays a large part, with characters playing one another in Hoffman's theater piece, and the line between real life and art are blurred, but the film never feels confusing. Nonetheless Synecdoche is a film that's almost impossible to explain after seeing it once, and unlike Malkovich, Adaptation, or Eternal Sunshine we're not offered any kind of traditional narrative conclusion, no strings are tied together, but it's as powerful a film I've seen in some time. A mad fever dream of a movie.

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