Sunday, September 27, 2009

Very belated film review: "Synecdoche New York"

I went to see this film by that Charlie Kaufman guy who wrote Being John Malkovich and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In this one, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theatre director obsessed with his own mortality, whose artist wife is in the process of leaving him. Then he wins some award that means that he basically has unlimited time and funds to realise any theatrical project he wants to have a crack at. So he takes over this huge warehouse and builds a replica of New York inside it, and then he starts getting increasingly large numbers of people to play everyone he knows in scenes where they workshop their way to what he is sure will eventually be the greatest play ever made. Time passes, or it seems to. Soon the director has someone playing him, and even someone playing the guy who plays him. His replica of New York has a warehouse in it in which there is a smaller replica of New York, complete with its own warehouse, and so on. It is all very odd.

The film maybe goes on a bit, but it is very striking and has many fascinating moments. The bit where the guy playing the guy who is playing the director is introduced is comic genius, and I also liked the bit where the director is walking through the real New York, past lines of dejected people being herded onto buses for "Funland" by thuggish clowns. The lady character's permanently on fire house is maybe a bit more like Kaufman by numbers, but I love the crazy psychiatrist lady and the film's closing nod to Julian Jaynes' The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I also got really confused by how the film had Samantha Morton playing a character and then Emily Watson playing someone playing the character that Samantha Morton was playing (or vice versa); what made this all the more confusing was that Morton and Watson always seem a bit interchangeable.

People can discuss what the film is about, but to me it is pretty clear – the Hoffman character dies (or kills himself) early on, and everything afterwards (from around when he wins the huge award) is either a dying hallucination or else a somewhat depressing afterlife experience. Overall, the film is not as impressive as the other Kaufman films mentioned above, but it is a very striking piece of work, and I recommend it to those of you who enjoy the cinematic arts.

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