Mark Bourne March 10, 2009
Roger Ebert in his film review, and our own Cole in his, both hit a crucial nail on the head. Synecdoche, New York is a movie that you should experience more than once. (Originally I’d written “watch,” but that doesn’t quite cover it.) Charlie Kaufman‘s directorial debut is ambitious, challenging, frustrating, mesmerizing, dense, brutal, demanding, heart-stoppingly sad, mordantly humorous, clever, revelatory, and confident to an Olympian degree — a 1000-piece puzzle with masterful subtleties and details that it reveals only on subsequent viewings. Every time it’s a different experience, a different movie. And, seriously, after three times I’m still rethinking it, and I can’t honestly say I’m the same viewer I was the first time through.
Now I’m going to go Roger and Cole one better. Here’s a three-step guide to how to watch Synecdoche, New York now that it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray:
1. Watch the movie.
Don’t expect to absorb it all the first time. You won’t. You just won’t. That’s just one of the reasons I’m convinced that it’s some kind of masterpiece. It’s Kaufman mind-melding with Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka while Salvador Dali is pouring the drinks and M.C. Escher is doodling on the napkins. It’s the 2001: A Space Odyssey of existential funk, and David Lynch without the bubbly joie de vivre.
2. Watch all the extras on the disc.
There aren’t many and they’ll take only a little of your time. But they are illuminating and you’ll be glad you did.
3. Watch the movie again.
It won’t be the same experience as the first time. Don’t let the fact that you may be totally wrung-out like a dish rag stop you. Repeat as desired or until there’s nothing left to wring out of you.
A confession: I’ve written and re-written this article several times, but Synecdoche, New York defeats me when it comes to finalizing words in print. I can talk about it for hours — my wife and I sure have — but the film is so complex, so vast, so emotionally and personally loaded that it defies locked-down words. Any quick summing-up of the movie’s narrative (structured like Russian nesting dolls inside Pandora’s box), or its techniques (impressionistic editing, scrambled chronology, hundreds of CGI effects, a mammoth scale), or its symbolism and dream-logic metaphors (such as Samantha Morton‘s house that’s perpetually on fire) just flies into Kaufman’s whirring propeller blades.
I have my notions, my theories, my observations about what’s contained within — and reaches out of — Synecdoche, New York, and some of them used to be right here. I’ve deleted them. They kept shifting and morphing as I wrote them, refusing to crystallize. Kaufman’s film asks a lot from you. It is uncomfortable, it’s despairing, its visceral. Yet one of its extraordinary qualities is that it doesn’t tell you what you should feel or experience scene by scene. It’s not out to pull strings or remote-control your emotions for you. It’s such a subjective and solipsistic experience that my necessarily introspective and self-revealing take on it would — and should — have no bearing whatsoever on yours. And you will feel something, even if it’s hostility toward how Kaufman has subverted our conditioned movie-watching experience.
So Synecdoche, New York is hard to write about because what you take away from it bypasses language and goes straight to what you know, or come to feel, at your core, whoever you are as an individual. Until about eight minutes ago as I type this, you’d have been scrolling down this page watching me try to unpack the film until I was just going bibble-bibble-bibble by the end of it.
It’s some kind of brilliant. Just what kind of brilliant exactly, I’m not sure yet. One thing I know for certain is that I’m not altogether sympathetic with Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s central character, Caden Cotard, or to every existential rumination Kaufman weaves throughout the movie. Not only is Kaufman’s glass half empty, it’s a blood-clouded urine sample accompanied by a bad-news lab report. I hope for his sake that making the film purged some dark night of the joyless soul he needed to work through.
Nonetheless, this is Art with a capital “A,” and the kind that only cinema can provide. This is a movie I recommend wholeheartedly, but not lightly.
And that’s all I’m going to say about that, other than noting that there’s been no recent movie better suited for, or more rewarding on, the little shiny disc. Watching it more than once is the only way to unpack it, and the disc’s extras help us with the unpacking even if they only suggest ways of opening up the film rather than flattening the experience by telling us What It’s All About.
Picture and sound
The 1080p resolution and TrueHD 5.1 audio of Sony’s Blu-ray edition serve the film beautifully with crisp, flawless imagery and sound. That said, I can’t imagine a significant difference between this and the DVD edition, if you choose to pick that up. Naturally you get more digital oomph packed into the newer format, but this film isn’t the sort of hyper-detailed showpiece that demands a tech upgrade for a “pristine” experience. Both disc options will serve you well, as you’d expect especially from a big-studio film that’s less than a year old. If you’d like a look at what you get here, DVD Beaver has posted high-res screenshots from the Blu-ray.
First up on the extras menu is a 19-minute “making of” featurette, In and Around Synecdoche, New York. It’s your standard-issue “how we did it” promo piece, but it was shot on-set during production and is a refreshing breather when getting into the movie as a movie. Giving us their thoughts on the daunting, meticulously detailed production — from Kaufman’s initial concepts to the construction of the world-within-a-world-within-a-world — we have writer-director Kaufman himself; actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Jennifer Jason Leigh; the production designer and special-effects supervisor; the makeup artists; and a producer or two. The unique difficulties of this production become clear when we see the elaborate chart the script supervisor devised to help the crew know where within the nesting-doll warehouse sets particular scenes were situated.
The Story of Caden Cotard: In Conversation with Phillip Seymour Hoffman (12 minutes, in HD) presents an interview with Hoffman on his character and his history with the project. He provides a helpful thumbnail sketch of Cotard’s 40-year-long story as it unfolds through the movie, how Cotard’s life and art mirror one other, and how Kaufman’s movie views that mirror through its own prism.
One of the best extras I’ve seen in a while is Infectious Diseases in Cattle: Bloggers Roundtable (37 minutes, in HD). How strange it is to see some of my favorite film bloggers — in three cases, daily reads — gathered for a casual sit-down chat to discuss this movie. Acting as a sort-of moderator is Glenn Kenny (who writes for indieWIRE, The Auteurs, and his own film blog Some Came Running) starting off the spirited conversation with Andrew Grant (Filmbrain.com), Karina Longworth (Spoutblog), Walter Chaw (Film Freak Central), and Christopher Beaubien (Screenhead.net).
Now this is how you talk about Synecdoche, New York — with insightful, intelligent film-lovers who have seen it multiple times and who bring their own informed perspectives and interpretations to it. And with beer (Beaubien seems to be drinking water, but it may be Smirnoff Ice for all I know). Andrew mentions how the film “devastated” him so much that he spent his hours afterward in a bar, drinking and depressed, “and that’s never happened to me before with a film.” Later, he starts some chat about interpreting the film in Jungian terms, and Walter picks up on that. Walter suggests that the whole movie may be a death fugue (then Glenn makes a point that refutes the notion ), and says that it forced him to “go places I wasn’t prepared to go that day,” with his response to the movie as a parent being especially wrenching. For Karina, her reactions to the film were strong even after her third time through. “There’s still so much to do when you watch it,” she says, “and that’s really exciting to me. But I think that’s one of the things that makes people really hostile — there are so few films in our marketplace right now that actually ask you to do something when you watch them.” Amen to that.
These bloggers tend to be likeminded toward the film. No in-person flamewars or aggrieved name-calling here. There’s a consensus that any critical response to Synecdoche, New York can’t help but be so introspective and personal that objective evaluation is likely to break down, while it’s still a film that can be endlessly mined by rewatching and rethinking it.
I like this format and these participants so much that I hope this unscripted “film bloggers roundtable” becomes a more common DVD/Blu-ray feature, especially with films that are so worth chewing on this way. (Dear studios: My contact information is available via my website, and I have a lot of free time lately.) By the way, Glenn’s blog post about seeing himself and his fellow bloggers as a DVD extra — “handpicked, apparently, by Synecdoche writer/director Charlie Kaufman and producer Anthony Bregman” — is here.
NFTS/Script Factory Masterclass with Charlie Kaufman is a half-hour interview with Kaufman in front of an audience of screenwriting students. Kaufman chronicles his career, starting with his salad days in TV, and his motion picture work as a screenwriter with a conviction that “there aren’t any rules.” Films getting special focus are Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche. Kaufman indicates that Synecdoche‘s world-within-a-world structure may even extend deeper than readily apparent in the film. When discussing the giant warehouse housing the full-scale model of New York, and how that model must therefore have its own warehouse with, in turn, its own full-scale model … “it goes on and on, how far we don’t know, but we do see several versions of it.” At this point my head melted.
Any chance to see Kaufman talking about his work is rare enough, so it’s a welcome addition here. However, the interview is kneecapped by the rather vacuous and banal interviewer. Still, it gives us a sharper perspective on the formative work that led to Synecdoche.
Finally, also here are the three cartoons we see on TV in the film, the theatrical trailer, and a half-dozen previews for other fine outliers such as Frozen River and Rachel Getting Married, films that may not have played at your local mall and are therefore worth seeking out.
And here I’d better stop because I feel the bibble-bibble-bibble coming on again. I’m sure that within a month I’ll feel up to watching the movie once more. I already have the corner picked out where afterward I’ll sit, hug my knees, and rock back and forth for about an hour.
Categories: DVDTags: Blu-ray review, Charlie kaufman, Dvd review, Synecdoche, ny