Synecdoche, New York

It’s hard to recommend Synecdoche, New York, the newest film from Charlie Kaufman. Although I deeply admire Kaufman’s work, and, it should be said, I deeply admire this work, it’s not a kind of movie that leaves you with the sense of wanting to rush to the putative water cooler and go, Wow, you have to see this, as with, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Being John Malkovich. Rather, it’s the kind of movie that you, on one hand, (or least I) cannot help feeling as though you just endured Charlie Kaufman’s two-hour nightmare. For its nonlinearity, for its elisions, for its chronological shifts, for its tenuous but nonetheless sensible (sort of) logic, it has all the trappings of a dream/nightmare.

On the other hand, however, there are pieces of this movie that hang in your head the same way that pieces of a remembered dream hang your head: a petal falling off the tattoo of a dying woman onto a white sheet. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a white hallway, no longer playing his own character, but a character invented more or less without his volition by other characters in the “everything” play that he is trying to “write” — and his own character, Caden Cotard, itself being substantially an invention of an invention — confronted by another character, an elderly woman, also an invention of the invented man.

There is the layered quality to this movie of an onion, and maybe even the Hoffman character brings up the onion analogy, but it feels as though you could keep peeling back the layers of this movie right down into the root cellar.

Charlie Kaufman’s trademark sense of humor only appears occasionally in this movie, and then in much more subdued form then I’ve seen it. And the Hoffman character is about as much fun as spending a few hours stuck in a doctor’s waiting room with a depressive stranger who won’t stop telling you how awful life is.

The strange thing about this movie is that as depressing as it is, I want to see it again. I won’t subject anyone else to it, necessarily, but I was reading somewhere else — this is what I love about the “medium” role in what Espen Clarseth calls, in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Johns Hopkins Press, 1997), “the textual machine”– a quote from Proust in which he said (totally paraphrasing here) that any great work of literature must first appear to us ugly, and only the middling ones appear beautiful, because they only affirm what we already know.

(What I love about that medium role is the coincidences, the things the medium brings to the text, some of them as ephemeral and chronologically strange as life itself.)

This textual machine–and Kaufman is as much writer as filmmaker–is apparently ugly. Which is to say thatSynecdoche, New York really does appear ugly. And that apparent ugliness is something that happens at the moment to be haunting some little area of my subconscious. I keep thinking that I don’t know how to watch this film. Which is why I want to see it again. I want to be able to see it on its terms, and likely the only way to do that is to see it again.

Footnote to this: Before seeing Synecdoche, New York, I watched Being John Malkovich again on video. What struck me was how much John Cusack, with his long hair and glasses and beard, looked like David Foster Wallace. That was weird.

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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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