19 November 2008

At the movies: Synecdoche, NY (The Long Take)

Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) makes his directorial debut with the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director in the midst of personal crisis. After a head trauma starts short-circuiting his nervous system and his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him, he finds himself confronting both his own mortality and his lack of purpose. So when he is awarded a MacArthur Grant, he aims to create a mammoth work of ‘true’ art, turning a cavernous warehouse space into a miniature version of New York City, where hundreds of personal dramas can unfold in real time and space.

After a mixed-to-disastrous premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kaufman did some pruning and rearranging with the film, debuting this final version to an even more divided response. Kaufman’s material has always made room for playfulness and diving down tangential rabbit-holes, but with this film it feels like an exorcism. Starting out as a horror script written for Spike Jonze to direct, what emerges is an unblinking and emotionally moving stare into the life of an artist crippled by doubt. Something broken cannot be fixed to be like it was- it is something different, something made new out of that brokenness. And as Caden’s play begins to attain a life of its own, who can say which is truly life? And more importantly, who’s living it?

Synecdoche, NY, is an exhausting and transcendent experience. It’s certainly as demanding as moviegoing gets these days, but it comes with an emotional payoff on the level of, say, the Lord of the Rings films or 2001. There’s something about how the process of the film mimics the path of human life that had to be part of Kaufman’s ongoing attempts to get this story told visually, and yet it always feels like it’s an ongoing happy accident. Both in grandeur and emotional power, this is 2008’s There Will Be Blood.

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