How to describe the films of Charlie Kaufman . . . Ingmar Bergman with laughs? Close, but that makes Kaufman sound too much like Woody Allen, a useful comparison maybe, but one that deemphasizes an essential aspect of Kaufman, his fascination with time and memory. And Kaufman is far more tied to Surrealism/Theater of the Absurd than Woody ever was. I’d prefer to say Kaufman is Woody Allen filtered through Alain Resnais.
Resnais, the French director of such seminal mindfucks as Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, and Providence, is Kaufman’s spiritual godfather, a creator of metaphysical puzzles, self-contained worlds in which the protagonists’ experiences – or memories of those experiences – bounce off one another in associational rather than chronological order, like echoes of light in a corridor of mirrors. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michel Gondry from a Kaufman screenplay) was a virtual remake of Resnais’s 1968 classic Je t’aime, Je t’aime. Synecdoche, New York, directed by Kaufman from his own screenplay, recalls Resnais’s Providence in that its title stands for both a place (Schenectady, New York; Providence, Rhode Island) and a concept (synecdoche = a part that stands for the whole; providence = fate).*
Alas for the film’s commercial prospects, most potential ticket buyers won’t know what a synecdoche is, much less how to pronounce it, or that the title is a pun on Schenectady, the town. If Kaufman and his distributors really wanted to market this title, they would print its pronunciation on the poster (“si-nek-duh-kee”) like the makers of Ratatouille (“rat-a-too-ee”) did.
The story is not exactly commercial either. It’s about an avant-garde theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman, right, with Catherine Keener) who, after receiving a MacArthur “genius” grant, attempts to mount a performance piece about EVERYTHING – his own life and, by extension, the lives of everyone else he’s connected to. And all the places where they live and work. The vast warehouse where he endlessly rehearses the piece, week after week, year after year, eventually contains the replica of an entire city – or so it seems. He hires actors to play himself and his assistant. They, in turn, hire actors to play their characters in a play-within-the-play. And so on.
All the world’s a stage, and the show lasts a lifetime (decades in terms of the characters’ real time). Ultimately [SPOILER? not really], when Hoffman’s character grows too old to play the demanding role of director/god, he abandons the role to another actor and becomes a creature living inside his own creation. And that only begins to describe this movie.
All of which makes Synecdoche, New York sound like an unusually cerebral film – which I suppose it is – but I also found it to be an extremely moving one. I laughed, I cried, and during a number of sequences I was on the edge of my seat. It’s a film that confronts disease and dying (the Bergman connection), uncomfortable subjects for most of us, but there are also moments of great joy (that one “perfect day”). Although the movie is not a flashback per se, events are collapsed together as if in memory. Thus, the house of Hazel (Samantha Morton, below) is always on fire – from the day she moves into it until the day she dies – as though Hoffman’s character cannot recall Hazel without seeing the fire he associates with her.
And then there are the women. There are a number of extraordinary actresses in this film – Ms. Morton, Ms. Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, and Dianne Wiest – and Kaufman has written great parts for all of them. Like Fellini’s 8½, Synecdoche, New York is a film about a man’s creative process, the women who inspire or impede that process, and about how relating to others – lovers, friends, family – might be more important than any of these vanities we call art. It is simply the best new film I have seen so far this year.
* Remarkably, neither Last Year at Marienbad, Je t’aime, Je t’aime or Providence are currently available on U.S. DVD.