Synecdoche, New York – A Non-Review

February 21, 2009

I can’t review this film. I really, really can’t. It’s been eight hours since I saw it at the Glasgow Film Festival screening, and I can’t get my head around it. The normal process for me is to avoid reading, as much as is possible in today’s age anyway, about the film. I thought about the film, I considered what I might write over and over, and I couldn’t stop myself. This is a film that makes me want to plunge into the internet and greedily devour what people have written about it, which, as you might expect, is a huge spectrum of opinion. Self-indulgent nonsense that is boring with annoying characters. Amazing, a real triumph, this film causes people to drink themselves into oblivion just to cope with the personal chords it struck. From diatribes about poor, oblique construction to deeply intelligent ruminations on Jung and Buddhism. Whatever anyone says about this film, you can’t say that it isn’t absolutely fascinating.

It seems fortuitous now that I read Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard’s Conversation about Mulholland Drive over at the House Next Door a few days ago. There were some excellent points made about David Lynch that echo my own thoughts on the director. I love some of his work, loathe others, and I’ve always had a snobbish, judgmental notion that you could work out what kind of film fan somebody was by their opinions on Lynch. I was/am wrong, of course. Lynch is really amazing in a lot of ways, but the conversation itself accepted that not everything means something, and his films are so dependent on subjective interpretation that you have to decide, as a viewer and a critic, what you take away from the experience. I’m admittedly quite formalist in my approach; I like everything done correctly, in the sense that a dumb action movie is fine by me if it is made well enough to be satisfying in what it wants to do. Personally, I think Donnie Darko is a load of shit, and I was happy that the gloriously awful Southland Tales backed up my unpopular opinion. Synecdoche, New York feels like it might be in the same vein, but it is in fact more knowable, and by extension, less knowable.

On a very basic level, my initial impressions are that there are failings. This can be a pretty surreal film, to be sure, but the surreal bits come from Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The few times we see anything outside of his perspective (assuming they are outside of his perspective), things tend to me normal. Save for the burning house. You’ll know what I mean if you see it, but it is completely separate from any reality the film suggests, and it is jarring. The character of Cotard himself is mopey and annoying in a lot of ways, and in fact there is very little to like about many of the characters. I could chalk these off as problems, except they really aren’t. They are deliberate, I think, or at least necessary for the film’s purpose.

More than Lynch or anything else, what this film really reminds me of is David Milch’s short-lived series John from Cincinnati. They aren’t similar in topic or even execution, but they’re both attempting something extraordinary. I can see arguments that both are self-indulgent tripe, and I probably agree with the opinion that both fail on a very basic narrative level. John from Cincinnati certainly does.

But it succeeds on so many other levels, and what it was attempting made it quite possibly the most ambitious television show ever to get on air. The series was, on a very basic level, about three generations of a dysfunctional surfer family being visited by a supernatural simpleton and having their lives turned around. It was, in actuality, a show about how God might speak to the human race and allowing them to find real spirituality. If it had been allowed to continue, it would really have been about how God would prevent genocide through mercantilism. My first time watching it, week after week as it aired, was a mixed experience. I was fascinated by some of it, left cold by the rest. I watched it again and I began to understand it more, and when I watched it a third time with a super-fan and a Deleuzian scholar, I was mesmerized. It still failed on some narrative levels, but what it achieved was amazing, and the ideas behind it were bewilderingly wonderful.

I say all that because Synecdoche, New York can’t be understood after one viewing. I might see it again and still not understand it. I might see it again and hate it. It might require an understanding of Jungian theory and Buddhism and whatever else that I probably won’t have. I can’t tell you right now if this film is a work of utter genius or complete claptrap, but I can tell you that I loved watching every minute of it, and I’m happy to see it again. It won’t be properly released in the UK until May, and I’m not sure if I’ll even be able to review it properly then. I can tell you it is an absolutely fascinating exploration of what it means to be human. And I’ll be goddamned if I don’t appreciate that ambition.

-M

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