Impossibly dense but nonetheless brilliant, Synecdoche, New York, is the best translation of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay to the screen yet. Kaufman, who wrote Spike Jonze´s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and Michel Gondry´s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed it himself. Synecdoche is about no less than life, and living, and death, and dying, and the things we substitute for these, and the things they themselves substitute. It´s Kaufman´s 8½.
A synecdoche is a figure of speech that means, as Kaufman put it in a radio interview, referring to the whole by one of its parts, such as calling your car your “wheels.” It also means, as Merriam-Webster fills me in, “…the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage).”
The film takes place (supposedly) in Schenectady, New York, an actual town not far from where I grew up, pronounced kinda like the title. There´s a lot of wordplay in the movie, like when Caden Cadot (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tries to explain the difference between psychosis and sycosis to his daughter: “well, there´s two kinds of psychosis, they´re spelled differently, p-s-y is like when you´re crazy, like your mother, and s-y is like these ugly things on my face.” “But you could have both, though,” his daughter responds.
A plot rundown is pointless here, but I´ll try: theater director Caden Cadot is unhappy, fearing death, putting on a version of Death of a Salesman using young actors in the leading roles. He´s married to an artist Adele (Catherine Keener), who paints microscopic works that gallery patrons view while walking around wearing special magnifying glasses. They have a daughter, Olive; Adele takes her to an opening in Berlin, along with her ‘friend´ Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and never returns.
Caden attempts to flirt with box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton), who buys a house that happens to be on fire (“the owners are very motivated”). The realtor´s son, Derek, lives in the basement. Caden´s leading lady, Claire (Michelle Williams) flirts with him, though he doesn´t seem to be too interested. Caden´s psychiatrist (Hope Davis) sells him her self-help book.
Eventually, Caden is given a genius grant, with (seemingly) limitless funds, to create a masterwork of art. He constructs the ultimate play – just like Kaufman has constructed this movie – a version, and vision, of his life, set in an impossibly large warehouse that reconstructs the entire city, with actors playing himself (Tom Noonan) and Hazel (Emily Watson) and even random people he passes on the street, and eventually, of course, actors playing these actors and so on. Each day the play grows larger, as life happens around him and he reconstructs it inside the warehouse walls.
“When are we gonna get an audience in here?” his cast asks him. “It´s been seventeen years.”
The play is a synecdoche for life, as is life a synecdoche for the play, as is Synecdoche, New York, a synecdoche for life and the play it contains and so on and so forth until it comes back to you. It´s a vividly surreal masterwork on the level of Buñuel or Lynch that actually manages to elicit an emotional response along with the usual intellectual one. It´s something attempted in most of Kaufman´s screenplays, and most often cited by detractors. “The film is too smart for its own good,” “how can we care about these characters,” “they´re just pawns in an intellectual thesis.”
In Synecdoche we care about the characters, because we realize they are us, and you.
(Note: the following gives away a plot point central to this film, revealed about halfway through. Don´t read any further if you want to go in fresh.)
Stephen Daldry´s The Reader, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, raises a lot of interesting moral questions, but it doesn´t quite know how to appropriately answer them. The first (and best) act of the film is an intensely erotic portrait of an affair between a 16-year-old boy and a (considerably) older woman. The second act takes place at a war crimes trial, and asks us what level of complicity in Nazi crimes is OK. The third act returns to the two characters, now much older, and the relationship. The film is mildly compelling and sumptuous to look at, but I found it unconvincing and potentially dangerous.
Germany, 1958: Michael Berg (David Kross) gets sick on the street (scarlet fever) and a kind woman cleans him up and helps him home. He returns to thank the woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), catches a glimpse of her undressing, and thus begins a purely sexual affair that lasts for the summer. Hanna, however, seems to be more interested in having Michael read to her (she´s illiterate – if the reading didn´t illustrate that enough, a scene in which she stares, perplexed, at a café menu should.) Soon, the affair breaks down, Michael´s sexual curiosity satisfied, and (if one hasn´t read much about the film in advance) we wonder where this is going…
In 1966, Michael is at law school, studying under Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz, who´s excellent here). Rohl brings his class to a war crimes trial, and Michael is shocked to find Hanna Schmitz sitting there in the defendant´s chair. Through some emotional testimony, we hear of Hanna´s past life as a concentration camp guard who, along with other defendants, selected prisoners to be executed. Incredibly, and unbelievably, Hanna is so embarrassed by her illiteracy that she takes full blame for leadership of the guards; the fact that she cannot write would have cleared her of some of it.
Years later, Michael (now played by a miscast Ralph Fiennes) sends Hanna some homemade books-on-tape, and she teaches herself to read while in prison. Having no one else to turn to, the warden contacts Michael in the hopes that he will help Hanna when she is released. There´s a powerful scene at the end, when Michael meets the daughter of a concentration camp victim (Lena Olin) who refuses to absolve Hanna of her sins.
Minor complaint: there´s an insulting montage halfway through as David ‘learns´ that Hanna is illiterate that plays out like the end of The Usual Suspects, when the detective (and the audience) realizes who Keyser Soze really is. Of course, every audience member has known since the beginning of the film that Hanna cannot read, and David should have known – and even if he didn´t, there´s no logic to him finding out when he does.
Major complaint: the film asks us to feel sympathy for Hanna Schmitz, with countless close-ups of Kate Winslet´s sad, regretful eyes staring contemplatively into the distance. It´s the ultimate testament to Winslet (who won an Oscar for her role) that some audiences may feel sympathy for this character, who, more than twenty years later, rationalizes that keeping a group of Jews locked in a burning church, rather than letting them out to potentially escape, was the right thing to do. Nazis were people too, of course, but I find this line of thinking dangerous – at the very least, there are other characters more deserving of our sympathy.
Marcus Nispel´s Friday the 13th is yet another pointless remake of a ‘classic´ slasher film, in the footsteps of Halloween, Black Christmas, Prom Night, etc., etc., all the way down to My Bloody Valentine, coming later this year, in 3-D no less. Excepting Halloween and few others, most of the original films weren´t any good in the first place. But they sure made money.
This Friday isn´t really a remake of the original – it recaps the first film´s events in the opening minutes, as Mrs. Voorhees kills some camp counselors she holds responsible for her son Jason´s drowning death, before being beheaded by one of her intended victims. Next, the film recaps Friday the 13th, part II, as an adult Jason, wearing a bag over his head, slays a group of campers. Then we get a title card, half an hour into the movie – thanks, I was wondering what this was.
Finally, we recap Friday the 13th, Part 3, as Jason dons his famous hockey mask and slays some more campers. There´s a fragmented plot about a brother searching for his sister, who went missing – she was actually kidnapped by Jason and is now being held in his underground lair. Otherwise, the dramatic height is delivered by a concerned young man worried about his friends messing up his parent´s cottage – no less than five separate scenes are devoted to this thrilling plot point. A potentially bravura woodchipper finale is completely screwed up. End of movie.
One of the very few interesting things about the movie is how it occasionally shifts the point of view from the impossibly bland teenage cast to Jason, who we really want to see. It half-works, watching him walking around his lair, looking at his reflection in a mirror, seeing the traps he´s built. I wish the whole film just followed the killer around. Probably too arty.
There´s a large cast here, and almost everyone who appears on the screen is eventually killed in various ways, few of which can be described as inventive. The film delivers, I think, what fans want, or at least expect. Those walking into a Friday the 13th movie know what to expect by now, and they shouldn´t be disappointed by this one.
Nispel´s Friday the 13th probably isn´t any better than his 2003 take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Rob Zombie´s Halloween remake, but it feels far less insulting, if only because the original Friday – and the ten sequels that followed – weren´t all that good in the first place.
The “was it a dream?” shock ending was one of the more surprising and memorable aspects of the original film; here, not only can we see it coming a mile away, but Nispel literalizes it to the point of complete senselessness.
Get ready for A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).