Smile Politely

Charlie Kaufman misspells Schenectady in directorial debut

Charlie Kaufman’s relatively overlooked directorial debut Synecdoche, New York is out on DVD today. In case you haven’t been paying attention to the Best Original Screenplay category at the Oscars in the last ten years, Kaufman is the screenwriter of entertaining, thoughtful, farcical, wacky and moreover brilliant fare such as Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), as well as films I haven’t seen such as Human Nature (2001) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). Through these works, Kaufman has been waging a valiant fight against the supremacy of the (often misapplied) auteur theory in Hollywood, but with Synecdoche, NY, he offers the prime example of an auteurist work, taking over the reigns from directors (e.g., Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry) who have relied heavily on Kaufman for their reputations as feature filmmakers.

(Jonze and Kaufman, of course, parody the relative obscurity of the screenwriter and the hegemony of The Director in a classic scene from Adaptation which has Nicholas Cage (as Kaufman) is marginalized and ostracized by the director on the set of Being John Malkovich — the director of that film also being Jonze.)

Synecdoche got snubbed at the Oscars, which was not surprising in light of its surrealist tendencies and lack of a cohesive linear plot. But what’s more surprising is the number of moments Kaufman’s strange film has that fit the mode of Oscar-winning drama. It has dramatic death bed scenes, numerous bittersweet love stories, a man who ages (forward, though), a father forced to give up his daughter, a charming child actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, etc. From the summary of its plot, one might correctly describe it as “Benjamin Button, foreward, with substance.” But the dramatic scenes are all strangely misplaced, out of time and context; sometimes they are even offscreen. At the funeral of Hoffman’s character’s father, an old woman recounts that he gave the “longest, most beautiful speech” from his deathbed; no one who heard it will ever forget. Perhaps this scene’s absence has something to do with the Academy’s snub.

In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is stuck on writing an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, attempting to find an approach while also having to contend with his twin brother, who exists only in his mind and who is concerned only with writing inane action screenplays. It is a grossly self-indulgent, narcissistic film, but Kaufman works this narcissism into the plot: how could he not? The film is, after all, based on his own narcissism. It is a hilarious look at art and artists, and it is this inherent (and wickedly clever) narcissism which makes Adaptation the closest thing to Synecdoche Kaufman has written so far: in Synecdoche, Caden (Hoffman) creates the world’s most elaborate simulacrum, recreating his entire life (and everyone else’s) inside an infinite warehouse as part of an elaborate play. But questions of identity, sexuality, time, and memory, all of which are as unstable as they are inescapable to Kaufman, evidence a continuity with Eternal Sunshine and John Malkovich.

This is not to say that Synecdoche is a mere amalgam of Kaufman’s previous scripts. The driving point of the film, thematically and narratively, is the way it questions the adequacy of art and language to represent a (or any) human life. Communication between the characters is often misheard, incomplete, or full of double meaning. Caden’s quest to create the perfect representation of life, to recapture his own life and memories, only ends in him making endless additions and replications of the real world on a full scale, like the proverbial king who had his cartographer make a perfectly detailed map with a scale of 1:1. It is a relentlessly self-conscious film, creating layers and layers of self-reflexive cinematic space that can confuse as much as disillusion the viewer with the venture of watching the film. This is perhaps the film’s greatest “flaw,” though it is only such in that it requires a viewer who is more interested in theme, wordplay, and brainy, absurdist gags than plot and realism.

It’s not Kaufman’s best film; as a director, he proves that there is something to be said for the imaginations of Jonze and Gondry, after all. By no means is he a poor director, but he doesn’t have the formal hyperactive abandon of Jonze or the wild visual imagination of Gondry. But it is certainly deserved more recognition than it received from the suits (its theatrical run was tiny) and the Academy this year.

New Releases From the Box

Synecdoche, NY
See above.

The Boy in Striped Pajamas
Our author hasn’t seen this, and he doesn’t think he will, based on this scathing review from the New York Times. Wooden dramas that exploit the greatest horror in history for popular notoriety and fleeting prestige do not appeal to him, especially if they essentially side with the villains.

Worth checking out. Sean Penn won an Oscar from those gay hippie commies in Hollywood for this one, after all. It may also be worth seeing the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

Howard the Duck
Wait? George Lucas is finally releasing his most (?) embarrassing production on DVD? I’m excited!

This is the part where I admit that I’ve never seen a Mike Leigh film and that the trailer for this film didn’t appeal to me, but that the buzz around this one is pretty good.

Rachel Getting Married
Wow, the Oscar films are getting released all over the place. Try not to confuse this film with that other Anne Hathaway film about marriages that looked terrible.

Transporter 3
I break with most of my age group when I say that (1) I didn’t even like the first Transporter and (2) I don’t like Luc Besson films generally (e.g. The Professional and The Fifth Element. That’s right)

Role Models
Paul Rudd is funny — maybe the funniest bit part in the surprising Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Stifler has not gotten any better since the American Pie days. I had to turn off The Promotion, a widely liked film, because he is apparently incapable of any form of comedy which does not involve getting peed on.

Next Week on From the Box
Twilight comes out, but I’ll probably be busy watching The Punisher: War Zone. Also, did you know that Battlestar Galactica only has two episode left? Like, ever? More next week on From the Box.

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