Charlie Kaufman's latest movie, Synecdoche, New York, is a failure. And it was my favorite movie this year. The notion of failure presupposes effort and attempt, and this film is all about making an attempt in the inevitable face of impossibility. It is doomed to fail because its ambitions are so grand.
The reviews have been mixed--it barely rates "fresh" on the tomatometer. Slate called it "unremittingly bleak, making for one of the most depressing nondocumentary films you're likely to see, well, ever." Anthony Lane in The New Yorker says, "There has long been a strain of sorry lassitude in Kaufman’s work, and here it sickens into the morbid." They just don't get it.
In the film, a director attempts to recreate New York City in a vast warehouse. He tries to capture what might be a Buddhist idea that the present moment is infinite. Arguments, cups of coffee, peeling wallpaper, sadness--all the human drama of the everyday in which nothing and everything happens.
Of course it cannot be done. You cannot hold it all--it deepens and multiplies too quickly. In Charlie Kaufman's world, the self is a multiplicity--a room full of Malkoviches, a twinned Kaufman, the ghosts of remembered selves in a mind not spotless yet eternal. In Synecdoche, the selves keep replicating through actors who play actors who play the originals.
The movie is a (apocryphal?) Cream of Wheat box, a mise en abyme in which we glimpse infinity. (See Droste effect.)
I learned the word synecdoche in a high-school English class and it still means to me what it meant then: A part that represents the whole. Kaufman, like any artist, can only grasp a part of the whole because the whole can never be grasped. The entire movie is an admission of this failure.
As Kaufman uneasily told the Times, “Not only is Caden’s play a synecdoche, but so is every work of art. There is no way to convey the totality of something, so every artistic creation is at most a representation of an aspect of the thing being explored... As for the part about this project mirroring Caden’s, I can certainly see the obvious parallels, but I am not Caden. Perhaps he represents part of me and in that sense, he is a synecdoche of me.”
In the Atlantic, psychologist Paul Bloom looks at multiplicity.
For an artist to admit and expose his limitations as he yet struggles to create, and to put his creation before the public, is a courageous act. Synecdoche is not depressing, nor is it bleak. To write it off in such a way perhaps reveals a shallowness of receptivity, an unwillingness to feel the full breadth of human emotion.
The film's creator painfully knows from the outset that he must fail, and yet he creates anyway. What could be more hopeful, more optimistic, and more successful than such an endeavor?
If you hurry, you can still see it at the Sunshine.