New York Synecdoche – Charlie Kaufman (USA 2008) Philip Hofman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 7 June 098; Ticket Price:£6 – 85
Like a pile of green shit
(Synecdoche: a figure of speech where a part of something represents the whole)
In New York Synecdoche(NYS) Hofman asks his series of two dimensional characters to go through the motions of a cheesy interweaving of speciously expressed philosophical concerns with art and life. Contemporary Middle Class angst in relation to the body and its functioning, sexual mores, death, high art; and the psychically invasive omni-presence of TV and adverts, is fed into a movie that comprises a cinematic stream of vacuous images as exemplified by the green shit shot (eliminated by Caton’s daughter).
In relation to the characters two dimensionality I found it difficult to understand the main structural idea at work in Hofman’s shaping of his film. NYS is not about a state of mind – there is too much litterality in its expression; it is not about a world in the sense of a given condition, it is not a situation; NYS seems ultimately a film of a subjectivity that derives not from any internalised logic but rather from the whimsical fashioning of Hofman who joins together a number of personal observations insights and modernist obsessions and constructs out of this desultory material, his film. NYS reflects Hofman’s belief in himself as a conduit of 21st century questioning angst. His characters are ciphers of his expressive needs, not of any compelling external forces; the characters are marionettes two dimensional animations caught up in the machinations of Hafman’s subjectivities. That such characters can engage an audience in philosophical metaphysical concerns shows Hofman’s lack of understanding of the conditions necessary for the development of ideas. Conditions for instance that a writer such as Dostoevsky understood all too well. Hofman in contrast to Dostoevski’s depth analysis of character, resorts to an expressive mode that comprises the reduction of ideas to a stream of cinematic enemetic images.
NYS is conventionally shot using action cuts to define the spacio temporal relations within the sequences. Cut and structured in this way, NYS ultimately seems trapped in a world of non sequiturs and non problems. A series of ideas that fail to sustain themselves and collapse into a literalist expressive mode. Caton’s (the protagonist theatre director) problem of the curse of individuality is expressed through him trying to understand himself. Looking for what he calls the “real’ which amounts to a definition of himself as ‘NASTY’ (what nasty means is never really defined: it’s left inarticulately open ended) and this ‘real’ somehow has to connect with the terrible realisation of the inevitablilty of DEATH WHICH MAKES EVERYTHING POINTLESS. Caton moves to seeing himself and others as interchangeable replicates, role players in which people can eternally play each other in the fantasy plaster world of New York that he has created as the set of life. This play out of ideas doesn’t work, either on its own terms or within the terms of the movie, though the attempt in NYS makes for tedious and literalist viewing. At the end of the final reel Caton is left realising that all the individual has is their human need for other people. A crass and dishonest conclusion.
The cultural references in NYS are transmitted like a series of text messages. A gestural homage by Hofman that he has digested the work of Arthur Miller, Woody Allan, David Lynch, E Doc Smith, Cassavetes, in relation to the American condition. But in the body of NYS these concerns are concentrated into an overarching concern with the body, sex, death. It’s symptomatic of NYS that it stays trapped in exploring individualised narcissistic response to a cultural sickness, but it is never able draw upon any alternative vision. In consequence Hofman’s script meanders about its concerns in a jaded manner with nothing new to say. The issues are reduced to the production of a series of images: images of the body, images of intrajected Tv fantasy, images of burning houses and replicated people and places. Caton’s progress from partner to partner demonstrates his experiencing the increasing sense of his own unreality. There is much about death and sex bit nothing about LIFE. In his defence Charlie Hofman may say that’s why it’s called New York Synecdoche. I‘d respond to this by saying that to revisit these concerns without being able to make anything new out of the material, is a gratuitous act of indulgence and self congratualtion. And NYS does seem a smug film; even a shameful film.
The reason that it is ‘shameful’ is the total lack of any external referents informing NYS. Ok there are the cultural referents but these seem inserted to establish the films pedigree and credentials. Time is reduced to a suburban American commodity, an element that should serve individual subjectivities rather than an extrinsic logic. So in the de-formed temporal sequences there are no social or political referents no opposing temporal schemas. Time is simply something that is moulded to the needs of the script. The shame of NYS is that in embarking on an attempted philosophical critique of American life, it fails to come to terms with the culture obsession that it can control anything that it wants, anything can be manipulated.