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The Hunt For The Worst Movie Of All Time: Synecdoche, New York

One aspect of the Hunt for the Worst Movie of All Time that seems to be perennially confusing to people is the fact that any movie is a possible nominee. Taste is subjective, and one man’s Trash Humpers is another man’s National Treasure. If someone nominates a movie that you like and you are upset about it because you don’t think it is a bad movie and in fact you think it is a good movie, instead of watching the houses flip upside down and back again because your head fell off and is rolling in the sewer, why not just give it a second and see what happens. Case in point: this week’s nominee, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. After months of repeated nominations, today is the big day in which we talk about it. For many people who did not nominate this movie because they actually liked it, the very existence of its nomination seemed like some kind of crime. To those people I say YOU are the one who goes to jail and the crime is IMPATIENCE and NOT UNDERSTANDING THE RULES (back to back sentences), which I have just clarified above. Because as you will find, although we are discussing Synecdoche, New York in the Hunt for the Worst Movie today, it would appear that the trail has gone cold (good metaphor) because in fact this is not the worst movie. In fact it’s a very good movie. It might even be a great one. So:

Synecdoche, New York is about a middle-aged theater director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who lives with his wife, Catherine Keener, and their daughter, Olive. Everyone seems kind of miserable, which is pretty clearly a theme of the movie. Caden is directing OUR generation’s Death of a Salesman and visiting various doctors for a bunch of encroaching illnesses as his aging body begins the slow but inevitable process of falling apart. When she has an art show of her tiny paintings in Germany, Catherine Keener uses it as an opportunity to initiate a trial separation from Caden, and takes Olive with her. This, of course, throws Caden into an even sharper spiral of despair. Then he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant, which he wants to use to create his masterwork: a piece of theater that captures the immensity of life through its infinite details. In the meantime, he has an affair with Samantha Morton. And then he marries Michelle Williams and has a new baby with her. The rest of the movie is a nesting doll of self-references as Caden, perpetually dissatisfied with his production and always pushing to go “deeper” into its “truth” hires actors to play all of the characters we have met throughout the film and then actors to play those actors until his hanger is filled with its own New York City and inside that New York City is another hanger filled with another New York city and actors playing actors playing actors into infinity.

Finally, Caden dies. The end.

This is actually the second time I watched Synecdoche, New York and I will readily admit that I didn’t love it the first time. The movie is aggressively grim and sometimes feels almost Student Film-ish in its obsession with “depression” and “sadness.” You could imagine Charlie Kaufman writing parts of the script in Sharpie on his jeans. But this second viewing, especially knowing what I was in for, was much better. Really rewarding, actually. What a good movie! It has so many interesting things to say about THE WAY WE LIVE OUR LIVES, which, incidentally, is NOT THAT EASY OF A THING TO SAY INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT. We are all so familiar with our ideas and even pretty familiar with other people’s ideas about how that all works, and in a lot of ways it’s almost all anyone ever talks about, so to talk about it in a new way and one that is compelling and smart and has something to add to the discussion is worth a look-see.

For example: Caden is constantly visiting doctors and the decrepitude of his body is gruesomely on display at all times (Kaufman has talked in interviews about the role of illness in the movie’s origins) and yet none of the things that he thinks are going to kill him ever do. They hardly even effect his ability to work, or fall in weird, agonizing love with different women. He seems to live in perpetual fear of death and failure–as do we all?–to the point where the things that matter to him in his life are constantly slipping through his fingers, what with his eyes being focused on some deep dark shadow far out on the horizon. He is so constantly in search of some kind of artistic truth that he can never actualize his art, and yet by the time he is “done,” the play is much more real than anything he’s ever (avoided having to have) experienced. It takes that age old coffee mug slogan about life being what happens while you are busy making other plans to an awful, diseased, tear-stained extreme. There is also a nice thematic element throughout the movie about wishing someone would just tell you what to fucking DO, which I think is a desperate feeling that many people can relate to, and particularly complicated when put into the heart of a theater director since telling people what to do is kind of his whole thing.

On top of this, though, is the much less dramatic but no less successful way in which tiny moments (see for example, the first 15 minutes of the movie which is just straight-up domestic boredom) are rendered truthfully and realistically. These are actual people (well, no they’re not, but almost!) before they fall down the simulacrum depression hole. Tiny genuine moments, of which this movie has plenty, are just as impressive and meaninfful as large-scale absurdist abstractions (of which this movie has even more).

So, why do people think that this is the Worst Movie of All Time? It’s clearly not. But obviously people’s dislike of it goes beyond a simple dislike and into something deeper. The best I can manage is what I mentioned earlier about some of the film’s focus on “existential crisis” feeling simplistic and pushy. Ultimately, I think the movie has a lot more to say, but maybe people get stuck on that. Also, there is plenty of Charlie Kaufman-esque absurdity that does, at times, feel unhinged from any narrative purpose. Even after the second viewing, I’m still not sure why Samantha Morton’s house was always on fire? But I’m sure (or at least I hope) that Charlie Kaufman had some kind of intended but heavily coded meaning behind this choice. That is what separates him from another writer/director, who would include something like this simply because he thought it “looked cool” (see: Jerusha Hess, Zach Braff). Specifically because Kaufman feels more than capable and thoughtful about what he is doing, this seems admissable and forgivable at the very least, and probably worth more thought and decoding.

And I’m not sure to what extent this is worth mentioning, but I’m by no means the world’s biggest Charlie Kaufman fan. I do think that Adaptation is 100% incredible and not only a really really great movie and a possible CLASSIC if time will allow it, but also one of the better ruminations on WRITING ever ruminated. But Human Nature is a flop. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is very good but slightly overrated. And (wait for it) I did not like Being John Malkovich. I don’t know, I just didn’t like it, what are you going to do. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it in the theater (ladies), so I saw it a few more times to try and like it more, and I didn’t. Life goes on. The point that I’m trying to make is that no matter what, Charlie Kaufman will always get credit for trying things that are narratively complex and different, but he has a wildly inconsistent batting record (sports) and he is certainly as prone as anyone else to creative missteps.

I just don’t think this is one of them. It’s a good movie! It’s certainly a worthwhile movie. You should see it. See it two times!

Next week: Greenberg. As always, please leave your suggestions in the comments or in an email. And if you haven’t done so already, please consult the Official Rules.