First Thoughts: Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New YorkActually: first and second thoughts.

Karl Paniczny suggested that I watch Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman. He suggested that it might be my kind of film. I don’t have much to say, because I’ve seen it only once. But that was more than enough to have first and second thoughts.

It is a remarkable film. And it may not be successful. But if it is a failure, it is the failure of genius. Anyone can make a mainstream film.[1] It takes hard work and great talent to make a film like Synecdoche, New York.

A couple of things struck me while watching it. One was that there were many allusions to other films. I don’t know if this was intended, but I was reminded of other films several times. Also, the film is filled with brilliant ideas. Just a few: Hazel buying a house that is always on fire; Caden reading his daughter’s diary that apparently fills in automatically as she grows older[2]; the final theater project that is utterly confused with reality.

To me, the film is about the fiction (or “theater” if you insist) of life. In particular, it is about the duality of a writer’s work and his life. Speaking as someone who knows, I think it is more true of a failed writer than a successful one. It is easier for a successful writer to compartmentalize these two lives. The failed writer is always asked what his work means whereas everyone can understand commodities.

This leads me to my greatest concern about the film. At one point Caden tells his assistant:

None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.

That’s pretty heavy handed, all by itself. But later, roughly the same line is repeated. All I could think was that Kaufman gave in to the money men.

Regardless, I look forward to watching the film a few more times. Even more, I look forward to seeing his new film Frank or Francis, which Wikipedia describes as, “a musical comedy about internet anger culture.” It makes me feel like dancing. And shouting.


[1] Ever notice that any given movie star manages to direct (And often write!) a passable movie? It’s because they get loads of help and all the department heads they surround themselves with are professionals. Note how no actor goes on to be a focus puller in movie. They are “directors” with a nod and a wink. I would say the same thing about most celebrity writers. Recently, I spent about 90 seconds reading Stephen Colbert’s entire I Am a Pole (And So Can You!). That’s 32 pages for $15.99. Can you guess how it ends? I did! The only intelligent thing I ever heard Russell Crowe say was that if they ever used his music in a movie of his we should shoot him. Any star who is an aspiring writer (or whatever) should send their work out anonymously to figure out if they really have talent. In general, I’m sure the answer will be a resounding, “No!”

[2] There is a similar sequence involving a self-help book sold to Caden by his psychologist.

0 thoughts on “First Thoughts: Synecdoche, New York

  1. Hey, firstly thanks for the "shout out". Secondly, I really didn’t notice any references to other films, so could you fill me in and name/describe some? I find that interesting.

    Personally, I seem to keep looking for the Jungian symbolism (it was immediately apparent to me upon first viewing-I used to see a Jungian Psychoanalyst and read a number of Jung’s writings), so I think I keep focusing on that aspect of the film? Perhaps that’s why I’ve missed certain other aspects to the work?

    But I can understand the ‘issues’ you had with the specific parts of the film which you mentioned. To me, though, it seemed that was a part of his growing and all consuming ‘obsession’ on the production. That he had became SO consumed with the project, he started becoming bogged down in the minutia (with one of his final ‘obsessions’ becoming about every character)-I really didn’t get the feeling he was kowtowing to Hollywood-but you may be right-would you expand a bit more on that? BTW, what did you think of the compression of time in the first few minutes S,NY? I thought that was well done, and I hadn’t seen it used in that way before. Mostly what I appreciate about it is Kaufman’s commitment to making such an ‘experimental’ film, which he had to know was not going to be ‘commercially accepted’-I see so few films with the kind of ‘guts’ and ‘creativity’ being made these days, so when I do, I tend to find them really inspiring; and that may have clouded my perception and why I missed some of its flaws? Not that I thought it was without flaws.

    Otherwise, I look forward to reading what you have to say after a few more viewings, but I really did like your take on the film. Very good post-well done.

    P.S. I plan to comment more on the ESotSM post-if you don’t mind-there are a couple things I wanted to address in your last comment.

  2. @karl – You are welcome to comment on anything you like. Our comment exchanges are one of the few lively parts of my life at present.

    I don’t want to comment too much right now, because I would like to view it again. To be honest, I don’t know what you are talking about regarding the beginning of the film, because film beginning are always the hardest to analyze on a first viewing.

    As for the film allusions, let me defer that as well. The reason I didn’t mention them in the post was that I didn’t remember any of them except for one that seemed so obvious that I might be wrong.

    I agree with you about guts and creativity. The only thing I could really say is that Kaufman created a work of art–not commerce. Is it good or bad? I don’t know. At minimum, it deserves multiple viewings and much thought. It is refreshing to see someone attempt to do something great.

    As for flaws, I like to distinguish between things that are perfect and things that are great. *Don Quixote* is great–perhaps the greatest novel I’ve ever read. But it is far from perfect. It is wonderful to experience a perfect work, but it is not eternal the way a great work is. Of course, some things are both. Arguably, *Waiting for Godot* is both. But I love it for its greatness, not its perfection.

    I could be wrong about Kaufman nailing down the theme of the film for the viewing audience. It could be that that particular theme is the one that overwhelmed me and when I got any hint of its explicit statement I recoiled.

    You are right to suggest that it is about many things. I know what you mean about the Jungian aspects. When I was young, I was big into Jung. However, if Jung was right about archetypes and the collective unconscious, any work of this naturally is going to be riddled with man and his symbols. (Ha! I crack myself up!)

    Gotta go watch a lesser film!

  3. @Frank, Thanks, I didn’t want to seem like I was bogging you down with a bunch of comments. So, good to know you derive as much enjoyment as I do from the discussions.

    You definitely could be correct about Kaufman ‘hammering’ that particular point a bit too much? Like I wrote prior, I get overzealous when stumbling across a film that’s this interesting and so far from the mainstream; I’ll often miss things like that. It’s why I enjoy hearing from someone like yourself (especially since I know only three people who saw it: two hated it and the third thought it too dark and depressing but otherwise added nothing substantive), who can tell me their thoughts and comments with a different pair of eyes.

    What I was referring to about the beginning of the film (and I only caught this after watching it the last time) is that there are references to a *vast* amount of time passing, with none of the usual cinematic ‘clues’. For instance when Caden gets the paper, there’s a particular date shown, with the death of Harold Pinter, as he flips through the paper, reading different articles, you see that time (months) are passing by rapidly; I think there’s something like five or six months passing in that scene?

    Ha, enjoyed the Man and his Symbols joke, and true any work like this will be riddled with them. Personally, I immediately looked for the Jungian symbolism (as soon as I noticed it) then on repeated viewings focused, to my own detriment, mainly on that. I really need to own the DVD-as I’d like to watch it without focusing on that. I’d really like to view it/enjoy it as a film; in and of itself. I have a tendency not to do that.

    In the meantime, I’ll wait until you’ve viewed and digested it more, I look forward to it.

  4. @karl – Ah! You see, I missed that. I thought the Pinter line was funny as hell. I don’t know if it was meant this way, but there is a sense that once and artist or scientist starts winning awards, their lives are over. I certainly think that’s true of Pinter. Of course, I don’t think he was ever that great. He never crawled away from his youthful love of Beckett, not that I can blame him. And certainly Beckett never did anything amazingly great after the Nobel, even if I do like some of that work. Albee is the only recent playwright I can think of who did great work really late. Nothing since *Three Tall Women*, I think.

    I watched the very start of the film again last night. I had to turn it off because I couldn’t see it well enough on my computer and the sound was bad. (How I wish it had subtitles!) I did, however, notice that when Caden checks the mail, his double is across the street watching him. It’s nice when you can re-view a film like that.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the film, but I feel like I should write another article about it to put it in some kind of formal way. You know, the way that Lester Bangs was writing about *Metal Machine Music* every couple of years? It speaks highly of Bangs that he always had fresh insights into what I think was mostly a joke (not that there aren’t times that it is *just* what I want to listen to). "If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars."

    More later when I have something to say.

  5. @Frank,

    Ha, yes I think the Pinter line *is* meant to be funny? And I think it was probably used in the manner you speak of? That’s one of many reasons I like this film. There are just layers upon layers of different meanings and comments in it. Every time I watch it, i find something new there. I sometimes feel that the film itself almost works like the play that Caden is working on, as it seems it would take me a lifetime of watching it to uncover everything that’s there. During (I think?) the second viewing of the film, i noticed his ‘double’ (and if you watch it again, you’ll notice he’s in a lot of different places) in fact, it was then that all the Jungian symbolism started to fire in my brain on overdrive. You could say, that’s where I stopped really ‘watching’ and started ‘analyzing’?

    Personally, I like many of Pinter’s early plays (I’m not as familiar with his later work, but the little I read I wasn’t too impressed by) what I really enjoyed was Pinter’s collaboration with Joseph Losey; he adapted (usually other people’s) writing for Losey to use on the screen. Oddly enough, I don’t really like Losey’s work, and most of Pinter’s work in film I haven’t found to be all that interesting either. However, for me, the combination of them together really works for me. There’s a sense of ‘dread’ and ‘foreboding’ that seems to exist in the work (yet somehow manifests in the most unusual of ways) which i find really arresting and stimulating.

    I’m pretty woefully ignorant on much of Beckett’s work-I’ve read a couple of his novels and fiction-but I’d really like to see his plays. I find his work (or what I’ve read) to be most interesting indeed, and even seems to fit with what I enjoy? I’d like to read more of his work-so any suggestions would be terrific. For some reason I have a hard time ‘reading plays’, I always feel like I should be watching it. Like what I’m reading is merely the ‘scaffolding’ for the ‘real’ work: the play.

    Whew! I’m even more ignorant of Albee, and yet his work has always seemed interesting to me as well and I’d like to read more (I’m only *really* familiar with "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), again it’s my problem with reading plays. Do you know what I’m talking about, or is this just an issue with me? Is there a way to overcome it?

    I absolutely *love* your idea to write a piece about the film, like Lester Bangs wrote on Metal Machine Music-a personal favorite of mine as well as his writing on Nico’s Marble Index-ha, yes, I think it would fantastic if you did something along those lines?

    When you have more to say-I look forward to reading it.

    In the meantime, I would like to say that I really enjoyed your article on Krugman. I used to have a subscription to the NY Times and loved reading him. . .the one issue I have with Krugman is how passive he usually is on TV. There are times I wish he would just rip into the people on those shows (people that clearly have *no* idea what they’re talking about-and yet seem to have an opinion about everything), so thanks for the clip of Krugman on British TV. I hadn’t seen that and it was a breath of fresh air. Just to finally see him be a bit more ‘tough’ on the two ‘conservatives’ there was worth it to me. Have you noticed that a lot of ‘conservatives’ are using the term ‘libertarian’ for themselves? I always thought I was a libertarian (I guess I’d be a ‘radical anarchist’ in their ‘world’?), but I get the feeling they’re co-opting the term because they know how unappealing ‘conservative’ is. . .I don’t know? Any thoughts?

  6. @karl – I know what you mean about reading plays. On the other hand, if I see a good play, I almost always feel the need to then read it. It is a different experience. And depending upon the production, it can be very different.

    For Beckett, I recommend that you rent *Beckett on Film*. These are all really good productions. You can find most of them on YouTube as well. Check out "Ohio Impromptu," "Come and Go," and "Krapp’s Last Tape." The first two are maybe 15 minutes. "Krapp" is about an hour, even though it is maybe 15 pages long. I think that will provide a good introduction. A lot of his work (e.g. "Play" and "Not I") are really too dense to be appreciated as a viewer.

    Albee? There is a filmed version of *A Delicate Balance* that is very good. *Three Tall Women* is really worth reading. There is almost no action, so you won’t miss anything. Also good: "Seascape" and "All Over." I’m not that fond of "Virginia Woolf" but maybe just because I’m tired of it. There is a sound recording of the Off Broadway version of *The Zoo Story*. If you can find that, it’s great.

    I like Pinter, I just don’t think he’s that great. BTW, he stars in the Beckett on Film version of "Catastrophe."

    Bangs is sorely missed. I always felt he was a lost soul. It added a poignancy (Reality?) to his work that one doesn’t find in other rock critics. Proof that if God exists he is evil: Bangs is dead and Robert Christgau is alive.

    I don’t want to get too sidetracked, but I used to be a libertarian. It appeals to my kind of brain. But what I found was that libertarians were almost all Republicans who had concerns about their fascistic leanings. There were, of course, the NORML libertarians who I liked rather a lot. Now, I see the libertarian movement as fundamentally fake. As I say to my libertarian friends (and I have a number), "I’m not willing to vote libertarian only ever to get policies that come from the part of the movement I’m most uncomfortable with." Thus, we get more and more social Darwinist policies regarding taxes and safety net programs. But we get less and less protection of civil rights, reproductive rights, and drug rights.

    Thus, at core, I see myself as a social anarchist, even though the term raises more questions than it answers. So when pressed, I say I am a social democrat.

    At this point, I am probably more disappointed with libertarian thought than I am with Republicans. The RP is proto-fascist, and increasingly just fascist. But they are pretty clear about it. Libertarians claim to be for freedom, but shine a little light on them and their political wave equation quickly collapses to fascist. (Sorry for over-using that word.)

    When I considered myself a libertarian, Ron Paul ran for president in the LP, I didn’t vote for him. To me, he’s a complete joke and gives serious libertarians a bad name. Of course, I don’t see many serious libertarians around. The Cato Institute? They are just a propaganda mill. They explicitly bury any results that don’t further their ideological agenda. Tucker Carlson? Ha! That is actually funny. He should just stick to what he knows: bow ties.

    I used to go to these once-a-month libertarian get togethers. I was shocked to find that most of the people were big fans of Rush Limbaugh.

    But I’m attacking the bad or pretend libertarians. The truth is, I have fundamental criticisms of the philosophy as a whole. But just as a practical matter, libertarianism depends upon a mythical perfect judicial system. There never will be such a thing–especially in a society unwilling to tax in order to fund it.

    I have much more fundamental problems. But I have to say that the only people who have serious arguments against libertarian thought are people, like me, who find it appealing. So I don’t mean to rag on it too much. I think libertarians are, in their best form, searchers.

    You are right about conservatives calling themselves libertarians. I think the tea party was a very bad thing for the libertarian brand. Now you have loads of people who think that the founding fathers were libertarian (they were not). And they think that the founding fathers were like Allen West.

    I need to write a book, "Confessions of a Libertarian Apostate."

  7. @Frank,

    Thank you very much for the tips on Beckett and Albee. Oddly enough, I was just talking with my sister’s boyfriend the other day and he was telling me that he was in a production of "The Zoo Story". It just struck me as odd, that he was talking about that production (he didn’t even know it was an Albee play) when you had just brought it up to me only a day before. . .but anyway, I was curious how the Beckett on Film series was, good to know they’re worth while. I can’t wait to watch them.

    Well, I can certainly see how reading the play after viewing the play would be beneficial. That makes sense to me. Where I live there’s very little worthwhile theater, unfortunately, so I don’t see much. Your advice on play’s that are available and worth while to watch, was invaluable. Big thanks!

    Ha, I love the Lester Bangs/Robert Christgau analogy! So true. . .what I loved most about Bangs, is that he wrote about what he really loved; he didn’t care if what he was praising was something everyone else hated, and vice-versa, he wrote passionately and with enthusiasm, what more can one ask for? Then again, I tend to agree with most of what he liked, so maybe I’m biased?

    Whew, a lot to comment on Libertarians/Libertarianism here. I’ll try and keep it as brief as possible.

    I say: I always thought I was a ‘libertarian’, probably for the same reason you mention being interested in it? It seemed a political group that fit with my own personal thoughts and beliefs. However, like you say, the more I looked into it and the more I read about it, the more I realized that they were actually chasing their own version of ‘utopia’ (as much as they would deny and hate that statement), I found this to be the case. The more I read, the more I realized that most of these Libertarians were really kind of naive people who might have a case for what they were saying, if we lived in ‘a perfect world’, with ‘perfect people’? And as you say, if we had a ‘perfect judicial system’ Also, I don’t like the way they merely shift power from ‘federal’ to ‘state’ and think that’s making all the difference in the world. In addition, a lot of their ‘policies’ seem to be arbitrary?

    I don’t know nearly as much as you do on the subject, and I’d personally love to read a book called "Confessions of a Libertarian Apostate", ha!

    I completely enjoyed reading what you wrote about here, because it seems to be almost exactly what I encountered in my own forays into the ‘libertarian’ jungle. There *are* a lot of ‘ditto-heads’ and ‘Ayn Rand-ites’ and they can be a very vexing group. .

    But I’ve definitely noticed a lot of (what I would call) traditional conservatives and even hard-right conservatives, labeling themselves now as: "libertarians’ (some of them used to say "I’m an Independent"). And yes, the ‘tea party’ thing is definitely running away with the label of ‘libertarian’ and that can’t be a good thing. I also noticed libertarians like Penn Jillette (whom I agree with on many things) suddenly appearing on shows like Glenn Beck’s, and it wasn’t to debate him either, it was mainly to back up what Glenn Beck was already saying. So, with the sudden rise of ‘conservatives’ labeling themselves as ‘libertarians’ and with ‘libertarians’ seeming to align themselves more and more with some on the ‘right’, suddenly any ‘allegiance’ I felt with libertarians came to a crashing halt. I realized what I was after and what most of these people were after were completely separate things.

    I agree with you, I’d go along with: Social Anarchist, as much as that may make certain people perplexed. I actually know what you mean by that?

  8. @karl – I agree with Penn Jillette on a number of things too. Unfortunately, he is not a deep thinker. He’s like a kid who has learned arithmetic and thinks he knows all of math. He’s part of a very big group of very successful people (many, like Joss Whedon, I like) who naturally gravitate to libertarianism. It isn’t because it allows them to keep all their money. It is that it tells them that their success is due entirely to themselves. If you are already rich and famous, you’ve got to get your kicks some other way. A philosophy that basically tells you you are a god is very rewarding. (Note also how the atheist movement is highly libertarian. This is why people like Richard Carrier are so refreshing.)

    Libertarians tend to forget one really important thing: private property is entirely the result of history. God didn’t divide the land evenly between people when he created the world. And as a result, groups who "invented" the idea of private property have–What a surprise!–got most of the private property. A perfect libertarian world would be no more natural than a perfect communist world.

    Bangs was great because his love of the music made him fearless. In an interview I read with Robert Quine (Of course Bangs would know Quine!) he said that towards the end of his life Bangs was writing and recording music. Quine didn’t sound that impressed, but I would love to hear some of it. It might be available. It only occurred to me now to look.

    The Zoo Story is good. Recently, Albee decided that he would not allow it to be performed professionally. Students and such still can. Instead, he’s written a first act to it, "At Home at the Zoo." I haven’t been able to get my hands on it. I gather it isn’t thought to be very good because a lot of people are unhappy about the change. But who knows.

  9. #Frank-Ah haha! I know exactly what you mean about Penn. It’s the same feeling I get from him too. There’s a lot of libertarianism who believe they’ve got everything ‘figured out’ (I kinda felt that way too, when I thought more like ‘one of them’). And I think you’ve ‘nailed’ the reason why the ‘self made’ libertarian is so prevalent? They believe that everything they’ve accomplished is entirely their own doing-while ignoring that nobody gets anywhere without some kind of ‘help’, ‘luck’ or just plain ‘timing’ to assist them, whether they acknowledge it or not. Once again, you’re right about their misunderstanding of ‘private property’-very valid point! And I’ve noticed the large amount of ‘libertarians’ atheists too, I always assumed it was the ‘we can only count on ourselves’ mentality (which is a ‘part’ of what you’re talking about?) but I think you’ve hit far closer to the truth? Suffice it to say, politics is a lot more complicated than libertarians like to make things appear.

    Yeah, I’d read about Bangs’ recordings/bands for a while, but I’ve never heard any of it. At the same time I’d always heard it was ‘awful’ too. I must have read the same article you did by Quine? Sounds very familiar to me. Bangs was definitely fearless and I think it’s something you just don’t find anymore. I’d be curious to hear what Bangs recorded musically. It’s odd that you hear about his recordings, yet never actually hear the recordings-instead I’ve always heard only that ‘they’re awful’. Hmm. . .

    Ya know, I think my sister’s boyfriend was actually in that play when he was a student? I’m not sure, I should ask him more about it (he had a really small part, I remember that). However, he also ‘wasn’t sure if it was an Albee play’ when I asked him, so I don’t know that he’d even know about "At Home at the Zoo"? It’s funny, he was a ‘drama major’ and yet I was surprised by how little he actually seemed to know about ‘plays’, for instance I asked him if he ever performed a Pinter play? He said he didn’t think so, but I don’t think he really knew who Harold Pinter was? Odd.

  10. @karl – I don’t understand the dog-eat-dog philosophy of libertarians. Is it not true that chimps live communally? In "23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism" one of the chapters is, "Assume the worst about people and you get the worst." It takes on this ridiculous idea that humans only act selfishly. We are, to say the least, complex.

    As I recall, Quine said (implied?) that Bangs music was interesting but not great. I would be surprised if it was great because he had a different kind of mind. Just the same, I would be shocked if the stuff wasn’t at least listenable. I think it would be only too easy for people to dump all over it, "Oh! The great critic thinks he can make music!" Let me know if you come upon anything. Do you know if he had any family? They would be the only ones in a position to release the stuff.

    The play couldn’t have been Zoo Story because there are only two characters. I know that At Home at the Zoo has at least one more, but it can’t be many. I’ve been amazed at how ignorant theater majors are about theater. They’ll know Ionesco but not Albee. It’s amazing.

  11. @Frank-You said it all right there. Yup, there is definitely a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude that leads to a selfishness which inevitably ends in one skewed vision of the world. The more I hear about "23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism" the more I really want to read it! How true-"Assume the worst of people, and you get the worst"-it’s always been my experience.

    Yes, I definitely get the impression, whenever I read about Bangs’ recordings, that there was a collective ‘push back’ to it. It wouldn’t have mattered what he created, people were prepared to ‘knock it down’. I know this guy who’s an absolute ‘Lester Bangs fanatic’, I’ll try and get in touch with him, because if anyone knows anything about this, he will. I’m gonna see if he can give us any ‘tips’ about this? Of course, if I happen to find anything in the meantime I’ll give you a ‘heads up’.

    You could very well be right? I thought he told me it was Zoo Story? But I may have misheard or misunderstood him? After all, he *was* ‘confused’ by my asking him if it was ‘The Edward Albee play?’. Then again, I was really surprised at how little he seemed to know about theater in general, and he went to a pretty ‘well regarded liberal arts college’ with an emphasis on theater/performing arts. What he does seem to know best is Shakespeare, especially Hamlet (he finds symbolism and metaphors to it, in just about every movie we see). I really shouldn’t be surprised. I know a number of people who went to school for film, and their knowledge of film seemed to begin with "Star Wars" and end with Quentin Taratino? ha! Nah, shouldn’t be surprised at all.

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