Oscillating on a Theme

Here’s the trouble I have when watching movies:

I can’t separate what I do like from what I should like.

Which is an adequate analogy for Charlie Kaufman’s  Synecdoche, New York, and an adequate description of how I felt about it.

When you watch Synecdoche, you’ll probably be able to tell that it’s such a massively imaginative piece of cinema that is different than anything you’ve seen before.  It has many of the ideas of the other films Kaufman has written (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), but is so much more imaginative that it’s to some point incomparable.  Because of this, you’ll be tempted to say that you loved it.  But did you?

At least, that was what I asked myself after I watched it, because, frankly, amid all the academic references and metaphor and psychology, things I love, the movie was a mess.  About halfway through I lost track of the plot and was just confused the rest of the way.  After that the movie just felt long.

On the other hand, the movie was filled with moments of incredible poignance and reflection that have stayed with me since watching it.  Isn’t that what the best movies do?

Any criticism I have of the movie could be argued with by saying “Well, I think Kaufman meant to do that to illustrate this point…[thematic jargon]”

I go back and forth on this, and the problem that arises is that I don’t understand which ideas are my true self, how I truly feel, and which are simply reflections of myself, ideas that I’ve derived from others or think I should be thinking.  Which is the major metaphor from the movie.  I create so many reflections of myself, each one referring to another, that I no longer have any idea which one is real.  And even if I could determine an original, the others are still there.

Caden Cotard is a theater director who gets a MacArthur genius grant and uses it to write his masterpiece, a play so enormous it takes up an entire airplane hanger.  In the meantime, his wife leaves him and takes his daughter with her, and he starts and ends relationships with various women whom he works with.  Some of this stuff actually happens and some of it is probably imagined, or part of the play.

As you might expect from Charlie Kaufman, the movie is full of irony and dry humor, but the story itself is emotionally devastating, partly because Cotard is pathetic, and partly because you identify with him so deeply.

It’s the kind of movie that takes writing about to truly appreciate.  And it’s the kind of movie that, whether you enjoyed it or not, should give you something to think about.

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