Infectious Diseases in Ersatz Critics: A Second Look at Synecdoche, New York + some notes on the Bloggers’ Roundtable DVD extra

keeneradeleArtist-at-work: Catherine Keener as the miniaturist Adele Lack in Synecdoche, New York (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

One of the more discouraging elements in compulsive movie-watching happens to be that a film, which seemed to work more or less well enough on the first go-round, doesn’t hold up under the scrutiny of subsequent viewings. There are various reasons for this: tastes change, mores change, or the picture simply wasn’t very good to begin with, but owing to some alchemy of mood and timing, appeared so in the moment. Of course, there’s a positive flip-side: some movies I found to be irritating mishaps on first sight opened up on repeat exposure, even going on, after a while, to become personal favorites—among these, I’d list Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Ashby’s Being There, and Altman’s The Company. Or I’m able to meet a filmmaker half-way, and recognize virtues to which I’d previously been impervious, such as Wong Kar-Wai, whose 2046, while no masterwork, isn’t wholly as dismal as I initially thought, and whose My Blueberry Nights, with its charming yet substantive performance by the often-bad Jude Law, and with Darius Khondji’s lushly saturated cinematography, was significantly better than everyone else thought.

A film improving with age, however, remains a rarity. Mostly, they slide in the opposite direction.

Which brings me to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Readers will recall that, last October, I was quite keen on the film, in spite of glaringly awful errors in judgment on Kaufman’s part. (Fault cannot be found with the cast—the actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom I normally revile, were and are uniformly impeccable.) Last weekend, I finally got around to the Synecdoche DVD, and a second viewing (there need not be a third or a fourth) italicizes, underlines, and bolds everything that was wrong with the movie in the first place. It’s a considerably weaker piece of work, once one has the hindsight to see how Kaufman’s cumbersome foreshadowing will pan out. (For example, giving us an unimpeded view, in an early scene, of Tom Noonan’s Sammy Barnathan, as he watches Hoffman’s Caden Cotard retrieve the morning mail, adds neither complexity nor mystery to Sammy’s long-term stalking of Caden.) Synecdoche’s initial half-hour, save for Samantha Morton’s magnificent turn as the love-struck box-office attendant, Hazel, and for the lugubriously witty German poet reading her grim verse on the radio in the movie’s opening, amounts pretty much to a barrage of tasteless material—tasteless meaning insipid as well as offensive. Certain small pleasures, such as the marriage counseling scene with Hope Davis (“Caden, does that feel terrible? Good.”) drown in the offal of writer-director Kaufman’s grotesque emphasis on spurting blood and other physical indelicacies. Then there’s the portentous baiting that leads absolutely nowhere. On first viewing, fewer exchanges were more tantalizing than Davis, as the pop psychologist Dr. Madeleine Gravis, describing to her patient Caden the peculiar trajectory of an author named Little Winky, who produced a best-selling piece of psycho-sexual trash at age four, only to commit suicide at age five. One expects something to come of this wry non sequitur, for it to fold in, somehow, with Caden’s own impossible quest for redemptive art, or with his much-analyzed issues relating to gender and sexuality. Was Caden really a woman? Was he gay? Would he have been more confident in sex and art if he were more like the butch skinhead on the cover of Little Winky’s lone novel and less like tubby, schlubby Philip Seymour? Kaufman, too hung up on crass jokes, drops the implications of Madeleine relating this particular story to Caden.

synecdoche posterThat said, Synecdoche, New York nonetheless retains a great deal of its startling emotional power in the second half. Much of this stems from the fact that Morton humanizes Hoffman: Hazel’s love for Caden, even when she’s annoyed with and disappointed in him, feels boundless, and this sets Hoffman free, as an actor, to go beyond his usual misfit caricatures. There’s something at stake, for once, in one of Hoffman’s on-screen relationships, and the expansiveness of his scenes with Morton carries over for the rest of the film, notably in the two tragic meetings with his adult daughter, Olive. And by the time of Synecdoche’s remarkable final sequence—the waking up into a rat-infested apartment, and that late encounter with a sympathetic mother figure (a superb Deirdre O’Connell) who comforts the now-aged and nearly senile Caden, as he receives stage directions through a hearing aid by an omniscient Dianne Wiest—I was again a disciple, albeit far from an uncritical one.

Even so, the film’s latter half doesn’t entirely escape Kaufman’s muck-ups. The worst of these, aside from bloodstained linens at a murder site being treated as a visual punch line, may well be a prosaic, self-pitying, falsely populist funeral speech delivered by Christopher Evan Welch as an actor playing a priest. Welch isn’t as strident here as he was in the overrated Vicky Cristina Barcelona, yet there’s nothing he can do with lines as bleatingly obvious as, “Fuck everybody! Amen!” More offensively, and something I didn’t notice the first time around, Kaufman inserts a cringingly limp-wristed homosexual into the scenario. After Hazel dies, this person materializes, sans introduction, as Caden’s new assistant. Is this supposed to be the homosexual lover that Olive, on her deathbed, accuses her father of abandoning her for? It doesn’t really matter, because whoever he is, he’s just there to react fussily when Wiest, in preparing to assume Caden’s identity, characterizes the theatre director as “already dead.” Kaufman, possibly, is so advanced that perhaps he has a secret meaning in reviving such a hateful stereotype, but he fails to accentuate the assistant’s fey mannerisms and androgynous looks to any illuminating effect.

s mortonCritics’ reactions to Synecdoche, as noted elsewhere, fell sharply along a love-it-or-hate-it divide; ambivalent responses, such as mine, were practically nonexistent or at least excluded from what we might term the “conversation” of the chattering, nattering, Twittering classes of hyper-linking movie bloggers—a stratum of persons that, individually or as a group, cannot relate to any discussion outside the axis of black or white, liberal or conservative, etc. And so to compensate, they deny a place at the table for nuanced argument. (This usually takes the form of refusing to link to a writer whose views they do not share. A New Yorker article could be written about this passive yet insidious mode of censorship.)

Nowhere could such a denial be more apparent than in a little DVD extra called, “Infectious Diseases in Cattle,” wherein five bloggers (chosen by Kaufman?) nod in agreement with one another ad nauseam. They never argue; furthermore, none of them can find the slightest fault with the film. This 36-minute session of pseudo-intellectual pom-pom waving might be risibly enjoyable, if it weren’t so boring.

Moving from left to right along the chairs and sofa, the panelists are: Glenn Kenny, formerly of Premiere; Andrew Grant, whose byline has never graced any legitimate publication that I know of, and who, rather preciously, refers to himself as “Filmbrain”; Karina Longworth of Spout (and of the interesting, silver-rimmed dark eyewear, a pair of spectacles that hints at a life of its own); the very young British Columbian Christopher Beaubien, a graphic designer who writes for the website Screenhead and who shows more promise as an illustrator than as a thinker; and finally, Walter Chaw.

synecdoche setAlmost the first element one notices is that Mr. Kenny and Mr. Grant, seated next to each other at an angle, are clad in nearly identical outfits. Both wear dark jackets, twilight blue button-downs, and nondescript slacks. Grizzled, bald, and portly, Mr. Kenny bears an uncanny likeness to the late actor William Conrad; during much of the critic’s speechifying, I was plagued by suppressed memories of Cannon, Mr. Conrad’s early 1970s television crime series, not anything I’d ever hoped to be reminded of. More distressing still, because of the way the camera often blocks the two of them together in the same frame, and because of the tremendous difference in their size, and again their similarity in dress, Mr. Grant cannot help but to resemble a matryoshka who could fit completely inside Mr. Kenny. Twice, Mr. Kenny asserts vaguely disparaging remarks about “hippies.” (One senses he dislikes them.)

Mr. Grant makes the painfully neurotic admission that he got drunk after the press screening for Synecdoche, New York, and his subsequent utterances are rife with allusions to the need for alcohol to quell the rigorous experience of watching the movie, as well as to, “taking my Jung books off the shelf,” as he lay “depressed” in the afternoon. If this were Woody Allen talking, there might be some comedy in these confessions, yet Mr. Grant, wan and pale, seems to want us to take them as evidence of his cultivated sensitivity. What he doesn’t mention, however, but which played a memorable part of his online ramblings re Synecdoche, is this, the aspect of the film that hit him “hardest”:

A forgotten chapter from my childhood, one I’d not thought of in ages, came rushing back during my post-screening alcohol binge, something that no work of art has ever done. Between the ages of nine and eleven I believed that my life, my entire existence, was part of some grand staged work, and that an unseen audience was observing me at all times. (Mind you, this is decades before the cultural obsession with “reality” media.) It wasn’t frightening, nor did it seem invasive, but it did, at times, dictate my behavior, in that I would be conscious of how I did things—eat, dress, shower, interact with people, etc.—given that I believed I was on stage, as it were.

One wishes to suggest to Mr. Grant that every child goes through something similar to what he describes, that it’s a fairly commonplace phase of development. (Or is that what had him so morose?) And that rather than Jung, he might curl with a volume of Jerome Kagan or perhaps Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. And if those don’t disperse light amid the dark cobwebs of his tender psyche, then to get to know Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann character, the perpetual five-year-old who once declared, “Sometimes, when I think God is watching, I like to sing and dance and do a commercial for myself.”

In stark contrast to the forty-ish Mr. Grant’s nebbishy equation of therapy as criticism, the blond and barely legal Mr. Beaubien smiles a lot. Unlike the others, he seems to be a nice kid, yet he comes across as stiff and ill at ease; he doesn’t leap in and out, bantering as the others do, and his proclamations, (“A red alarm that life is fleeting,” or “That’s why repeat viewings reward”) over-enunciated in a Canadian accent, feel over-rehearsed.

Alone among this quintet, Ms. Longworth has genuine poise. She rightly regards the camera as her friend, and the camera reciprocates by admiring her knottily-textured black hose. (Perhaps Kim Voynar was correct, after all, when she proposed that Ms. Longworth take over for Ben Lyons.) Seated side-by-side with the visibly nervous Mr. Beaubien, Ms. Longworth, at times, appears to want to reach out and squeeze his hand, gently, reassuringly. You can all but see her signaling, “Relax!” in his direction; with the passage of years, one can envisage Ms. Longworth becoming a kind of den mother to insecure bloggers in need of handholding and—better still—another pastime altogether. Be that as it may, when Ms. Longworth praised Synecdoche as “made with great economy—I don’t know what could be cut from this film,” that was, to the extent that it was anything, a death knell for critical thinking.

I suppose that it wasn’t in the DVD producers’ best interests to invite, say, Richard Corliss and Armond White on to have a rollicking debate over the movie’s extreme highs and just as extreme lows. One suspects that even the festival-trotting party hats at indieWire could have put on a livelier show than the Kaufman Five. But if this bloggers’ roundtable accurately represents where film criticism has ended up, among allegedly serious commentators, then the practice/hobby/profession is even more muerto than previously decried.

Of course, the grave shortcomings of their endeavor are merely symptomatic of something more widespread. I’ll give the final word here to a friend of mine who for several years wrote criticism (not solely on movies, which is the easy way out for lazy minds, but on pop, jazz, and other subjects) for the late, lamented Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The paper’s meltdown to a bland, vacuous, web-only entity left him—and all the other arts reporters—bereft of income, and he had this to say: “I think there is a war against smart people, much like the one Mao had going during the Cultural Revolution. Look at who is losing their jobs and also where the money is going to create new ones. All roadwork. Will the writers be sent to work on road crews, while the dummies re-write history as an infantile blog? Have you tried to look up anything factual on the Internet lately? It seems to have been swept clean of references, [replaced by] nothing but gossip and lies.” – NPT

April 28, 2009