Synecdoche, New York + Oliver Stone’s W.

synecdochePhilip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics)

By some cosmic whim of the calendar, Seattle’s lone advance screening for W., held on a Tuesday night the week the movie opened, abutted against an early Wednesday morning press screening for Synecdoche, New York, a scheduling double-whammy that seemingly merited this lede: Go to bed with Oliver Stone’s nightmare, wake up with Charlie Kaufman’s.

Only, to my immense surprise, Kaufman’s new film more closely resembles a dream-state. Synecdoche, New York misses being great art (which the endeavor clearly strives/wants to be) by a wide margin, and yet it’s an inescapably haunting, unabashedly romantic picture, a torch song, and a tone poem. The final 20-or-so minute stretch consciously evokes the climax to 2001: A Space Odyssey without ever looking like or nodding to Kubrick’s inventions. But Synecdoche captures the same sense of reverie that attends a journey through which we expect revelation. Now here’s the rub: Kaufman uses this lush romantic sensibility as a sort of amniotic fluid for doom and failure. At the end of the film, the theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has tried—unsuccessfully—for decades to mount an epic performance piece derived from his own life, awakens into a crumbling, rat-infested soundstage hotel room (the opposite of where Keir Dullea ended up) to find his theatre (a dirigible-sized model of New York) deserted. Driving a golf cart through the debris, he spies a woman emerging onto a platform in the distance, and he asks her, “Where is everybody?” The beautiful Deirdre O’Connell, in a brief, low-key, yet powerful performance as an actress/mother figure, answers him, “Mostly dead.” And that, at least to me, speaks to Synecdoche’s ineffable hold on the viewer—it’s a dream about outliving your dreams. It’s the song you never sang, the play you never wrote, the painting, the sculpture you couldn’t finish (or even begin). More than this, much more devastatingly, it’s the woman (or the man) you tenderly loved yet never proposed to.

Continue reading Synecdoche, New York + Oliver Stone’s W.

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Chris Terrio’s Heights

Living in the northern hinterlands of Washington State, perhaps I’m more susceptible to luxuriantly photographed Manhattan fantasies about articulate, witty New Yorkers than most critics.

Heights, a feature debut by director Chris Terrio, celebrates its essential New York-ness as few other films have. Along with the screenwriter Amy Fox, the impressive cinematographer Jim Denault, and a flawless cast, Terrio tracks a day in the life of Isabel (played by Elizabeth Banks), a woman in her twenties, who balances her upcoming wedding to a handsome young attorney (James Marsden) with her struggle to establish a name for herself as a photographer. From the Chelsea flat that she and her fiancé share, to the Condé Nast building, to the theatre district of the Upper West Side, Heights has an irresistible site-specific authenticity.

The visual exhilaration of this movie encompasses a number of superbly executed split screen effects. In the best of these, a mother and daughter walk to meet each other while conversing on their cell phones. Diana (Glenn Close) strides on the left side of the frame; Isabel has the right half. The filmmakers use medium shots so that you can see the entire person—no talking heads here—as well as the city sidewalks behind her. At one point, the women come within sight, and with the screens still split, they walk toward each other until, moving from the right, the two letter-boxed screens elide seamlessly into a full width single frame again. The split screen device, in the hands of Terrio and the film’s editor Sloane Klevin, conveys laconically what mere cuts wouldn’t, and it fuses content with form aesthetically, pleasurably.

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Heights, however, might not be quite as delicious if it weren’t so impeccably cast. As Diana Lee, a star of stage and screen, Close plays off our sense of her as an icon. Continue reading “Chris Terrio’s Heights