I’m tired of books, but I’ve written about movies here before, so perhaps I should share the pleasant day of solitude I spent in Uptown on Thanksgiving eve, playing amateur film critic-cum-festivalgoer:
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a movie whose goal is to prove that its own narrative project is doomed to fail. I don’t know if that makes it a failure or a success, but it is certainly not a triumph. There would be no problem if the movie’s title was accurate, but in fact it is a misnomer. Upon winning a MacArthur Genius Grant, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) designs a play in an abandoned warehouse that eventually comes to represent his entire life and every person in it. His ambitious (to say the least) theater piece is not a synecdoche but an example of the whole standing in for the whole. But art must be a synecdoche; one cannot represent the beauty (or agony) in every human life, but by showing the beauty in the lives of a few, one can show every other human life to be beautiful by analogy. Kaufman certainly understands this, but his movie is plagued by Cotard’s same system of representation in which everything is given equal weight and nothing is put into context. Cotard also realizes his downfall by film’s end, and seems ready to say that he wants to embark on a smaller project, but by then it is too late. His whole life has been consumed by something that was never going to succeed.
I’m perfectly happy to watch Kaufman play all the post-modern games he can devise. They are a bit perfunctory here, but probably enough to carry the movie if they were built upon something real and solid. Hoffman’s romance with Samantha Morton should be that real thing, and the suicide of one of his actors should be the point at which we realize that there are human beings underneath these kaleidoscopic identities. But both are as disassociated from reality as everything else in the movie. It requires a soliloquizing preacher to explain the tragedy: sad people hurtling toward the grave. There’s no authentic human drama in the movie to support this (quite affecting) speech. The end result is Adaptation with the life drained out of it, or Being John Malkovich with no surprises, an intentionally unpleasant movie that made me want to take better care of my body. Hoffman’s performance could stand to be less solemn, but then so could the movie. How about a laugh-out-loud comedy? It might have been doable (it’s a very funny movie at times). The whole thing needs a reworking, so Hoffman’s work is the best it can be under the circumstances. Tropic Thunder is the infinitely superior meta-actor comedy of recent months.
Not fifteen minutes after downing Kaufman’s acid, I walked into Milk, which proved to be the perfect remedy: my favorite movie this year, and the best biopic I’ve ever seen. It avoids the pitfalls of the genre precisely because it is a synecdoche: the man standing in for the movement. This is a human rights movie, dressed up in a number of satisfying ways: document of a scene, (dude-heavy) ensemble piece, history lesson, political expose. It’s a joyous experience, and only Gus Van Sant could have made it so (though Oliver Stone, who was originally attached to direct, would have known how to keep it from being overly solemn). Some have complained it does not evoke the same poetry as his most recent films. It is a poetic film, because it is so loving, but Harvey Milk was not a poetic person, so the detached, lyrical style of Paranoid Park or Last Days would have been a fatal flaw. Milk is an extrovert, so the film must reveal its intentions in every frame, as it does. I hesitate to look on Van Sant’s last four (fantastic) films as practice for this more conventional narrative, but he has at least learned when to use following shots. There are three here that come to mind: one is terrifying, one is beautiful, one is inscrutable. I’m in awe of his craft, but also of the fact that there are so many good actors in America.