{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

No doubt, Charlie Kaufman is a fertile mind, but in films, fertility is not the richness of ideas, but it is the richness of images. It is sad that a film about exploration of a complex artistic mind and his obsession with death and decay, is so devoid of color that the only color I remembered as I came out of theatre was green - the color of poo in one of the scenes. One does not expect death and decay to be vibrant but toning all the colors down so that it all looks like everything happens in a glare of white light is sterile. In films, Kafkaesque does not translate to black and white, nor seeking truth translate to a character shouting "I won't settle for anything less than the brutal truth". Its a classic trap where darkness of an idea translates to aridity of images. Synecdoche, New York is a film where images are sacrificed for ideas.

It might be something personal but I am not very comfortable with films obsessed with self-obsession of an artist, especially when the central character is supposedly director's alter-ego. The only thing that saves such films is not honesty or truthfulness or brutality of self-examination (how bitter can an artist get), but irony and humor. That is why I am not a big fan of 8 1/2, but that film has anecdotes, images and irony, not just a bundle of ideas.

To its credit, Synecdoche, New York has many of Charlie Kaufman's brilliant themes which he explored in his previous screenwriting efforts. There is a very clear idea of the baggage of body that we carry with our mind and soul. But here too, Kaufman missteps because he forgets that he is dealing with film medium where images of faces and body are the index of ideas, if we do not take an easy way out of reading monologues and voice overs. And in the first 30 mins or so, Kaufman uses faces and bodies to show characters inner traumas, like a blister on the skin doubles for anxiety or decay. This ideas of body and mind, of self image and projected image, and their superimposition, become much more interesting later in the film where Kaufman use a cinematic device of using several actors to play a single character thus creating a playful drama, and pumping his big ideas in between.

I think, Synecdoche, New York has an excellent material for a film, but it is not such a good film. There are several moments of brilliance, like the episode where stories of two daughters merge (I do not want to give more details and spoil it) together so that we examine the life of one of the characters again, a character that we have written off long before because we were so into the central story, which in turn tells us the pitfalls of being self-obsessed, and ignoring the complexity of other human lives.

Do not be deterred by what I am saying (it is a very personal opinion), Synecdoche, New York certainly deserves to be seen at least once. I am just wary about the idea of film about ideas where images are considered secondary. Its like when you close your eyes after watching a film, what comes to you - an image or an idea. Even in Bergman's many monologues, the camera shamelessly scrutinizes the images of faces. A slight quiver or grimace on Liv Ullman's expressive face is more telling than the potent voiceover. Needless to say, I am not talking about shocking or pretty poster images, I am talking about the moving close up of Vera Drake sitting with her whole family at dinner table, when she comes to know that she is charged with a crime. I am talking about the end sequence of Suspiria where our heroine enters the mural maze. I am talking about the back view of Maggie Cheung as walks down the stairs in In the Mood for Love. I am talking about all the joys and zest of moving images surpassing words or explanations.