Whether slurring hyperbolic praise over creamy pints of stout or eruditely expressing your opinion in more academic debate, the same films tend to crop up time and time again. There are so many to consider. Is Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made? Or is it Tokyo Story? Vertigo and It’s a Wonderful Life are seen as classics while Persona and Andrei Rublev cannot be discounted. What about La Règle du Jeu, Pather Panchali, Le Mépris, Raise the Red Lantern, Casablanca, The Third Man, La Dolce Vita, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II? All thought to be masterpieces, these films are among the many that are consistently at the fore when talk of the very highest rung of cinematic achievement arises.
An apprehension-induced nostalgia often plays a part in considering the very best. There is a safety in the common reverence of what has gone before in that few will argue with a classic that has aged like a loyal and sturdy bedside table. Of course, the prevalence of a hollow pop culture over recent years has seen a struggle to identify great art on film reel, thus hindering the cause of the unfortunately few films made during the last decade that could potentially be seen as credible contenders. In relatively harmless circumstances we dismiss the singing and dancing of High School Musical in favour of Singin’ in the Rain(a distinction that I personally do not make as both are similarly vacuous). Tragically though, we sometimes overlook the genius of what is right under our noses, doing a great disservice to cinema itself.
One such disservice came quite recently. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York seemed to pass everyone by without as much as a nod of acknowledgment. Having previously wielded the pen responsible for projects such as Being John Malkovich, Adaption and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche stands as Kaufman’s first experience of total creative control, including the essential director’s jodhpurs, monocle and megaphone
It isn’t surprising that the friendly arms of the collective consciousness didn’t embrace Synecdoche. Rather like a wonderfully melancholy birthday cake, the film is a mesh of intersecting layers that are distinct but simultaneously intangible as separate entities. It is a birthday cake that reminds you that with every word you sing of your own birthday commendation, with every congratulatory candle you extinguish, with every shred of novelty wrapping paper you discard, you are never any further from the inherent problems of your own existence, the fatal and inescapable nature of being. In fact, those troubles never cease in closing in upon you. No, this is not comfortable viewing for the punter with popcorn.
Kaufman’s concept begins relatively simply. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theatre director from New York. He has a wife, a young daughter and is venturing into the existential crisis of middle age. After being given a massive grant to create something artistically brilliant, Hoffman’s character embarks upon a journey into the depths of the common plight of all mankind; the unbearable human condition. “I will be dying, and so will you, and so will everyone here,” whimpers the mentally self-tortured Cotard. “That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive, each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.”
It feels like such a pathetic reaction, such a feeble response, to try to tell of how this piece of art unfurls. I could try to explain the constantly folding and unfolding meta-narrative, the interpersonal plays or the indefinable motifs of the simulacra of human life but it would just be so futile. There are boundaries to my own understanding, an inability to wield competent language. I wish I could transcend those problems just to be able to tell you what the film means. All I can do is try to say what Synecdoche did to me, describing the sheer emotional and intellectual molestation, but it just seems like such inadequate analysis.
For days after seeing the film I could feel the stabbing desolation that it left in my chest. I knew that I had witnessed an awesome and consciously accepted failed attempt at encapsulating the suffering that is existence; because Charlie Kaufman recognizes that you can’t put a pretty picture frame around existence, you can’t communicate emotional pain and suffering like that. It took me a week to go back to confirm that what I felt was not just an awful honeymoon period. The second time hurt and inspired just as the first did. That night I made a cup of tea and stared into it for comfort and answers. Needless to say, I didn’t find what I was looking for.
To say that any film is the greatest of all time is such an arbitrary exercise. It is undeniably useless. What merit is there in the process? How can you measure applicable qualities? We seem to like forcing things into lists, boxes and genres. It is a control. In this instance there is no control. As long as there are people making lists, compromises and generalisations, Synecdoche will not be recognized as the greatest; and perhaps it is all the better for that. But when we wear out such ridiculous practices, when we come to see that greatness cannot be measured only recognised, I hope that somebody remembers the burning truth and passion behind Synecdoche, New York.
Synecdoche, New York is/was out on DVD as of [date]. Available in most good shops and some rubbish ones too.