Some have wondered about my feelings toward Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a film that seems to have hit a good spot with a number of critics for its intricate intellectualism. Since I respect the film, but find it failing in certain important regards, I thought I would write a follow-up of explanation.
Synecdoche is clearly an act of high intelligence and erudition. But that’s different from being brilliant. And that’s different still from being relevant. In my review, in consideration of its extremely inward world view and its interest in aesthetics, I compared Synecdoche to the works of James Joyce; I continue to think that is an apt comparison. Take Ulysses. There’s no question it is the product of high intelligence and erudition. It certainly is a landmark of literature. It’s also the moment that literature jumped the shark. Ten years prior, you could read a Joseph Conrad novel on multiple levels, as a sailing yarn or an intellectual masterpiece. After Ulysses, literature became increasingly academic. I mean that both ways – literally and in terms of real-life cultural relevance. Literature became the province of monastic intellectuals, huddling in academies, writing essays to each other that the non-believers in the outside world would never hear. Now, many novels are written with only that community in mind. Of all the people to stand against this trend has been Oprah Winfrey. If she has contributed one good thing for society, it's been pushing literature, sometimes very good literature, back into the public realm. the initial upturned noses that greeted her efforts were symptomatic of the problem.
A retreat into academia is a risk in a medium that works best as a public art form. The best Westerns, for example, can be combed for intellectual energy but ultimately can be - perhaps need to be - enjoyed as entertainment. We see a wonderful example of this in last year's Best Picture No Country for Old Men, itself based on what is considered one of Cormac McCarthy's pop-iest novels. I would argue that Kaufman’s previous work has been on the right side of the line, perhaps a little too much so, even. It has tended to play around with ideas rather than explore them. But this 100 percent dose of Kaufman crosses it definitively.
Second, Synecdoche is too solipsistic for my taste, and part of this distaste derives from my own experience as a minimally published writer. As a young writer, I wrote intellectualized surrealist crap. It was smart and uniquely creative. But I didn’t possess the life experience to make it relevant outside of my own head. Only when I started writing about my own outside experience, injecting my own personal creative take but maintaining a recognizable world, did I start getting published. When I watch Kaufman, while I respect the brains, I don’t think he has figured out how to do this yet. As a result, his work, and Synecdoche in particular, feels too smug and stuck in his own head. For that reason, I find its ultimate points, while intelligent, to be precious and lack a certain relevance. He sees the world as I saw it as a young man. But I’ve grown out of it, and I would like to see him do that, as well.
Keep in mind that I say this as an art film guy. As a lover of Tarkovsky. As someone who has read Gravity's Rainbow cover to cover. But I also recognize the risk of the medium becoming too academic. And being relevant to the public that pays for the films is an important part of keeping the medium healthy.