Saturday, October 25, 2008

Synecdoche, NY - Unkept Promises

In all fiction projects, an author makes promises to the audience, reader, etc. The protagonist is this kind of a person with a specific personality and unique friends. These are just a few things shape a character. The film, novel, or short story tells us where we are going.

Authors may not give a specific road map. At least we know what kind of a journey is in store. The character has flaws that need confronting or demons that need exorcising. The audience expects that something will engage this character in a specific regard. The author makes promises to the reader and the reader expects them to be fulfilled.

Don't misunderstand. I don't hate twist or surprise endings - they are fun and exciting. But the author must produce them organically. Character and plot progression must feel natural.

For the first two-thirds of Synecdoche, NY writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) presents characters that I care about. Now, I think I understand the Kaufman aesthetic enough to say that it is a unique experience and that I will need to think through some issues in order to comprehend the narrative. But Synecdoche, NY doesn't fulfill on its promises. In fact, it doesn't even make any.

I understood the plight of the characters and issues that need solving. Kaufman only takes me so far down those roads. The last third of the film is overly complicated and leaves me searching for the cinematic equivalent of "verbose." Synecdoche, NY is verbose. The film is complicated just for the sake of being complicated. Kaufman complicates the narrative to such a degree that the last third of the film could have shown ANYTHING and I would not be surprised. It seemed that anything that happened could be justified through Caden Cotard's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) psychosis. And because his psychosis became convoluted, anything was possible.

Allowing oneself to take a plot in seemingly any direction is lazy filmmaking. The audience feels no satisfaction because Kaufman did not allow the audience to want anything. Synecdoche, NY presents a fork in the road with about a million options - and none of them are the wrong choice. When I say that Kaufman didn't make any promises, I mean that he didn't provide a road map for the film. There is a responsibility of a filmmaker to guide the audience. He did that for the first two thirds of the film but then sabotaged his narrative with Caden's neuroses that allow for any possibility I had no idea what would come next. Synecdoche, NY is lazy filmmaking because if there are no"right" answers, then there are no "wrong" ones either.

Think of the difference between two Tarantino films: Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Both feature non-linear narratives, but one narrative grounds itself in a specific moment - meeting up after a jewelry store robbery. Tarantino controls the narrative and answers the questions that we need answered. Who are these people? How did they meet? What happened during the robbery? What events led to the current predicament? Tarantino goes back in time to answer these questions in a restrained way. Pulp Fiction jumps around in narrative purely for the sake of it. This non linear structure does not enlighten the narrative. Reservoir Dogs is a complicated and robust story, but I understand it immediately. Pulp Fiction is only complicated and thus REQUIRES multiple viewings to understand the film. I hold films accountable for this mistake.

An author cannot expect an audience to make the journey twice - just to understand it. WANTING to see a film again and NEEDING to see a film again are two different things. And don't accuse me of "not getting it" either. A story needs to be clear. It's the difference between good ambiguity and bad ambiguity. Good ambiguity leaves a reader with thoughts about where a story can go OR where a story came from. Bad ambiguity leaves the reader wanting more OR questioning the validity of the narrative.

Don't force me to see a movie again! MAKE me want to see it again!

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