by Ryland Walker Knight and Mark Haslam and Jennifer Stewart
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[SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. There's no other way to talk about the thing, is there, Walter? Seriously, if you want to preserve the experience, don't listen. However, as we try to argue in the podcast, there's no way, really, to "spoil" this thing. For one, it's sour to begin with...]
RWK here. On our third podcast, Mark and I discussed his first take on Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (as well as Jean Eustache and, briefly, Jia Zhang-Ke), with Mark saying, "I liked it enough to not have an opinion of it right away." (He then put that reaction into some written words.) What I took and take that exit-poll impulse to mean is that he didn't feel it necessary to simply say, "I liked it," or, "I didn't like it," say to make a declaration of value. Because it's undeniable: this is a grand old meditation on major themes and concerns that continue to sprout up in cinema and, yes, in life. It's bound to shake, rattle and roll some souls. It's equally bound to simply turn off a large percentage of its audience, no matter its wit, right up front with some ugly images of festering decay and disease. Literally: dis-ease. There's little comfort in this film, although there are a lot of jokes. So, what does one do with this little beast? Well, we went straight home and talked on digital tape. We tried to form our opinions live. Of course, like the film, our conversation splintered and, in a way, as is always the case with words, it failed; or, it failed to resolve. And yet—even though an hour is a lot to ask of you, our faithful listeners—I think this is our best podcast yet.
The look-see: I'm torn between the two poles. The repugnance of the film is somewhat remarkable, even admirable, but it's still repugnant. It wallows as much as it falls away from the viewer. Not that I know them, but I understand why people like Walter Chaw and Manohla Dargis and Andrew "Filmbrain" Grant rhapsodize Kaufman's achievement, such as it is, with this picture; on the flips, an element of me was eager to indulge the "piss off" stance of my buddy Keith Uhlich, but not the "fuck you" of Rex Reed (no link needed for that bile). For all the yucky destitution of narcissistic projection, for all the death and dying, for all that kinda bores me (as well as Jen) with all that, there are some truly great moments, and cool tropes, as can be expected with Kaufman. The narcissistic projection, for one, works brilliantly: Philip Seymour Hoffman's Caden reading books as he imagines them, seeing himself in pharmaceutical ads and, um, building that massive and ever-receding and ever-multiplying theatre space. Add to that, that unlike Mark, I had an immediate and positive response to the film's negotiation with time: I think its fractal nature, with time splintering, works to exemplify its title; this is not a film about endurance. Caden does not endure lost time, he just keeps living in spite of himself, in spite of all the pills he takes and the cane he adopts and the losses that pile up (in the fucking street, no less) around him on his pathetic plodding towards death. In one way, I could probably develop a passion for this film as an argument in negative, as this is how not to live, since the film seems to understand this, but, at the same time, the film does ask us to spend our time with cumbersome and base decomposition.
If all a critic is to do is to tell you to see a film or not, then there's no two ways about it: I would say go for a run instead. But, as I understand it, my job, such as it is, such as I may be a critic (as much as simply a thoughtful person), is to argue for significance—indeed, for understanding—within the object over against of the object. So it's a tough spot. I'd like you to listen to our conversation, and I'd like it to continue, here in the comments as much as in future episodes, but I'd also like to remind you, that, yes, it's good and fun to go live in the world. And, you know, that Lola Montes talks about all these ideas, too, and it'll be playing at the Castro next week. For more on that film, though, you'll have to wait for a link. So, instead of that recommendation, I can just as easily (yes, with greater ease), turn to the other film I held up (perhaps foolishly) against Synecdoche in our podcast talk: David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE. About 35 minutes into this hour-long talk we offer to you, I say, "I love INLAND EMPIRE for a lot of the same reasons I think a lot of people will love this movie. And they should. If this movie turns you on, and you find a lot of resonance with you, that is great—I'm not gonna try to take that away from you. Um, this is just, you know, this is just this. It's just three people—two of us are drinking beer—and, you know, but, INLAND EMPIRE, to me, is about everything that's going on in this movie, and it's a much more joyful thing. And a lot of it boils down to that. For me. Definitely. And that gets into a lot of goofy relativism right there, just saying, 'For me.'" But, as I couldn't formulate last night, all art is, in an basic way, experienced narcissistically, for the me that you are wherever you stand in relation to a film or a painting or a screenplay or a song or a novel or a dance. The trickiest part is to account for your self—to question your "me"—in a fun way, to be thoughtful and hilarious at the same time. Now I don't know if we're exactly hilarious here, but you'll here me laugh a lot in this, and, hell, that's good enough for me.
This episode's intro and outro songs, for your downloading pleasure: