synecdoche

In a video essay published last week, Amy Nicholson (from LA Weekly) and I dove into some of the intricacies of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. This week in Part 2, we examine the role of Sammy Barnathan, ponder why Caden wears a wig later on in the film, reflect on the role of Madeline Gravis, and try to figure out why everyone is everyone, as the world outside of the play collapses.

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The recent, tragic passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman prompted me to look back at some of his most memorable work. One of his films that I’ve always wanted to delve more deeply into is Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman‘s meditation on mortality and creativity. While I admired much about what the film is trying to do and say – and Hoffman is tremendous in it – I found that even after repeated viewings, many of the film’s meanings and themes eluded me (despite already having recorded a lengthy podcast episode on the topic 4 years ago). I was fortunate to team up with someone way more knowledgeable than me to create a video essay about Synecdoche: Amy Nicholson from LA Weekly and the Village Voice podcast.

In the below video essay, Amy and I discuss the meaning of certain elements in the film, such as the burning house, Caden’s ailing health, Violet’s poisonous tattoos, and the fluidity of time. We chatted for so long that I had to break our conversation up into two separate parts, making this part 1 of a 2-part video essay (part 2 will come next week). Check it out after the jump.
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What do our movies say about us and the world that we live in?

As 2009 has come to an end and 2010 is already upon us, a myriad of “Best of the decade” lists have been unleashed, many of them in the realm of film. Whether or not I agree with their choices, I find many of them to be fascinating reads. It’s always interesting to reflect upon the vastness of the body of work we’ve witnessed over the past decade. But comparing the films of this decade to the films of other decades may offer even more insight into how our sensibilities are changing.

I was home for the holidays, playing cards with my brother, and listening to my iPod music playing on the shuffle setting, when I heard a track come on from the soundtrack of The Truman Show, entitled “Raising the Sail.” Hit the jump to hear the track, and for some more thoughts on how movies have changed over the past few decades.

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Obviously, the staff at /Film collectively views Spike Jonze‘s Where the Wild Things Are with a certain reverence. The film is simply a win all around, tastefully exploring and modernizing the notions of imaginative nostalgia and vice versa that are so often exploited these days in the name of “geekdom” and “hipsterdom.” On a related note, I’ve always found it a bit profound that Ain’t It Cool and Vice magazine were started within two years of one another (’96 and ’94, respectively); both went on to make a positive, DIY impact on culture in the aughts unlike anything in new media this side of negative influencers like Matt Drudge and Rupert Murdoch. Back then, I remember thinking that Austin’s Harry Knowles was fat off movies (and ‘shrooms?) and the Brooklyn staff at Vice was lithe off drugs and deadlines, but there was something in common: they both ignored Old Media (now dying), didn’t give a damn about design trends, and did things the way they should be done, with knowledge, a cultivated attitude, and enthusiasm.

One the main and most important guys who has helped Vice see its way to 23 offices around the globe, millions of readers, and untold cultural influence is the mag’s long-term Editor-in-Chief Jesse Pearson. He also plays a role in the company’s video website, VBS.tv, where WTWTA director, Spike Jonze, serves as the creator director. On the eve of Vice‘s 15th anniversary and a coinciding $250K Halloween party in Brooklyn, we spoke with Pearson about the future of the company’s Vice Films (where Jonze is also involved) and regarding the mag’s recent, highly recommended Film Issue. He also shared a few of his favorite films and welcome ideas about the state of cinema, the ever-controversial fast-moving zombie, and the “Chaos Reigns” fox in Antichrist (not to mention the fetching photo shown above.)

Hunter Stephenson: Hi Jesse. Vice has released a film issue that arrives during a very interesting, chaotic time for cinema, especially in the States. And Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is an important film that I think signifies a steamy unification between two of the aughts’ biggest influential youth movements; to the eye rolls of many on both sides: the geeks and the hipsters. And as such, it seems a great time for /Film and Vice to have a chat. Since Spike is the creative director at Vice‘s VBS.tv, what are your thoughts on his latest film in terms of its cultural relevance and do you agree with these notions?

Jesse Pearson: Right now, all I really feel qualified to gauge in terms of cultural relevance is the film’s trailer and all of the general advance expectations surrounding the movie. I know that I have rarely, maybe never, seen a trailer create so much visceral excitement in so many people. Friends have told me that they cried watching it. That seems a wee bit over the top to me. But, to partially answer your question, I think that the amount of drooling going on in advance of Where the Wild Things Are is very interesting and very telling. What it means to me is that people, lots of people, maybe people in the two much-maligned, very amorphous and perhaps not-really-existing-in-the-way-that-most-people-mean-it-when-they-say-it groups that you mentioned, geeks and hipsters… Wait, where was I going with this?

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Thirty minutes into Visioneers—a high concept indie dramedy that is, well, brand new to the public—I was consumed by the thought that I, most likely, will never see the movie for sale in a really choice record store. (Don’t worry, this movie review will not serve as a wistful rant on the music industry courtesy of a wannabe Nick Hornby or Chuck Klosterman.) The realization got me down for a half-a-second. Nevertheless, calling Visioneers a “prized would-be staple of the ‘choice record store movie genre’” is a tidy complement that sums up how I feel about it.

In the mid/late ‘90s and early ‘00s, one could find a softly-curated section of DVDs in many independent record stores. Browsing the small selection was a welcome, habitual cool-down after hours spent listening to and considering albums. Generally, the selection amounted to: concert films like Ziggy Stardust, The Show, and Bill Hicks Live. Drug movies like Easy Rider and Neco z Alenky. Godzillas. Tromas. “OG”-flicks like New Jack City and Fresh. Usually a movie starring Natasha Lyonne that wasn’t American Pie. Docs like Grey Gardens and The Corporation. And odd movies starring great comedians like The Magic Christian and The Razor’s Edge. Right, Visioneers would be bunched in with those two.

Of course, “cult movies” is a broad umbrella term for these films, then and especially now, but their location under a roof housing infinite great music birthed the silent notion that the works belonged to a cinematic family. The odd symbiotic relationship is perhaps why the DVDs were rarely purchased; another reason is that, while the DVDs were new, the hands of countless gross nerds, junkies, and patchouli weirdos had flipped them over in states of blank studiousness and after many months of this they felt second-hand. Yet another reason is that most of the diehard culture addicts were shopping for music and…had already seen the majority of these films multiple times.

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/FilmCast

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In this special episode of the /Filmcast: After Dark, David Chen, Devindra Hardawar and Adam Quigley devote 80 minutes to discussing Charlie Kaufman’s frustrating, enigmatic, and brilliant film, Synecdoche, New York. Special guests Matt Singer from IFC and Angie Han join us.

Have any feedback? You can always e-mail us at slashfilmcast(AT)gmail(DOT)com or call and leave a voicemail at 781-583-1993. Join us next Wednesday night at Slashfilm’s live page at 9 PM EST / 6 PM PST as we review Fast and Furious.

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Interview with Charlie Kaufman

In September, I had the opportunity to sit down with Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine and his directorial debut – Synecdoche, New York. Interviewing Charlie Kaufman is like playing a tennis match that you just can’t win. I went into the interview with questions about symbolism and themes, but one of the first things he said was that he doesn’t want to talk about the meaning of the film. And that’s fine. So the interview became more about the process of screenwriting and the transition into directing, than it did about the movie itself. Synecdoche, New York will be in a few theaters beginning this weekend.

Peter Sciretta: Do you typically write your films hoping that audience will require multiple viewings?

Charlie Kaufman: Yes. Well, I think it makes it more interesting for an audience to have some complexity in the material, and also, I’ve got this sort of thing where I’m trying to make it feel like it’s a living piece of theater, as opposed to a set, sort of a pre-recorded thing. And it’s sort of a tricky thing to try to make film feel alive because it isn’t. So this way, it can change when you watch it again at a different point in your life, or just seeing it for the second time, you’re going to see things you couldn’t possibly see the first time because you didn’t know something until the end. But, also, you get to look at details. You can watch things that are happening in the background of scenes that are informative that you probably don’t see the first time through when you’re just trying to get the thing. So that’s why.

Peter Sciretta: I’ve talked to a lot of people that they have that moment of realization or something a week or two after they see one of your films.

Charlie Kaufman: Yes, well, I mean I’ve heard that with this movie, in particular, that people tend to have a delayed reaction, that it sort of sits with them and becomes more affecting over time, which is kind of nice for me to hear that there’s a continuing relationship with the work in someone’s brain. It’s still processing over time. I think most movies aren’t designed to do that; they’re designed to get people into the box, into the theater on the opening weekend and make a lot of money. I guess it’s kind of an unfortunate sort of direction for something that’s an art form, or it should be or can be.

Peter Sciretta: What are the origins of Synecdoche?

Charlie Kaufman: I started to talk with Spike Jonze. We were going to do a horror movie for Sony, and we were talking about, well, what’s really scary rather than what horror movie conventions are that were scary. So we were talking about aging and dying and illness and family and loss and regret and loneliness and kind of went in to Amy Pascal and just pitched a kind of a general sort of direction, and she just wanted to work with us because we’d done adaptation there, and she liked us. So she told me to go off and write it, and I did. And it took me a few years to write it, and then Spike had become involved with Where the Wild Things Are, and I asked him if he would let go of it so that I could direct it, and he said yes.

Peter Sciretta:
What made you to want to direct this film? You’ve written a lot of films for Spike that show…
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The very first Oscar precursor every year is the announcement of the Gotham Independent Film Awards. It’s not a strong precursor, but sometimes the oldest and largest organization of independent filmmakers have some influence with Golden Globe and Oscar voters.

Back in 2004, Gotham voters got behind Maria Full of Grace in a big way giving its Breakthrough Actor Award to Catalina Sandino Moreno, and she landed an Academy Award nomination for her heartbreaking performance as a “drug mule.” In that same year Sideways won IFP’s Best Feature and went on to crack the Best Picture field at Oscar time. The 2005 Gotham winners for Best Feature (Capote), Breakthrough Director (Capote director Bennett Miller) and Breakthrough Actor (Amy Adams from Junebug) all became Oscar nominees. In the last 2 years, the Gothams have helped Half Nelson screenwriter Ryan Fleck, Babel actress Ringo Kikuchi and Ellen Page from Juno reach the movie industry’s biggest night.

Here are 2008’s Gotham nominees along with some analysis.
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