Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
What is it that you want a film to do?
There’s a school of thought that says that every film is perfect. In that it does everything that it does one hundred per cent. And so if you’re watching it and there’s something that you don’t like or think isn’t really any good – well – that’s on you. You wouldn’t complain about a landscape not being right after all (“Oh no. That rock is in the wrong place”). True enlightenment comes from accepting everything just as it is and not wishing it was something else.
Needless to say – I do not agree with this approach.
For the past few films for the Film Club I’ve kinda been bashing the idea of Art House. And I mean yeah this isn’t a particularly fresh stance I’d admit. Most people think that Art House is rubbish after all. It’s even in the definition… Take it away Wikipedia… “An art film (or art house film) is typically an independent film, aimed at a niche market rather than a mass market audience. It is “intended to be a serious, artistic work, often experimental and not designed for mass appeal”, “made primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than commercial profit”, and contains “unconventional or highly symbolic content.”
The important point here is that art house films aren’t widely popular because that’s how they’re deliberately made. Which I don’t know seems kinda backwards to me? I’ve always thought that the point of anything is always to try to reach as many people as possible (but maybe that’s my brain defect?).
But yeah – my stance on art house films is that (unlike most people) I don’t think that they’re too smart and sophisticated and whatever. No. It’s the opposite. I just kinda think they’re dumb. And Ninety nine point nine times out of ten they’re nowhere near as intelligent and insightful as they seem to think they are… And mostly the effect is like watching someone unveiling a painting that they think contains somekind of deep meaning about the world and humanity and it’s just a scrawl that says “I don’t know. Stuff?” on it. Like – if you want to say something deep and meaningful then you have to make sure you have something deep and meaningful to say – right?
And yeah ok. I get it. Maybe that’s a lot to ask for. Maybe not everyone is smart enough to make a movie that’s like that. And maybe most people are just scrambling around in the dark and trying the best they can. But hey – you know what? Every few years or so (if you’re really lucky) a film comes along that actually shows you that it’s possible to make a movie that actually has a point to make. That is powered by ideas. That isn’t afraid to communicate in a different register and actually attempt some kind of profundity and isn’t afraid to take some risks and run the risk of looking stupid.
And sure. Maybe some people think that this movie is a little bit too pretentious. And is all much too boring. And doesn’t make any sense. And is way too self-indulgent. But I guess that’s the price you have to pay if you want to make something that actually does the things that art is supposed to do. You know – make you make think about the big questions. About life. About art. About self. About people. About aging. About love. About family. About death. About fucking everything.
So erm yeah – what is it that I want a film to do?
Basically – all the things that Synecdoche, New York does. Because the secret truth is most films don’t have a point and are made cackhandedly by idiots who have no real idea what they’re doing. Like a book that’s written with the words upside and missing pages. And it’s annoying and frustrating and a waste of time. But the upside is – when you come across a movie that’s like this it’s like finally being able to see right and see a movie that’s done right.
Because the problem with the vast majority of art house movies is that they’re not very good movies. And sadly most people aren’t up to the challenge of actually making art.
But it does mean it’s good when you find someone who is.
Joel asks: “What is it that you want a film to do?”
See, my standards for any given film aren’t super high. The answer to this question is always going to be entertain me.
And I’m open about how that entertainment occurs. As long as I’m entertained, I’m willing to consider the 90-120 minutes (or more!) of my life that I spent with the film not wasted. And I can be entertained in a lot of ways. I can be entertained by how terrible something is just was well as I can be entertained by how beautiful it is. I can be entertained by poop jokes and deep philosophical themes. I can be entertained by brainless movies that are basically just lens flares and special effects and giant lizards fighting giant sharks, and I can be entertained by low budget, cerebral stage adaptations that are mostly dialog and pregnant pauses.
What I’m saying is, I’m not real picky. Or maybe I’m just easily entertained. As far as I’m concerned, the only unforgivable sin in art is tedium.
In a more general way, because I think we’re kind of edging into that kind of criticism for this film, for a long time, I’ve used Goethe’s questions from On Criticism as my basic framework for deciding what to say about an art. Be it literature, film, comics, weird taxidermy on Etsy. I find them applicable to pretty much every medium when I need a way to structure my thinking about a piece of art.
Those questions being: what did the artist set out to do, how well has the artist succeeded in their goal, and was it something worth doing? Paraphrased, obviously.
Needless to say, I also don’t agree with the approach that every art arted is inherently perfect once it’s been arted into existence. It is what it is… but art isn’t only about the end result. It’s also about the intent and the end result must be measured against the metric of the artist’s intent. The loftier the intent, the higher that bar.
In a lot of ways Synecdoche, New York is about that failure, right? The failure of the creation to live up to the artist’s vision, and the idea that you can masturbate to the same artistic fantasy your entire life, stroking it in perpetuity, constantly revising it to reflect your current reality, but without ever finishing it. Without ever putting it before an audience to be measured.
And what is unfinished art? Is it maybe a metaphor for life? There is no tidy conclusion to mortality either. There’s no climax and gentle denouement. There’s no satisfying resolution. There’s only death, when everything stops. A life is what it is. It’s not perfect just because it existed. It’s full of failures and inadequacies, but if it should be measured, it should be measured by the intent.
I think Synecdoche, New York does all of the things in Joel’s definition: It is “intended to be a serious, artistic work, often experimental and not designed for mass appeal”… Check. – “made primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than commercial profit”… Check. – Contains “unconventional or highly symbolic content.”… Check.
And I admit, when I see “art house”, when I see “independent film”, my inner voice goes oh no.
This film, it was aesthetic. I enjoyed looking at it. And it has Philip Seymour Hoffman. If you’re gonna make an art house film, please at least put Philip Seymour Hoffman in it.
As for experimental, with unconventional and highly symbolic content. You can call me a barbarian and lacking in artistic sensibilities, or say my brain’s been ruined by the predigested pap of mass produced pop culture. And those things might be true. But I find as I get older, I have less tolerance for pretentious obfuscation and bullshit in art.
And these things, it seems like they’re hallmarks of art house.
I often feel like it’s either cowardice–that the artist is too craven to say what they want to say, so they obfuscate it with symbolism and metaphor to leave themselves weasel room…. just in case. “Oh, is that what it means to you?” *thoughtful pose* Or they don’t have anything to say, and, as the man said, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. Put enough evocative imagery in there and film it in black and white maybe. Human brains will start to try and discern meaning. Plus everything looks profound in black and white.
Life is too short to spend on art that won’t ever get to the point, or just doesn’t have one.
But sometimes. Sometimes. Something comes along that has something to say. That’s trying to say something complex. It can’t be said clearly and concisely because it’s big and messy, and it’s full of spiders, it’s never going to be wrapped easily in a tidy little hundred and ten minute package, with or without a big lizard.
Sometimes an art has to be hard. Sometimes the audience has to chew their own food.
Lately I’ve had some discussions about audience, some of which have run me smack into Joel’s opinion: “I’ve always thought that the point of anything is always to try to reach as many people as possible.”
Often that point is being raised by people who are feeling something didn’t try hard enough to reach them.
And I think no.
It’s okay to make things that aren’t for everyone. I think it’s essential. I don’t even think trying to reach as many people as possible is always a great goal for art. (As opposed to a big budget summer blockbuster with commercial ambitions. Which… is it art? Is it not art? I think this might be a different discussion. Maybe.)
Sometimes maybe the artist just has to do their best to make the art, knowing all the while that every choice they make eliminates someone from the audience. Is the audience even an essential part of the art. Maybe? Probably. Does art even have to reach anyone? I guess art is still art even if the only audience of the art is the artist. Right?
And now I feel like I’ve come full circle back to Synecdoche, New York, where Caden Cotard is creating his piece de resistance. His literal and metaphorical life’s work. But this grand, elaborate creation never has an audience. And that leaves me with the question: who is it for?
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