Thursday, 9 March 2017

Charlie Kaufman - Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa

"I don't know what the hell a third Act is!"

Charlie Kaufman is world renowned and more famously known as the screenplay writing genius behind so many eponymous films of the 21st Century. His twisted, surreal screenplays have been filmed on the big screen by Directors of the calibre of Spike Jonze (twice), Michel Gondry (twice) and George Clooney, culminating in some of the funniest, challenging and outright bizarre films of the past two decades. As film fans we have journeyed into the mind of John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich), followed the comedic pursuits of Tim Robbins (Human Nature), seen a twisted and brilliant portrayal of Charlie himself via Nicolas Cage (Adaptation), been enchanted and enthralled by Sam Rockwell's portrayal of the tortured genius of Chuck Barris (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) before crying along with a mind wiped Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). All five films are particular favourites of mine, three of which can be found in my archived blogs here for Spike Jonze and George Clooney.

Hence far Synecdoche, New York in 2008 and Anomalisa in 2015 are Charlie's only forays behind the directorial camera and suffice to say he also wrote or co-wrote both screenplays for the films. As with all of my film blogs I have written the following appraisals from the perspective of a genuine fan and with the intention of providing just 5-10% of the total film as a taster for you to either watch for the first time or to enjoy all over again. It is not my intention to provide spoilers, fact tracks or trivia as all of this and more can be found elsewhere on the internet! This is my personal, reflective take on Charlie Kaufman's first two films as a Director and I sincerely hope you enjoy my individual take on two very individual films.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

"I've told you before, it's not a play about dating. It's about death. Make it personal"

Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is clearly many things. A labour of love for sure and a somewhat autobiographical tale of a man desperately seeking that truly unique piece of artistic creation. Equally Synecdoche, New York (a slight play on words as the film is set primarily in Schenectady, New York and that synecdoche means a part of something that represents the whole, and vice versa - a key theme of the film) has echoes of his screenplay for "Being John Malkovich" in 1999 and of a man in the midst of an existential crisis, pondering on the meaning of life and the threat of death. The man in question is Caden Cotard and is brilliantly portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his best performances ever to hit the big screen.

"Caden Cotard" 
(Philip Seymour Hoffman) Before and after playing Cotard here, consider these impressive roles portrayed by Hoffman: Scotty J in Boogie Nights, the incredibly sympathetic performance as Phil Parma in Magnolia, Truman Capote, Paul Zara in The Ides of March and the tour de force performance in yet another Paul Thomas Anderson film, The Master, as figurehead Lancaster Dodd. And in my humble opinion his performance here rates amongst the very best of his unfortunately short career. One of the greatest actors of our generation, he gives everything in his portrayal of Cotard as the film spans 30+ years of his life from 40 years of age onward until his death. Cotard is a hypochondriac theatre director seeking to leave the legacy of his lifetime, that one true piece of unique art that he will be remembered by. But from the very outset of the film we see and feel the angst within him. "I don't feel well" he proclaims early in the piece before we see him deteriorate in skin lesions and horrific visits to the toilet. In his mind, illness is everywhere and he's constantly at odds with life, distressed by everyday occurrences, the television, junk mail and adverts and from a family that he is becoming more and more distanced from. Clearly experiencing an existential crisis, he is melancholic, cold even and too honest for his own good at times as he ponders the meaning of life and his mortality. Cotard is constantly surrounded by women and never fully able to engage, always missing and wanting someone that he can't have. As a means of distraction maybe, he secures the ability to follow his dream by creating a self contained world in a vast warehouse that quickly resembles and very quickly escalates into a exact representation of his world and experiences, a play within a play and indeed a life within a life until the lines between fiction and reality blur to indistinguishable levels. All day every day is now spent "on set" with character doubles for every person within his life, even himself, with his mind fracturing piece by piece as he strives to continue his unique theatre art.

"Caden, when are we going to get an audience in here? It's been seventeen years".

In a vast production such as this there are far too many characters and events to describe fully (and setting aside spoilers) the supporting cast are superb with each uniquely adding to this surreal film. Catherine Keener portrays Cotard's first wife "Adele Lack" brilliantly, aloof and distant from Cotard and a polar opposite of his melancholic demeanour, she is a fellow artist also seeking that one unique art form opportunity who with the help of her best friend "Maria" (Jennifer Jason Leigh) soon tires of Cotard and his ailments and angst and moves to Berlin to further her artistic career. Now alone, Cotard spends significant time with perhaps the one true human being to cross his path and with whom he would finally fall in love but never truly have in his life. "Hazel" is brought to life magnificently by Samantha Morton in a sympathetic and empathetic role that truly draws you as the audience further into the film. Being a Charlie Kaufman film, naturally Hazel lives in a burning house! "I like it I do" proclaims Hazel on the house "But I'm really concerned about dying in the fire". The joint scenes between Hoffman and Morton are the film's true heart beat, yet truly heartbreaking as long into their twilight years Cotard laments to Hazel "You've been a part of me forever. I breathe your name in every exhalation". With the play continuing with no end or indeed audience in sight, every member of Cotard's life begins to be played within this "play within a play" structure by jobbing actors and this is never more striking than with "Sammy Barnathan" (Tom Noonan) who portrays Cotard himself. In an almost wraith like performance, Noonan is utterly compelling as he eerily admits "I've been following you for 20 years" and has learnt every aspect of Cotard before enacting what he's learnt in real life. Sorry, within the play! Are you as confused as I am?!

With striking parallels to Kaufman's previous writings and with an admitted autobiographical tone, Synecdoche, New York is soaked with further parallels to Shakespeare and a play within a play and of course "All the world's a stage, and the men and women merely players". But from a present day perspective it is perhaps more accurate to describe it as an existential exploration of the human condition, of death and decay within a fractured and schizophrenic mind trying to make sense of the world he cocoons himself away from. Every time I've watched this incredible debut film from Kaufman I've found the lead up to the denouement incredibly moving and difficult to watch, due in no small way to his lead actor's stunning portrayal. The film can be a difficult watch at times, frustrating even, but I find it continually fascinating and intriguing which will always reward with repeated viewings.

Anomalisa (2015)

"I think I have psychological problems"

Co written and indeed co Directed with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa is a stop motion animation based on Charlie's stage play of 10 years earlier. As with Synecdoche, New York above and the screenplays Charlie has written during the past two decades, this film has severely divided opinion but with Charlie Kaufman, what's new?! In essence, Anomalisa follows a similar path and traits of many of Charlie's previous works, of isolation, loneliness and a general angst on the meaning of life as we follow the lonely existence of "Michael Stone" (voiced by David Thewlis) a published author and expert in Customer Services who flies into Cincinnati to give a key note speech on the importance of providing good customer service. However, as becomes evident soon after arriving and checking into his hotel for the evening Michael is anything but the friendly, smiling and giving person he espouses in his book or indeed, career. As the film progresses, and by his own admission "It's boring. Everything's boring" and more directly "I'm really bloody lonely", it's starkly evident that Michael is incredibly insular, lonely, aloof and self obsessed and by the film's end he has fully developed and cuts a very sad but sharp, awkward and quite obnoxious individual, all of which flies in the face of his stated career.

The stop motion animation is beautifully realised and constantly challenges that "uncanny valley" area of blurring the artificiality of the animation with human like reality in nearly every area of the film, whether it's on board the aeroplane at the beginning of the film, via the taxi journey to a beautifully realised hotel suite, restaurant or the adult shop where the film's first of several Kaufmanesque surreal comedic moments occur with a drunken Michael knocking over a large dildo on the shop's front counter. There are many more comedic surreal moments in this often quite bleak portrayal of loneliness and this mustn't be overlooked in the overall context. The key however, regarding the animation here is of the characters faces and voices as clearly by design and to heighten Michael's own solipsistic state of mind and narcissism is that all the faces of the other characters within his world appear eerily the same, especially so the voices too, as whether the voice is of an embittered ex girlfriend or of his current wife and young child they are all the same and voiced by Tom Noonan, who returns after starring so admirably in Kaufman's first film (see above). With one exception.

"Lisa" (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is quite literally an "anomaly" and hence her pet name given to her by Michael becomes "Anomalisa". Lisa is different, unusual and unexpected on every level to Michael as she has her own personality, viewpoint, facial features, voice and even a facial scare she hides with her hair. Lisa is a young, naive and nervous chatterbox and her youthful demeanour attracts Michael instantly, despite being married with a young child he is instantly enchanted and attracted to her but his fascination quickly becomes in keeping with his fractured and uneven personality. He is almost predatory in his desire for her whilst all the while haunted by the demons inside his head as he battles with his feelings of isolation and loneliness. There are many more instances of his fractured and unhinged personality but spoilers won't allow for further dissection.

This film is well worthy of 90 minutes of your time as it will intrigue as much as it may dismay, enchant as well as raising a chuckle or two, despite the main character's immense personality flaws. The stop motion animation never grates and flows majestically at times and is accompanied by a beautiful musical score from the ever dependable Carter Burwell. The music itself was the first note I made for the purposes of this review, often dropping out of the on going narrative altogether but when present accompanies the film perfectly. Anomalisa was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Film at the 2016 Oscars, losing to the incredibly popular "Inside Out".

No comments:

Post a Comment