25 February 2010
24 February 2010
22 February 2010
Maybe it's just me, but I imagine Charlie Kaufman will always be best known to the world at large for the remarkable Being John Malkovich. That hasn't stopped him from pursuing his intensely singular vision over the course of five subsequent films, though, all equally excellent in their own right. After Malkovich in 1999, he wrote Human Nature (2001), Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (both 2002) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), but with 2008's Synecdoche, New York, he finally made the transition to directing and in doing so, crafted one of the most brilliant, complex and assured pieces of filmmaking of the last few decades.
To say it's challenging would be like describing reality TV as banal: This is not light entertainment. Anyone satisfied by the comfortably predictable fare regularly cranked out by the Hollywood studio system probably isn't going to see what all the fuss is about. There's nothing easy about this film, and it's difficult to describe. I won't let that stop me from rattling off a mildly unwieldy plot synopsis, though...
On the surface, it's the story of theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose relationship with his wife Adele, a gifted painter on the brink of international stardom (Catherine Keener), unravels as he achieves success with his production of Death of a Salesmen (using all young actors, so the notion that they'll eventually wind up as crushed and disillusioned as poor Willy Loman) and begins to mount an ambitious new play. Armed with a MacArthur "genius" grant and committed to the ideal of producing something brutally real, he assembles an enormous ensemble cast, moves into a massive warehouse in Manhattan's theater district and begins directing his cast to recreate the most mundane moments of life in a series of individual and all-too-lifelike vignettes. In the process, the lines between fiction and non-fiction in Caden's world blur; the differences between what's real and imagined become increasingly hard to ascertain.
There's much more to it than that, of course. Caden is also beset by mounting health problems and following the abrupt dissolution of his marriage, he seeks solace in relationships with Claire, one of his actors (Michelle Williams), and Hazel, a strikingly candid young woman who could well be the love of his life (Samantha Morton). He's also heartbroken over the loss of his four-year-old daughter Olive, whom Adele takes with her when she leaves, obsessively reading and re-reading her diary years after she's out of his life. Oh, and the actor hired to play Caden in the play, a man named Sammy (Tom Noonan) who has followed the director for 20 years and knows him almost better than he knows himself, is just a little too good at his part, creating friction first with Claire and then later (and disastrously) with Hazel. And that's to say nothing of the constantly burning houses, an obsession with household chores, the eternal construction of the play's sprawling set and several different identity changes.
There's a lot going on.
In addition to gradually letting reality warp around his characters as Caden buries himself deeper and deeper in his masterpiece, Kaufman plays fast and loose with chronology, with time elapsing as rapidly and inconsistently as it might in a dream and leaving the audience (and even Caden himself) unsure how many years have been passed from one moment to the next. In fact, at times, it seems likely that some, if not all, of the film's events are merely fevered recollections of things that were or perhaps could have been, unrealized hopes and dreams mixed in amongst the failures of a life crashing down to its end. There are certainly several "Paul is dead"-sequel moments throughout the film: At one point, Caden's therapist asks him, "Why did you kill yourself?" before surreptitiously rephrasing the question as "Why would you kill yourself?" and then at another, Caden ponders whether his long-dead father was present at his mother's funeral. He confuses a newspaper headline about Harold Pinter winning the Noble Prize with an obituary, and he sees himself in a number of bizarre television ads. At times, it's almost like watching his memories and dreams, replayed out of sequence as he slowly awakens from the dream of life.
It's all a bit heady – apart from some obvious references to Arthur Miller, Kaufman also manages to invoke Kafka, Pinter and Dostoyevsky – but at the same time, it's incredibly heartfelt. Messy summaries aside, Kaufman does an excellent job of allowing us to witness the agony of a man so achingly self-aware that he hasn't a clue who he really is or what he really wants, so obsessed with what could be that he never fully appreciates what is. Kaufman really covers all the bases here: life, death, love, sex, creativity, ambition... but he does so in such a careful way that it never comes across as preachy or contrived. And there are so many genuinely touching, truly poignant moments in this film that it's impossible not to absorb the ridiculously simple message that it is better to live in the world as it is than as we might wish it to be. Easier said than done, but something to aspire to, nonetheless.
Many will find this film to be something of a downer, and make no mistake: There are some incredibly bleak moments here. As with all Kaufman's work, though, here's also a lot to laugh at – sometimes when you're least expecting to – and the sheer magnitude of the cast makes Synecdoche, New York an absolute pleasure to watch. Hoffman, Keener, Morton and Williams are always excellent, but Kaufman's script allows each and every one of them to outdo themselves, and the same goes for Emily Watson, Hope Davis and the inimitable Dianne Wiest in their brief roles. And if it you like it as much as I did, here's some good news: It's such a unique film that it's even better when viewed more than once. (I've seen it four times at this point.) There's such an avalanche of ideas, thoughts and feelings in this movie, it's almost impossible to process them all in one sitting. Like David Lynch's (ever-so-vaguely related) Mulholland Drive, it may not necessarily reward multiple viewings with absolute clarity, but it will give you a greater sense of what the questions are and what Kaufman is truly trying to accomplish with this one of a kind work. If nothing else, it will give you even more to ponder, which to my mind, at least, is something all great fiction, regardless of the medium, should strive for.
It's a modern classic. If you missed it in the theater, by all means make it a point to see it on DVD.
21 February 2010
...and then from much later, at London's Hammersmith Apollo during their 2001 reunion tour...
After teasing a new album by the original members (including Eno) since their reformation, it's sounding more and more like that's not going to happen and they'll just continue to tour. If they continue to sound this good, then great. It's not like there aren't five amazing albums and a couple good ones for fans to enjoy in the mean time.
19 February 2010
18 February 2010
“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, for the people and by the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master… Let the bloodhounds of money who have dogged us thus far beware.”
–Mary Elizabeth Lease (1890)
"Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was..."
–David Byrne (1980)
17 February 2010
16 February 2010
15 February 2010
To be fair, Eric Clapton isn't the only cultural icon from the early '60s to make a wrong turn at the style crossroads: They all did. For the kids at street level, the sharp look of the '60s Mod gave way to hippiedom or was taken a step further with the original Skinhead look, but the musicians of the time seemed to get caught up in fad after fad. It worked for some – others wound up looking like walking reminders that fashions may fade, but style is eternal.
14 February 2010
12 February 2010
One of the best examples is Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram, published by Image Comics. Now on its second volume, it's a series I'd recommended to anyone who appreciates indie comics, even more so if you're partial to British Pop.
You can read the first issue of volume one here.
11 February 2010
10 February 2010
09 February 2010
08 February 2010
07 February 2010
06 February 2010
There have been no "Calvin & Hobbes" films or animated series, no "Calvin & Hobbes" cereal or t-shirts or underoos. Despite pressure from his publisher, creator Bill Watterson was (and is) staunchly against merchandising his characters. And as with the value he places on his privacy, his decision to confine his creations to their original medium has been met with a resounding lack of understanding, not just by the media, but by many fans of his work.
Longish story shortish: Watterson is to comics what J.D. Salinger was to modern American literature.
Sure, Watterson has been a bit more accommodating of the press than Salinger. He has occasionally written about other comic strips and every so often, he'll speak with the press. So, it was interesting to read this reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer grapple with questions surrounding Watterson's decision to end "Calvin & Hobbes" in this rare interview. As Watterson explains, "It isn't as hard to understand as people make it," but don't expect that to stop them from trying to unravel another mystery that never was.