Friday, December 5, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (Rhoades)

‘Synecdoche’ Takes Us Inside a Genius’s Head

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

After I left Harper’s Magazine, where I was associate publisher, it was made into a nonprofit, largely funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. John R. MacArthur – better known to his friends as Rick – is now publisher and president of the magazine.

Rick’s grandfather’s foundation also gives out those so-called Genius Awards. Properly termed MacArthur Fellowships, 20 to 40 are awarded each year to US citizens who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”

The fellowships aren’t based on past accomplishment, but rather they are considered “an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” The current award is $500,000, paid in quarterly installments over five years. Nearly 800 recipients have received more than $350 million to encourage their creativity.

Once when I was having lunch with Rick, I quipped, “How do I get one of those Genius Awards?”

He laughed and said, “It helps to be a genius.”

Oh well.

In the new film “Synecdoche, New York” – a word play on the city of Schenectady, New York, where a part of the story takes place – a theater director receives a MacArthur genius grant and uses the money to build a replica of New York City in a warehouse and encourages his ensemble cast to live out their constructed lives in this artificial environment.

This oddball film – written and directed by oddball Charlie Kaufman – opens today at the Tropic Cinema.

You know Kaufman’s work: He wrote the screenplays for “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” He won Oscar nods for those first two and an actual statuette for the last.

Charlie Kaufman likes to blend reality and fiction. “Being John Malkovich” takes place inside the head of real-life actor John Malkovich. In “Adaptation” one of the characters is a fictional Charlie Kaufman who has an identical twin much like the real one. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is a purported autobiography of game show host Chuck Barris in which his imaginary life of a CIA hitman is explored. And “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” tells us about a man using a doctor to erase memories of a failed relationship from his brain.

Head games, to be sure.

In Synecdoche, New York,” the theater director (brilliantly portrayed by indie veteran Philip Seymour Hoffman) must deal with the women in his life while he builds a faux city to house his faux people.

There’s a great female cast: Catherine Keener as his estranged wife, Samantha Morton as his unhappy girlfriend, Hope Davis as his self-absorbed therapist – plus Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, and Michelle Williams. Quite a handful for our director cum playwright.

The term “synecdoche” is actually a figure of speech in which a part of something is referred to as the whole – or vice versa. For instance, “all hands on deck” (meaning all of the sailors, not just their hands) or “use your head” (meaning the brain, not the entire skull).

Yep, head games.

In the early ’80s Kaufman started out writing on spec for National Lampoon, the humor magazine. By 2004 Time Magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.


This is his directorial debut. Rotten Tomatoes says the film “strains to connect, but ultimately provides fascinating insight into a writer’s mind.”

Charlie Kaufman may indeed be a genius. But – I must point out – he’s never won a MacArthur Fellowship award.

[from Solares Hill]

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