At some point a third of the way into Charlie Kaufman's new film "Synecdoche, New York," Hazel, brilliantly played by Samantha Morton, goes to a house she proposes to rent (buy?) with a real-estate agent. They discuss its merits and demerits, never mentioning that the place is on fire, with flames leaping about and smoke filling every room. Whenever we revisit Hazel in her house, the flames are crackling away, but the house hasn't burned down and no one says anything. Eventually, after she ages with fantastic verisimilitude, she dies. Smoke inhalation, someone speculates idly. Otherwise, never any indication of why, never the slightest surprise. The fire just is.
The title "Synecdoche," not exactly a marketing winner, actually means something relevant to the plot, but it is also a play on Schenectady, a song about which is sung at the beginning by the angelic Sadie Goldstein, playing the four-year-old Olive. It's a sad, gloomy film, frustrating to some. I used to consider Rex Reed the most reliable film critic I knew, in that whatever he liked, I hated, and vice versa. Recently he's been confusing me by liking some decent movies. But he HATED "Synecdoche," restoring my faith in him.
A lot of people find Kaufman annoying, and nowhere more so than here. His movies play mind games. They are full of nutsy allusions and plot dead ends and details that don't make literal sense, like that burning house. But to me, "Synecdoche" is the work of a poet. Kaufman creates metphysical stage (like Robert Wilson) or film magic, and magic needn't, shouldn't, be explained.
The movie is the story of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character's adult life, right up to the end: the last word is a simple shocker. He's a theater director, and the conceit is that he tries to make his life, and those of everyone he cares about, into a gigantic, world-encompassing play. I won't go on; see it yourself, but by the end, art has swallowed life, whole.
I called this post "commercial art" because it's astonishing that a film this grand and complex could be released commercially. In New York, at least, it's been playing for weeks, and there was a decent crowd at a 6:30 show last night. Its (no doubt modest, financially) success gives the lie to those who still claim that commercial art, art made by the entertainment machine and released to the world by base commercial interests, is necessarily compromised.
This is no scruffy indie rock record or "Blair Witch Project," appealing for its very modesty. No, this is a Wagnerian vision, grounded in present-day American reality and dreams. And it has a cast to die for, from Hoffman and Morton and Ms. Goldstein to Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest and many, many more.
For me, it gave hope that mainstream American culture, so riddled with greed and corporate compromise, can still engender art with a capital A. "Synecdoche, New York" is certainly art, but with no invidious elitist connotations at all. Except, maybe, to Rex Reed.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.