Film

Kaufman's 'Synecdoche' Is Complex, Compelling Quirk


Synecdoche, New York

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Weist, Tom Noonan
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Sony Classics
First date: 2008
US Release Date: 2008-10-24

Love isn't easy. Neither is life. Both bring us so much sorrow and pain that it's weird how obsessive we are over each one. We covet them both, loathe the times when we are without them, and wonder why we are being picked by the All Powerful to have neither when others around us seem absolutely flush with same. In Charlie Kaufman's latest Rubik's Cube of a film, Synecdoche, New York, a theatrical director with oversized ambitions channels his ongoing issues with existence and emotion into a massive interactive happening that eventually hamstrings his entire being. As he moves through wives and mistresses, daughters and gender bending doubles, he slowly loses track of time, his muse, and eventually, his identity. Sounds like someone who's spent every waking moment looking for both of those elusive ideals, right?

Indeed, Caden Cotard is an artist of large ambitions and even greater interpersonal problems. His wife, famed miniature painter Adele Lack, is leaving for Germany, and doesn't want her husband along for the ride. His four year old daughter loves him, but finds his lack of attention frustrating. Caden also catches the eye of box office cashier Hazel, a fiery redhead who literally lays it on like a house on fire. When he wins a genius grant, our hapless hero decides to produce something "real" - a kind of performance piece in which actors portray character living actual, real time lives. He also includes himself and Hazel in the "play", improvising dialogue and narrative to give the roles shape. Caden soon finds the production consuming his every waking moment. Even worse, his obsession with getting to the heart of human existence soon starts spiraling out of control.

Clearly centering on the battle between the sexes and the always intriguing collateral damage from same, Charlie Kaufman's latest example of screenplay extrapolation begins with an obscure definitional allusion ("synecdoche" is a Greek word for a concept that's a distant cousin to the metaphor) and ends in some sort of self-referential apocalypse. It deals specifically with characters that just cannot connect while implied universal links via the always prescient concept of theater. As with many of Kaufman's more confounding works - Human Nature, Being John Malkovich - there is a distinct feeling of being tossed into the middle of a performance without a playbill, a cast list, or a clue about the previous backstory or context. Indeed, the Oscar winning writer often creates works that feel insular and incomplete, as if a special key to understanding everything is missing or purposefully left out.

This doesn't make his movie bad, however, just terribly confounding - and Synecdoche, New York is definitely mystifying. But not in a bad way. In fact, Kaufman is one of those rare strangled geniuses who can make the most absurd idea or approach seem sane. He's like David Lynch if Mr. Blue Velvet dropped the dream logic and applied a more analytical angst to his projects. Even better, Kaufman is never dull. He may push the boundaries of our patience and understanding, but he does so in ways that are endlessly fascinating. As a first time director, he avoids obvious tricks or gimmickry. For all its frustrating surrealism and unexplained exposition, this is really just a quiet character study, an ensemble work in which everyone appears to be playing out their own unique and often contradictory set of motives.

There will be those who mistake Kaufman's convex/concave creativity as unremittingly hedonistic. After all, is there really an audience for a film in which the title character fishes through his stool, cries during sex, and purposefully puts off the only woman who shows him any kind of affection or attention? He's a nebbish that needs a swift kick in the ass, not some manner of shrink. As portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the bravest performances of his already illustrious career, Caden is karma bottled up and bloated. In many ways, Synecdoche, New York is like Woody Allen with all the linking verbs taken out. As it mines its incongruous insights, it stays closed off to even the most rudimentary internal investigation.

The rest of the cast also serves the movie well. Catherine Keener is making a new career out of Earth mother meanness, while Jennifer Jason Leigh is a revelation as a nationality shape shifting lesbian. Samantha Morton is amazing as Hazel, while her cinematic soulmate Emily Watson makes a clever, quirky in-joke of a doppelganger. Tom Noonan's take on Hoffman as Caden is also interesting, since he seems to wean out the passion to produce a more dictatorial, dimensionless version of our hero, and Dianne Wiest steals every scene she's in as an actress eager to take on any "part" in Caden's life. Toward the end, when everyone is playing individuals of the opposite sex and sliding in and out of what passes for reality (Kaufman envisions a future filled with revolution, police states, and random airships), we sense that whatever's happening here means something significant to the man behind the camera.

In fact, if one had to venture a guess as to what Synecdoche, New York really means, the notion of art abjectly reflecting an individual's inner being seems central to what is happening in the plot. As he moves through his continuously irregular psyche, landing on random patterns and perspectives that illustrate his lack of success with other individuals, Caton contemplates how all of life is like Shakespeare's proverbial stage. Of course, once you start believing in, and then starring in, your own personal production, the lines between fact and fiction become blurred, debased, and then erased all together. Somewhere, in a warehouse recreation of New York City, a cast of characters sits, waiting for its motivation. Apparently, in the pursuit of life and love, we find that purpose - or at the very least, a plot toward same.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image