Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Two Films, Neither A Doc

As we finished watching Synecdoche, New York my wife asked what I thought about it. "It's good," I said. Instantly, though, I started to doubt that it was. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize: I hate this film a lot. A whole lot. It's taken me about a day to realize how much, and why that is.

The first reason I hate it so much is that it is -- and I know this sounds strange -- a bad mimeograph copy of All That Jazz. And perhaps it's a sign for all that's gone wrong with our culture in the thirty years since then. (Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a sentimental type, I never hearken back to any good old day, and I'm all for letting things fade away. But I think there's some interesting specific evidence here of the difference in our society's character, so hear me out.)

It took a while for my unconscious to let me in on this: it's the exact same plot. A Director deals with life, multiple wives and mistresses, his relationship with his daughter, his desire to be immortal through his work, his struggle to mount a show, and all along wrestles with death, personified by a woman. Lines blur between life and theater, health and youth prove fleeting, and time slips back and forth.

The difference: the semi-autobiographical Bob Fosse is passionate, free and brilliant; the semi-autobiographical Charlie Kaufman is joyless, empty and self-important.

I know neither film is a documentary, and I know there are plenty of viewers who will see the reverse: "All That Jazz" as self-serving and contrived, "Synecdoche" as deep and universal. Here's why I bring it up: I have a theory about what has gone wrong with the majority of film production since the 1970s, and I think this is strong evidence for that theory.

I believe that most fiction films today are made by someone whose essential life experience is making films. I believe that before the "film school generation" took over Hollywood, most fiction films were made by people who could be said to be formed by other experiences.

Fosse was a song and dance man, and then a dance man, and then a choreographer, and then a director. There's no question that his essential life experiences were significantly connected to Hollywood -- he wanted to be Fred Astaire, after all, and if his hairline had cooperated he might have been. There's a sense, though, of connection to all of life's experiences.

But Kaufman's experience of life is that of a TV writer -- which is no critique of TV writers, but it does explain why "Adaptation" is about writing, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (which I enjoyed greatly) is about putting on a TV show, and "Synecdoche" is about having a choice between life and theater, and choosing wrong.

What's wrong with "Synecdoche," and so many films that I've seen lately: characters are cleverly sculpted pawns for the writer, and hard to really care for. In his screenwriting tome "Story," Robert McKee -- Kaufman's foil in Adaptation -- says that we should react to a great story with a sense of "Ah, that's what life is like!"

I think we do, in both films. It's just that in "All That Jazz," that reaction is a wry smile. In "Synecdoche" it's an empty stare.

One last note: not everyone will agree with this, but I find a lot of documentary-style approach in "All That Jazz," and none in "Synecdoche." But maybe that's just me.

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