The first half of “Synecdoche, NY” is a work of genius. Some have called it pretentious, incomprehensible, conceited, self-obsessed, pointless, dull, unlikeable, trivial, obvious… and they are absolutely correct. They are also missing the point.
I am struck now by the fact that there is a difference between the truth of a criticism and the truth of the proposition that the criticism contains, or in which, perhaps, the criticism is contained. We forget that words do things. What they do, what we do, is who we are. A criticism criticises. To do that, it must occupy the cells of a proposition, because the propositional life-form is the life-form with the greatest vitality and with the stiffest, curviest, reproductive vigour, and a criticism is a parasitic thing. In general, we are like to say that a criticism is true if the words of it are true. “You’re stupid” – the criticism is true if and only if you are stupid, no? But why should we say that? If we look at other forms of verbal gesture, that is not what we see. If I say “I’m feeling quite unwell”, those words may be false if I believe myself to be dying, because dying is not a case of being ‘quite’ unwell – but the… something else… the sentiment… can still be true. And questions, and commands – we do not use the word ‘true’, but we still have the idea of something analogous, and independent of the factual truth, if any, of the words themselves.
Obviously, I am talking of illocutionary and perlocutionary forces. I didn’t use those words because most people don’t know what they mean – and worse, some people DO know what they mean.
But a criticism can apply, a criticism can be true even if the words are not. Most obviously, in the case of exaggeration: “you’re the laziest soldier in France” – it can be true even when it is not true. The statement is false, but the criticism is true. In the case of false information: “what were you thinking, telling her that? That’s a lie! What kind of man lies to a woman like that?” – the criticism still keeps all its sting if that was not a lie, but something else was. Or, indeed, if that was not a woman.
But the same can also be applied in reverse. A statement can be true, but not its attendant criticism. An aristocrat might shout “you’re a dirty peasant!”, and the hard-working toiler of the earth may take that as a compliment. He and his friends may look at each other and say “what, was that meant to be an insult?” Telling Turner that his painting is ‘inexact’ may be accurate in its description, but it is wholly inaccurate as criticism – many artistic terms, like ‘impressionist’, were once intended as insults but received quite differently. A criticism – whether civil or not – is an attack on the real by juxtaposition with the intended… and if a different thing is intended, then the attempt at criticism has failed. That’s better language than true and false. We speak; we aim at something, and we succeed or fail. Sometimes we aim at more than one thing. Sometimes a criticism is actually a compliment.
The first half of Synecdoche, NY is pretentious, incomprehensible, conceited, self-obsessed, pointless, dull, unlikeable, trivial and obvious, and that is the highest compliment that could be paid to it. To think of those things as criticisms is to fail to understand the film – and to open oneself up to the criticism that it itself contains, of itself, of all of us, of everything. It is a pinnacle of nihilism. Absurd, without being funny.
As the name suggests, it contains an infinite set of circus mirrors, the depiction and redepiction of its own depictions, and it does not exclude itself from the depiction. It is an unflinching, excoriating, agonising assault, disembowelment, and vitriolic dissection of itself and everything it stands for. It is an attack so successful that it can be ignored. It attacks everything it stands for – and what does it stand for? It is a piece that stands for the whole of everything it stands for, and what it stands for is what it criticises, and what it criticises is itself. And the key to that paradox is the failure or success of criticism. Whether a criticism has succeeded, has hit home, has been relevant, has applied, been true, even existed as a criticism, depends upon the target, not upon the critic. I can take anything as a criticism. I can be told I am tall and see the criticism in that. Whether the criticism is there or not is not a matter of fact, but a matter of perspective. Does the criticism of this film apply to you? It’s not the same as asking whether you feel criticised. If you want to paint a horse and I tell you it looks like a cat, that’s a criticism even if I say it in Spanish and you do not understand. How are the film and your values aligned, if they are aligned at all?
If it criticises you, it is about you, and you are part of its black hole of depictions. I think it criticises a lot of people. For those whom it criticises, there is no escape. It is a work of genius. It destroys its targets. From out here, the sound of its self-consciousness is the sound of a little universe, quietly imploding. Our world is no larger or smaller in consequence, but that world has gone. I do not feel its criticism. Can anyone? Those it attacks will attack it, because they and it are the same. The act of levelling the criticism – the same criticism levelled at both the film and its audience, each by the other – is a tacit acceptance of the standards that that criticism entails, and which that criticism attacks, and that is why nobody attacked by it can slip away. Nobody who engages with this film can survive unscathed. But that is also its flaw. To accept the validity of the criticism would be to cease to make the criticism, but those who do not criticise are not criticised. The inside of the spiral is the same as the outside. Nobody to whom the film applies can be moved by this film, and those who could be moved are not the ones being pushed. That makes the film, and the criticism, pointless. Which is a complete vindication of this film.
Watching the film is watching a universe consume itself, and watching everyone dying who were already dead. Only a work of genius could do that. It is in tribute to that genius that I stopped watching half-way through and switched to something more interesting, and less inconsequential.
P.S. Yes, I know the above sounds pretentious and nonsensical. The latter, perhaps, is true, but there is no more pretence here than is made necessary by any attempt at communication. I found the film genuinely fascinating, and genuinely powerful, even if I myself found myself unmoved in any way beyond the intellectual.
P.P.S. I am struck by comparisons between this and Six Feet Under. It has the same surrealism, the same dark humour, the same sombre devotion to Important Issues, and most Importantly of all, Death. (“dying is fine but Death / ?o/ baby/ i/ wouldn’t like/ Death if Death/ were good: for/ when (stopping to think of it) you/ begin to feel of it, dying/ ‘s miraculous”); the same irreverent attitude toward life, Life, and society. SFU, however, does most of it a lot better. On the strictly technical side, SFU is better written, better directed, more subtle and imaginative in its tricks and turns, more accessible, and consequently more moving and engaging. I suppose a lot of that would damage this film – I suppose you might say that SNY is more pure, more honest, less conciliatory, less pandering, and you might also say that the imagination of SFU is a reflection of an undeserved hope, a closeted desire to take itself seriously, to assign itself some artistic worth, which is exactly what SNY questions. This is true, and it means that while SFU is better entertainment, SNY is probably better art – SNY is truly staggeringly brilliant in the, admittedly quite recondite, field of examining Charlie Kaufman’s own arse. As a reasonable percentage of the population is indeed obsessed with, metaphoricially, metaphorical-Charlie-Kaufman’s arse, even if they are unaware that it belongs to a metaphorical Charlie Kaufman, this film is very important as regards those people, even if most of those people probably don’t realise it. Those few people who are both obsessed with Charlie Kaufman’s arse AND fully cognisant both of their obsession and the film’s metaphorical arse-statements, will inevitably, and quite rightly, consider it one of the greatest films ever. Those who lack such cognisance will find it utter rubbish. Those, like myself, who have the cognisance but lack any personal arse-investment, are, as here, condemned to a twilight world of ironically simultaneous condemnation and applause.
One might also say that the vanity of SNY lies in its humility – humility, which is a pretence at a purity from vanity that is not available to humankind. In this way, SFU’s combination of vain, self-important, skilful, creative form and unabashedly popular, sometimes even simplistic, content, strikes me as a more honest humility, a humility that does not pretend at humility.
P.P.S. I haven’t seen the second half of the film because it was too boring, repetitive and unoriginal to bother with. It’s possible that the second half entirely repudiates everything I have said here. Ironically, however, the first half is so good that I don’t believe any second half could undermine it – any twist in tone would never be able to overcome the certainties established in the first half. The only way to refute the position of the first half is to start somewhere else, and never to take that position in the first place. Once taken once, it requires such perspectives as do not permit any other course.