I never thought the day would come where The Fountain would have a rival for greatest work of art produced in my lifetime. Charlie Kaufman has done it with Synecdoche, New York. I don’t want to say too much except, “Go see it now!”
In an attempt to not give anything away, but to talk about why it rivals Darren Aronsofsky’s brilliant work, it is basically about the same thing. The only thing. Fear of death. But of course, it wouldn’t be great if that was it. It also pulls in all that I love about modern art. It really isn’t as confusing as most would make it out to be either. The Fountain is probably the harder of the two to follow. But Kaufman’s film is more complex. More subtle.
So there is the post-modern paradigm. The greats of Pynchon or DeLillo. They try create these sprawling novels that keep splitting off in different directions: following different characters. They try to incorporate the ideas from math and science that say formal systems are incomplete or that uncertainty always exists. They try to self-reference themselves without contradiction.
Then people like DFW (David Foster Wallace for the non-initiated) come along and use the post-modern paradigm to reject it. You can’t self-reference without paradox. A self-reference creates an infinite recursion, but the novel itself is finite, so it doesn’t work. The very attempt at showing the incompleteness of the system creates a meta-system more powerful than the one in which it is trying to live. It is a rejection of post-modernism.
Kaufman says, “No! DFW, you should know better. You have some mathematical training. I’ll show you a return to classic post-modernism without contradiction. You can have an infinite recursion take up finite space. It just has to converge somewhere.” This is the brilliance of it. Let’s combine the only theme in art worth exploring (fear of death (note that I have a fairly good argument based on The Fountain that all things stem from this)), with a return to the classic post-modern paradigm. Where does the infinite self-reference converge to? Death of course! It was so obvious all along.
Don’t worry. I’ve given nothing away. A few more words are necessary, though. This movie is without a doubt the most demanding I’ve ever seen. Hopefully you have a degree in literature to catch all the references (Hedda Gabler, Death of a Salesman, White Noise, post-modern philosophy, etc). The details are so intensely packed in as well. I’m pretty sure you could just randomly flip to any 5 second period of the movie and I could point out some important detail.
Lastly, what does synecdoche mean? [From wikipedia] Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which:
- a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing, or
- a term denoting a thing (a “whole”) is used to refer to part of it, or
- a term denoting a specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or
- a term denoting a general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or
- a term denoting a material is used to refer to an object composed of that material.
The movie takes place in Schenectady, NY. What an amazing play on words. DFW would be proud.
How great! Go now!