Plenty of genre movies have been set in New York City, such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (devilry on the Upper West Side), Walter Salles’ Dark Water (ghosts on Roosevelt Island), Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic (vermin in the subway), and Spike Lee’s Inside Man (thievery on Wall Street). The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, directed by Joseph Sargent from the novel by John Godey, is one of the few of these New York movies seemingly made for New Yorkers. Plenty of the world’s cities have underground transit systems, but this particular story could be set nowhere else. It’s a potent premise that has been remade twice, first as a TV movie in 1998 and again in 2009 by Tony Scott as a big-budget star vehicle for John Travolta and Denzel Washington. It was even an indirect inspiration for the famous color-coded criminal aliases used in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a time capsule, full of curiosities about how the New York City subway looked and functioned in the 1970s. It also reveals a great deal about how the city itself was perceived and portrayed in popular cinema at the time. The cityscape is gritty, grimy, and graffitied. Women are just now begrudgingly being let into the M.T.A. workforce. A cynical City Hall is willing to negotiate with terrorists if it means more votes in the next election. Hookers and pimps share the subway with drunks and robust ethnic stereotypes. The unhealthy filth of millions of people living in close quarters is symbolized by a cold going around (which becomes a key plot point).
The movie’s racial politics are dated, but perhaps more honest towards flawed human nature. Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is openly condescending towards visiting Japanese officials studying the M.T.A. He’s flatly racist in a way no hero in a modern film would ever allowed to be (he calls them “monkeys”). But in fact, he actually does get his comeuppance. Matthau is, to say the least, an odd casting choice for the hero of a thriller. But he was probably about the correct age for a Transit Authority detective, and had the right air of sardonic disillusionment for a believable lower-level civic employee of the bleak New York City of the 1970s.
Speaking of roles that would never be conceived the same way in today’s Hollywood, the bad guys remain very effectively disguised throughout. Character actors Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam were never exactly superstars, but how many actors today would willingly disguise themselves for most of a movie? I can really only think of Clive Owen in Inside Man and almost anything Gary Oldman does. Unsurprisingly, no attempt is made to obscure the very expensive face of John Travolta for one frame of the 2009 remake. Note that Shaw’s unmasking is spoiled by his prominent appearance on the DVD sleeve.
Made decades before 9/11, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is nevertheless a miniature nightmare scenario of one of the Manhattan’s myriad vulnerabilities to terrorism. In the 1970s, the familiar form of terrorism was to hold hostages for remuneration or to espouse a cause. Scott’s 2009 remake had to face 21st century audiences (many sitting in New York City movie theaters) for whom terrorism means mass murder. But Scott takes the conventional route and boils down the plot into a conflict between two men, on a personal level. Scott’s choices highlight how much the original actually bucks cliche.
In the original, we know practically nothing about the personal lives of Garber or the villainous Mr. Blue (we may guess he’s some sort of ex-mercenary or soldier of fortune, but he gives no hint of his ideology or motivations). In contrast to the ice-cool Mr. Blue, Travolta’s character is manic and unhinged, and rants in a barrage of f-bombs. Just as Sargent’s old school runaway train sequence is more thrilling than Scott’s rapid-fire editing and CGI flair, the original also outscores on pure cynicism.
Whether it actually is or not, Synecdoche, New York has the feel of a very, very personal work of art. I know next to nothing about writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s personal life, and don’t even necessarily feel like I do now. Then again, few people do know Kaufman, as he has famously managed to sidestep much publicity despite perpetrating a successful screenwriting career in an industry in which the cult of personality applies to everyone.
Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s first film as director, after a string of playful yet brainy screenplays. The best antecedents I can name would be the surreal satires of Lindsay Anderson (like O Lucky Man!) and the Postmodern deconstruction of Tom Stoppard (especially Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which wreaks hilarious havok with no less a holy relic than Hamlet). Kaufman’s hit parade so far includes Being John Malkovich, Human Nature (underrated! see it!), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, and one of our favorites, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both pure pleasures to watch, but Adaptation showed the darker side of Kaufman’s brilliance. As I understood the film, the very life itself of screenwriter “Charlie Kaufman” (Nicolas Cage) slowly becomes the violent, sexed-up Hollywood melodrama he loathes to write. To describe Synecdoche, New York in shorthand, it’s as if the cynical, challenging narrative nature of Adaptation were crossed with the deep emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine.
But what it’s actually “about” would take a lot of analysis to figure out, and my single viewing is not enough to unpack it (assuming my IQ would be up to the task anyway). Like Adaptation, it’s actually a little frustrating to watch, but in a good sense, in that the audience is constantly being challenged. I have to admit that I don’t fully “get” it, but I also think it’s clear there’s no single key to unlocking any one meaning of the film. I’m giving it the full five-star Dork Report rating because I have enormous respect for any such uncompromising, challenging, affecting, and frustrating work of art in cinema. That it was produced as a major motion picture starring numerous famous faces and released in multiplexes nationally alongside the more typical fare Saw V and High School Musical 3 is nothing less than a miracle, and gives one hope for the future of the film industry. At least four people walked out of the screening I attended, some during an uncomfortable nude scene featuring Emily Watson (not uncomfortable in that she isn’t beautiful, because she is, but because the sex scene is so utterly frank). It’s a pity they did, for they missed one of the most weirdly moving last moments of a film I’ve ever seen (although it did have precedent in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, which also suggested the voice of God towards his supplicant is akin to that of a film/theater/television director’s towards his actor).
The closest thing I’ve seen to Synecdoche, New York is Spike Jonze’s Michel Gondry’s brilliant music video for Björk’s Bachelorette (Jonze Gondry is a longtime collaborator of Kaufman’s, and co-produced Synecdoche, New York). (UPDATE: corrections thanks to commenter Greg. I can’t believe I mixed up two of my favorite directors!) Less a pop music promo than a short film that stands on its own merits, Bachelorette recounts the tale of a young country girl who writes her autobiography and moves to the big city, where she falls in love with her publisher. A hit, her book spawns a theatrical adaptation, in which a young country girl writes her autobiography, moves to the big city, and falls in love with her publisher. A hit, it too spawns a theatrical play. You get the idea: the tale is infinitely recursive. But each copy is a copy within a copy, each more distorted, flimsy, and sad than its source material. Entropy and decay set in, and the world(s) collapse in upon themselves. Her life basically ends at the point she finishes her autobiography and looks only backwards instead of living for the future. Watch the video here:
Synecdoche, New York is a pun on the New York city Schenectady (the location of Caden’s original theater company) and the literary term for a figure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole (for example, “The White House said today…” as used by newscasters rather than specifying the administration, or even more specifically, the Press Secretary). Theater director Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) divorces him and moves to Germany with their daughter and Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who may be her lover (this is Keener’s second sexually ambiguous role in a Kaufman film, here and in Being John Malkovich). Caden worries for the rest of his life that Maria is a better replacement for himself as husband and father.
Caden wins a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and uses the funds to move to Manhattan and craft an epic play housed in a disused theater illogically large enough to hold a scale model of New York City as his set. Outside, the real Manhattan descends into chaos and warfare. At one point, the characters leave the theater and walk past mysterious civil rights atrocities such as clown-costume-clad soldiers herding citizens onto armored busses at gunpoint.
Caden’s canvas is infinite, there is no script, and he hopes to find his story as he goes along. The play is in perpetual rehearsal for decades, and remains forever untitled. I hate to use this kind of cop-out phrase popular in college literature classes, but it truly is “a metaphor for life.” As Caden tries to find meaning for the traumatic events in his life, and to rationalize his decisions, he casts actors to play himself and the significant people in his life. Like memories being processed by the human brain, he is now able to replay recent painful events in his life over and over, giving direction to his actors on how to express their (his) pain, all with the emotional safety of knowing that it’s all just playacting.
Soon, he takes even another step back, and casts another set of actors to play the first. Reality itself begins to break down as in Björk’s Bachelorette, also featuring a play within a play within a play, cast with several pairs of other actors playing herself and her lover as their affair, and entire world, disintegrates. A similar theme of copies and doubles also figures into Adaptation: writer “Charlie” may or may not have an identical twin brother, shamelessly able to make the kinds of compromises necessary for success in the movie biz and life itself that he is too weak or too ashamed to do himself. Is it significant, as Kaufman moves from writer to writer/director, that the central character of Adaptation is a writer, and that of Synecdoche, New York is a director?
Caden is beset throughout with a host of mystery illnesses that forever threaten to kill him but never carry through their promise. I caught at least two hints that he may in fact already be dead: his shrink Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) makes a seeming slip of the tongue and asks why he killed himself, and later, one of his doppelgängers (Tom Noonan) commits suicide.
The walls between Caden’s life and his play blur; which is real and which is the play? The dispassionate director watches from a distance as others do the dirty work of living his life for him, such as conduct his love affairs and breakups with Claire (Michele Williams), Hazel (Samantha Morton), and Tammy (Emily Watson), that he may not have the emotional strength or sexual potency to do himself. Caden eventually replaces himself and takes the simpler, less demanding role of one of the most fleetingly minor background figures in his life. Is he an actor in his own play, following the script and direction from someone else, an invisible external force… God? He essentially abdicates responsibility for his own life, and dies on cue.
I get that Cloverfield is meant to be a modern day analogue of Godzilla. I get that postwar Japanese moviegoers witnessed an enraged giant lizard borne of nuclear technology stomp Tokyo flat in an unstoppable pique, and I get that Godzilla became a classic for that very reason. I get that we Westerners were long due to be attacked on film by own very own allegorical creature as pop therapy for our terrorism anxieties.
Perhaps we need that movie some time. But significantly more advanced than Godzilla in terms of visual style and special effects, I don’t think Cloverfield is that movie.
As a longtime fan of J.J. Abrams from Alias and Lost, and made a helpless sucker by the film’s clever marketing, I very much wanted to love Cloverfield. However, I found it extremely difficult to watch and to like, for two basic reasons both related to my being a New Yorker for a decade & change: I. unlikeable and unrealistic characters, and II. what can only be described as 9/11-ploitation.
I. THE CHARACTERS
We know the backgrounds of only two characters, Rob and Beth. Rob has recently been promoted to Vice President of an unspecified type of company at an improbably young age, and is about to leave for a long business trip to Japan. In my understanding of lifestyles of the rich & beautiful in New York City, such young execs were more commonly found in the dot-com 90s economy, but even now still exist in scrappy new media companies like CollegeHumor.com. But let’s assume Rob helped invent the next Facebook and move on.
We don’t know what Beth, his one true love, does for a living, if anything. She lives with her family high up in the northern tower of the Time Warner Center (more on that later). Her stunning looks and wardrobe might peg her as model, but she appears to be a socialite born of privilege. But far from the slow trainwrecks that are Paris and Nicky, Beth appears to be a sweet, sober girl. In fact, she leaves a party not unconscious in the back of a limo, but out of propriety, to go home to bed, alone.
Us regular joes are supposed to identify with and care about these people? For all its faults, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (another monster-attack film touching uncomfortably upon domestic disaster in a post 9/11 world) featured an everyman type character in auto repairman Tom Cruise. To be fair, Godzilla was full of white-coated scientists and teeth-gritted soldier-types, so the genre doesn’t exactly call for comparatively boring lower wage-earners that don’t live in luxury condos and party in downtown lofts.
Godzilla was utterly frank in linking the monster with the horrors of the nuclear age. So if Cloverfield’s beast is a personification of terrorism, how does the metaphor fit? Did US military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq unearth the monster? Is the beast a heretofore undiscovered subterranean oil-feeder, angered by our draining the earth’s supply of fossil fuel? Without a clear metaphor, Cloverfield just seems to enjoy alluding to the superficial events and imagery of 9/11 without any depth: skyscrapers “pancaking” themselves flat, streets filling with clouds of debris, ash-coated survivors struck numb. I’m not against popular fiction using metaphor to touch upon raw nerves that maybe need to be tweaked now and then… but is Cloverfield it?
One of the film’s key set pieces is set atop the twin towers of the Time Warner Center. The allusion is clear, but it’s a stretch factually. Are there residential apartments in the TW Center? As both a New Yorker and Time Warner employee, this is news to me. I should also add that the geography of Manhattan as seen in the film is just this side of realistic. In a space of about 6 hours, it’s plausible the characters could make it from lower Manhattan to the roof of the Time Warner Center at the southern foot of Central Park (assuming, that is, that their young thighs are capable of the trek).
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is one example of a sci-fi thriller that has worked well enough to illuminate concerns of the times to warrant multiple remakes. Just to name three: the original took on McCarthyism, the Abel Ferrara 90’s version looked at obedience and conformity in the military, and Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty found the story useful as a satirical critique of high school peer pressure. But none of the various Bodysnatchers films presented us with recreations of cities pressed flat; were contemporary Japanese made sick by the sight of their horrors anthropomorphized in a giant lizard? Seeing my home city’s skyline smoking and collapsing was not something I would call cathartic.
I saw the film early evening on opening day, with an audience full of kids just out of school. The movie went over like a lead balloon; the conclusion was loudly heckled and booed. I suspect the kids mostly objected to the unconventional structure and ending. Which is, for what it’s worth, what I found best about the film: it provides a very movingly unexpected happy ending.