Tokyo! is a portmanteau film comprised of three shorts set in the eponymous city, all by directors not themselves from Japan: Michel Gondry and Leos Carax from France, and Bong Joon-ho from South Korea.
Gondry’s “Interior Design” is based on the comic book “Cecil and Bell in New York” by Gabrielle Bell, with the action transposed to Tokyo. At first, her low-key love story doesn’t seem to bear Gondry’s characteristic whimsical surreality, but by the end her collaboration with Gondry makes perfect sense. Young couple Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani, daughter of Steven Seagal) and Akira (Ryo Kase) move to Tokyo, with the hope of finding audiences for Akira’s pretentious films. Without prospects, they crash on the floor of a childhood friend’s miniscule flat and quickly outstay their welcome. Their optimism to find jobs and an apartment is quickly dashed – only Akira is suited to menial work, and they can’t even afford the city’s dingiest rat traps. Like April (Kate Winslet) in Revolutionary Road) Hiroko doesn’t have much ambition of her own beyond supporting her artist partner. After going to extraordinary lengths on Akira’s behalf without feeling appreciated, Hiroko undergoes a fantastical transformation and winds up literally supporting a different artist. The significance of title comes clear as she literally becomes part of the scenery.
In Carax’s scatological “Merde,” Tokyo is terrorized by a mad caucasian with a twisty ginger beard and a rigorous diet of flowers, yen, and cigarettes. The “sewer creature” (so named by the media) is relatively harmless until he discovers a cache of grenades in a forgotten World War II-era bunker buried beneath the city. Only after he uses Imperial Japan’s own weapons against them in a terrible massacre is he tracked down in his sewer lair and apprehended. At this point, Carax’s short film becomes a courtroom drama, in which eccentric French magistrate MaÃ®tre Voland (Jean-FranÃ§ois Balmer) claims to be able to interpret the terrorist’s ravings, not least including his name: Merde (“shit”). His scandalous speeches incite Japanese self-loathing and racism, but the populace curiously fails to question whether Voland is some kind of mad ventriloquist voicing his own prejudices through the mouth of an idiot. Merde becomes a pop icon; dueling gangs of picketers chant “FREE MERDE” versus “HANG MERDE.” Merde is sentenced to a Christ-like execution (which also very much resembles a similar sequence in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark), followed by a caption that threatens a sequel set in New York.
Bong Joon-ho’s “Shaking Tokyo” is the tale of a unnamed hikikomori (shut-in) living alone in a totally ivy-covered house, financially supported by a father he hasn’t seen in years. The agoraphobe (Teruyuki Kagawa) has become accustomed to a life of loneliness and rigorous routine. One day he meets a cute pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi), out of his league in terms of looks, but apparently with her own share of crippling emotional issues. She passes out in his foyer during an earthquake (not uncommon in the volcanic islands of Japan), and the hikikomori reboots her using her self-tattooed buttons on her body that appear to literally control her mood and health. The smitten loner escapes his self-created prison to seek her out again. He finds a city full of shut-ins, for whom even another earthquake isn’t enough to keep them out of their own homes for long.
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 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 Bjork’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 Bjork’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 doppelgangers (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.
Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is a more mainstream effort than the personal and heartfelt The Science of Sleep, but still imbued with his signature handmade style and many of his particular (some might say peculiar) obsessions.
The premise is brilliant in its simplicity: a pair of misfit doofuses accidentally erase every tape in their retro video rental store, and decide to remake an eclectic selection of them from scratch. The considerable humor comes not just in how Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) recreate shots, costumes, casting, and special effects, but also in how they must reconstruct entire plots and scenes from memory alone. If you had to condense a movie you hadn’t seen since childhood (say, for example, Ghostbusters) down to 20 minutes, equipped only with a camcorder and a budget of approximately $0, how would you do it? Jerry randomly coins the word “sweded” to describe their work, a puzzling term that isn’t even a pun, but spontaneous absurdity is a virtue in Gondry’s world.
Desperation inspires them to find a means of artistic expression, something many people spend lifetimes daydreaming about but never seize for themselves. Much as how Tim Burton characterized Ed Wood in his eponymous biopic, Mike and Jerry have true amateurs’ supreme confidence in their total filmmaking abilities. Their own ingenuity and the power of moviemaking inspires them with the realization that they can do anything and the trust that people will like what they do. Also like Wood, each obstacle they encounter merely increases their creativity.
Even before the inciting incident of mass erasure, Jerry was already something of an outsider artist. He operated an auto shop with very creative notions of “repairing” cars into souped-up rocket-powered BatMobiles. His character is initially very unlikable, and evidently something of a misogynist. We see him taunt and nearly physically threaten a woman in the video store. Later, he reveals a longing for cutie Alma (Melonie Diaz) working in the local laundry, but when moviemaking provides him with the opportunity to interact with her, he treats her as would a little boy with a “No Girls Allowed” treehouse. But that’s not to imply there’s something cute about his attitude towards women; there appears to be a barely suppressed contempt and threat of violence.
An obvious paradox is that Be Kind Rewind is a film from a major motion picture studio that celebrates the indie spirit (not to mention fair use of copyrighted materials) and vilifies the venal movie biz executives that inevitably materialize with cease-and-decist orders. Speaking of venal movie execs, the movie’s home at New Line Cinema no doubt introduced several hardly canonical films like the New Line property Rush Hour 2 into Gondry’s script. The overabundance of New Line posters and VHS tapes in the set design bric-a-brac is something of a joke. While it’s funny that a run-down video store might still have ratty old Blast From the Past posters hanging around, would a competing mainstream neon-lit DVD store (Blockbuster in all but name) really shill for the long-forgotten Woo?
Be Kind Rewind is at its most brilliant when recreating classic (and some not-so-classic) moments from cinema history, so much so that everything else in the film feels like a distraction from the true delights. But the powerfully moving climax is the premiere screening of Mike and Jerry’s masterpiece, made in collaboration with their entire community. Their maturity as auteurs is marked by their first truly original work; their film within a film is a fictionalized musical biopic of Fats Waller. If only all actual musical biopics could be so wonderful!
Full disclosure: I first saw an advance screening of Be Kind Rewind on February 22, but as I was then employed by the movie company distributing the film, I decided not to post my thoughts. Regardless, I had nothing to do with making or marketing the film, and any opinions expressed above are mine alone.
Michel Gondry is a treasure; endlessly inventive and thankfully prolific. His music videos (especially Björk’s “Bachelorette” and The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl“) and films (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) are all personal favorites, with “Bachelorette” and Eternal Sunshine especially moving me deeply.
But I found myself a tiny bit unsatisfied with The Science of Sleep, despite its flood of original imagery and enthusiastic performances. For a movie that concerns the blending of fantasy with reality, I think the problem is that there’s too much reality. Stephane (Gael García Bernal) experiences a smooth continuum between his waking and dream life, which his mother explicitly acknowleges as an actual condition, in other words, a mental illness. In the cold light of his mother’s diagnosis and his often hurtful behavior towards his crush Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Stephane is less of a charmingly eccentric dreamer, and rather a sad case that could probably not have a successful relationship without medication.