Synecdoche, New York: Like The Burning Plain, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut showcases a screenwriter who, freed from the influence of collaborators, indulges all his thematic quirks like a dieting matron lunging at a box of bonbons. Whereas Guillermo Arriaga overdoses in piety, self-fondling morbidity proves to be Kaufman’s choice of drug from the moment the filmmaker’s avatar, a playwright named Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), announces, “I think I’m dying.” The opening 40 minutes or so, as Hoffman’s slumped sad-sack is abandoned by his wife (Catherine Keener) and fumbles with a box-office worker (Samantha Morton), are promising despite the militant moroseness that plagues even the film’s most whimsical flights of fancy. But when the Chinese boxes start to proliferate—Caden turns his life into a crumbling theatrical show, complete with lookalike performers—the viewer is reminded of what dead-ends brilliant screenwriting conceits can be when left by themselves on the screen. Kaufman may see Caden’s rants (“I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth”) as confessional, but in the context of what is arguably cinema’s least joyous depiction of an artistic mind at work, a shot of the character looking for blood in his stools seems more telling.
Gomorrah: The title sounds groaningly obvious, but instead of an intimation of organized crime’s bibilical levels of barbarity, it’s really just a mispronunciation of the name of the much-feared group at the center, the Camorra clan. The rest of Matteo Garrone’s film similarly sidesteps grandiose statements in favor of a lean and brutal gangster-as-capitalist analysis that at its fiercest feels like a continuation of Francesco Rosi’s caustic mafia exposés (Lucky Luciano, Illustrious Corpses). The dense, Naples-set narrative follows a quintet of parallel strands—from a teenager fighting to be inducted into the Camorra universe to a pair of young knuckleheads ill-advisedly trying to operate independently—which, taken together, reveal an order in which crime is not the underworld but, simply and bleakly, the world itself. An unrelentingly harsh view that, to its credit, never softens its focus a la Traffic or uses its violence for exploitative titillation a la City of God.
Ashes of Time Redux: Despite revisions from the director, Wong Kar-wai’s oneiric wu xia epic remains as ravishingly impenetrable as ever. (The colors look infinitely more vibrant than in previously available prints, but the smoke-like tumult of the plot remains thankfully undiluted.) In an early scene, a swordsman (Tony Leung Ka Fai), mane and robes flowing for the tilted camera, slashes the air and triggers an earthquake; Wong heightens action tropes the way Sergio Leone found arias in western duels, though the genre’s mandatory showdowns play second fiddle to the characters’ melancholic languor. Asked to deliver a sword-fighting extravaganza, Wong perversely blurs, fractures and pixilates the choreography while having his cast of Hong Kong superstars (Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung) lounge around a desert hut, soaking in the director’s themes of memory, being and loving. No less than the dreamers of his later films, Wong’s ancient warriors are obsessed with time and passion, and the rigidity of their iconic roles erodes with the transience of their emotions. Remembered more as the unwieldy production that gave birth to Chungking Express than for its own heady force, this is a reverie ripe for rediscovery.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.