Iâ€™m a nice Jewish girl with catholic tastes. As constantÂ readers may have gleaned, I enjoy war films, romantic comedies, musicals, andÂ documentaries. My Netflix recommendations page recently informed me that I likeÂ cerebral movies, a genre classification entirely new to me. Without being aÂ snob about it, Iâ€™d have to say theyâ€™re absolutely right. Nothing tickles thisÂ aging English major more than a good challenge, a film I canâ€™t predict, a movieÂ that leaves me with food for significant thought. These gems are rare indeedÂ for reasons so obvious they neednâ€™t be mentioned, but Iâ€™ll mention them anyway.
Never underestimate the low esteem with which Hollywood regards the AmericanÂ film-going, ticket- uying audience. Teenage boys simply donâ€™t flock to theÂ latest dialogue-driven dramedy of ideas. But I do. â€œCold Soulsâ€ is a beautifullyÂ made extended short story; its scale stays personal even when it goesÂ international. â€œSynecdoche, New Yorkâ€ is an undertaking so massive that youÂ need reference books to fully appreciate its depths. Neither film got a wideÂ release, and Iâ€™ll bet you missed them both, but luckily for you, theyâ€™re both available on DVD. Grab your dictionary and come with me. I promise Iâ€™llÂ hold your hand.
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Writer director Sophie Barthes takes aÂ far-fetched metaphysical sci-fi idea and plays it remarkably straight in herÂ first full-length feature, “Cold Souls.” SimultaneouslyÂ laugh-out-loud funny, touching and thoughtful, the film works its considerableÂ magic on several levels at once. Paul Giamatti plays an actor named PaulÂ Giamatti in rehearsal for a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”Â When he finds himself struggling and stuck, suffering grave self doubts and virtuallyÂ paralyzed with anxiety, his agent blithely steers him to an article in The NewÂ Yorker about a high tech company specializing in easing angst by putting soulsÂ in cold storage, and the fun begins. Once his soul is extracted, Giamatti’sÂ Vanya performance changes markedly; no longer wracked with doubt, hisÂ soulless Vanya struts and preens like William Shatner, a walking talking Id withÂ some Matthew Perry snarky rhythms thrown into the very weird mix.
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The Defending Champion
Writer director Charlie KaufmanÂ brings an epic idea to the screen. In this little-seen and wildlyÂ under- ppreciated near-masterpiece, theater director and MacArthur genius grantÂ recipient Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a bravura performance) leavesÂ Schenectady, New York for the bright lights of Broadway. There he creates anÂ ambitious theater piece in a giant warehouse; this artistic endeavor takes hisÂ entire life to complete. In it, he uses everything and everyone he knows. LikeÂ Cotard, Kaufman throws everything he’s got onto the screen. It’s a big bag ofÂ tricks, ungainly and difficult to fully grasp at first viewing, anÂ exhausting rumination on the nature of art and artifice, love and loss, life andÂ death. The Whole Enchillada.
â€œCold Soulsâ€ is an investigation into identity, asking whatÂ mix of soul and memory, pain and experience makes us truly human and who weÂ are. The cerebral comedy comes close in tone to the classic â€œBeing JohnÂ Malkovich,â€ where all kinds of scientifically impossible things happen in aÂ matter- f- act way. Soul extraction happens in a clinical setting; the waitingÂ rooms and credit cards and officious assistants and grungy little details allÂ add up to make it completely believable. The filmâ€™s messages are deliveredÂ subtly; soul extraction makes a likely metaphor for all the psychotropicÂ pharmaceuticals prescribed to level things out, to flatten our affects, toÂ deaden and relieve our pain and suffering. But that pain and suffering is, theÂ film would argue, vital to our human experience. Eradicating it makes usÂ significantly less alive, less human. Barthes has taken her tiny little idea,Â her precious chickpea, and polished it like a perfectly executed short story. The gloomyÂ blue vistas and all the little rooms of St. Petersburg and Brooklyn Heights areÂ static and beautiful, and all the people in them work seamlessly towardÂ delivering a life-affirming message of great beauty and clarity.
Kaufmanâ€™s ideas are brilliant and scattershot, and theÂ stagecraft quite marvelous; a viewerâ€™s patience and full attention areÂ required. Even a dictionary will help; clues to understanding are everywhere,Â left like breadcrumbs on the path to enlightenment; our intense scrutiny andÂ analysis are more than rewarded.
Synecdoche, for example, is a term denoting a part ofÂ something used to refer to the whole thing. Itâ€™s also a mis-hearing of theÂ place name Schenectady.
According to more than one source, the meaning and origin ofÂ the name Caden is unknown, though it is possibly derived from a Gaelic surnameÂ meaning “battle.”
The Cotard delusion or Cotard’s syndrome, also known asÂ nihilistic or negation delusion, is a rare neuropsychiatric disorder in which aÂ person holds a delusional belief that they are dead (either figuratively orÂ literally), do not exist, are putrefying, or have lost their blood or internalÂ organs. Rarely, it can include delusions of immortality.
There. Knowing those three things will enhance yourÂ understanding of the film. Or scare you away. Itâ€™s a challenging film; oneÂ senses that Kaufman wanted to use every single idea at his disposal inÂ this,his first (and conceivablyÂ only) at-bat directing. Perhaps he was overly attached to every word of hisÂ dauntingly dense screenplay; itâ€™s possible that a little less might have beenÂ more. But having watched the film on multiple occasions, I can honestly say that my appreciation and understanding have increased exponentially every single time. Kaufmanâ€™s a genius. That much is certain, and this behemoth of aÂ film is his masterpiece so far — unwieldy, formidable, and well worth the time it takes to interpret andÂ unravel.
I love both films. â€œCold Soulsâ€ might make a more manageableÂ portal into the world of cerebral film. Consider it the perfect starter, anÂ appetizer, an entry-level morsel you could try before jumping in the deep endÂ with Charlie Kaufman. â€œCold Soulsâ€ has fewer characters and is easy to follow,Â and itâ€™s funny and unflawed. A little gem I recommend wholeheartedly.Â â€œSynecdoche, New Yorkâ€ reaches for the stars and demands a lot from anÂ audience. Itâ€™s either a masterpiece or a near-miss. In any case, itâ€™s this SmackdownÂ winner.