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