Movies: Synecdoche, New York, Frozen
Books: A Clash of Kings
Synecdoche, New York
This is the Charlie Kaufman film about... whew. Um. Okay, well, Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who uses his MacArthur "genius" grant to fund a massive, autobiographical theater work.
But, Kaufman being Kaufman, that's really just the starting point. The work becomes this kind of Russian nesting doll, where Caden tells the story of a theater director who tells the story of a theater director who tells the story of... and so on. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it's baffling, sometimes it makes no sense but still feels right. The film got some of the most sharply-divided reviews I've ever seen. Roger Ebert hailed it as the best film of the decade, while Entertainment Weekly sighed, "yes, it is one of those 'visionary' what-the-hell doozies."
I feel like I can see both sides of it. It spans four decades, and follows so many characters in so many directions, and builds such a world for itself, that you can't help but laud its ambition. It's clearly a movie that's going for *something*, both in physical scale and philosophically. I could tell that it was trying to get *at* something, even though half the time I felt like I was listening to a schizophrenic ramble word salad to himself for two hours. It made no damn sense, but it had *something* to say.
All this points to "Peter should watch the movie again," but I don't know if I'm up to that. Synecdoche is just so crushingly sad. Apparently, this film started when Kaufman and Spike Jonze were commissioned to write a horror film. They decided early on that, instead of the usual horror tropes, they would write about what they genuinely feared in life. And so, we get Synecdoche, where all of Kaufman's preoccupations fully flower. We get a world of death, and disease, and awkward miscommunication, and a man slowly dying in his art like it's a tomb. And it presents all of this so powerfully that you're left thinking that hell, maybe that *is* all life really is.
You get the sense that this is Kaufman without any filters. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for all its brain-twisting complexity, really does hew to the structure of a standard romantic comedy. Being John Malkovich had, at its core, a profoundly hilarious idea. Adaptation was, in a lot of ways, *about* contrasting Kaufman's style with more traditional screenwriting. Each of them had something to temper this chillingly bleak worldview. Here, we have Kaufman directing Kaufman with a concept by Kaufman, and as far as I can tell it owes nothing to any genre or tradition outside of Kaufman.
Yes, I'm on my sixth paragraph and I haven't gotten around to saying whether it's any good. I doubt I'll ever really know. I wince at all its disease and decay and cruelty. I gag at all its pounding-it-home magical-realism metaphors ("SEE, HER HOUSE IS ON FIRE"). But it is something. It is most definitely, powerfully, something.
This is the recent Disney computer-animated musical inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen".
It's been exciting to watch what Disney Animation has been up to with Pixar's John Lasseter in charge. Tangled wasn't perfect, but it was very, very entertaining, and it felt like it was getting out of the rut of traditional romantic stories that we'd already seen from the Mouse House.
Frozen feels like another step into this new, uncertain territory. Okay... it's not about "boy meets girl, but there's a supernatural impediment to their relationship which they overcome", et cetera. Instead, it's about these two sisters, and a supernatural impediment to *their* relationship. It's great that they're taking things in a different direction, but that must have been just agonizingly difficult to write.
I mean, when you go the traditional route -- you're making a "boy-meets-girl" musical -- then you have an entire musical-theater tradition built around those stories. There are zillions of clichés for how to do that in musical theater, and they're clichés because they work. Plot is so damned difficult that the moment we discover any story trope that results in a decent story, it becomes enshrined as a cliché -- and this goes double for musicals, which are even trickier. We desperately cling to what works. So Frozen is doing something else, and there are far fewer well-worn stories they can base it on.
And occasionally I see them straining a bit to make it work. The initial meeting with the trolls has an impressive amount of exposition: ah, Anna has been harmed, but not fatally, because it wasn't a heart wound, and the trolls can cure it (because trolls), but they have to give her amnesia, but not total amnesia, just amnesia about the ice power, and then nobody tells Anna about it later because of... other... reasons... or... LOOK IT'S MAGIC OKAY. Between this and the later scene, in which the trolls explain that the heart wound can be cured, but only by an act of true love, I can only conclude that troll-magic is basially industrial-grade plot-spackle.
But I can totally forgive that. They front-load the arbitrary coincidences (i.e., the complicated rules of troll/ice magic) at the *beginning* of the story, and they're doing all of this heavy lifting so that they can make this a story about reconciling the two sisters. And, like with Tangled, they do a hell of a job with recognizing what their story is about and staying true to it. I was genuinely worried, getting towards the end of the film, that they would end the story with any other move besides "one sister demonstrates an act of True Love towards the other," just because animated movies can get so cowardly towards the end, when they *need* to zig where every other movie would zag.
To my mind, Disney hasn't really knocked a musical soundtrack out of the park since The Lion King. Here in the John Lasseter era, you can basically count on a Disney musical to have a couple good songs, and other songs that are kind of aural wallpaper. Tangled had the delightful "I've Got a Dream" and the terrifying "Mother Knows Best" and... I dunno. Bugger me if I could hum a note from anything else. (Compare this to the endless bench of songs from, say, Beauty and the Beast or Alladin. There's never going to be another Howard Ashman.)
And so Frozen has the omnipotent single "Let It Go", which is a damn good song, and... okay, I know there were other songs there. I'm sure they had melodies and chorus hooks and such. But as soon as each one was done, it disappeared right out of my memory.
With the best musicals, the story kind of flows into the songs -- a song happens when a character has no *choice* but to sing (well of *course* Ariel has to sing "Part of Your World", feeling like she does), or when a setup is just such a slow pitch down the plate that the character *has* to deliver on it (if you tell Sebastian how awesome the land-world is, of *course* he'll sing "Under the Sea"). And Frozen just didn't seem to have that kind of (sigh, unavoidable pun) flow. There are a couple of exceptions -- "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" built out nicely from the sudden conflict between Anna and Elsa, and "Let It Go" landed in a place that absolutely needed a song from Elsa. Every other song felt a bit like a standing long jump -- out of nowhere, and for no other reason than "hey, it's time for a song," somebody starts singing.
Apparently the songwriters behind "Frozen" have a writing process where they'll accumulate lots of cute and useful rhymes, or interesting turns of phrase, before diving into the songwriting proper, and I think you can see the effects of that in the music. These songs are clever and smoothly-constructed throughout -- "In Summer" nearly reaches Da Vinci's Notebook levels of delightful songplay -- but there's just a nagging feeling that they don't add up to anything. A lot of great songs are a bit like essays, in that they build an argument, or they are structured in a way to give you the whole overview of a moment, or a feeling, or a person. The songs in Frozen often seem to wander for a while and then just stop.
Wow -- that was a lot of kvetching about the music. In spite of all my complaints, I really liked the film. I liked the animation style -- I love that Disney CGI is so clearly different from Pixar CGI, and owes so much to its golden age of animated musicals. I didn't love the songs, but I liked them, and they were pleasant.
Most of all, I think Frozen does a damn good job with its characters. Kristin Bell acts the hell out of the lead. I'll just include this quote from her in full: "I always loved Disney animation, but there was something about the females that was unattainable to me. Their posture was too good and they were too well-spoken, and I feel like I really made this girl much more relatable and weirder and scrappier and more excitable and awkward. I'm really proud of that." That pretty much covers it, no?
And they don't shirk on secondary characters, either. Idina Menzel maybe doesn't quite nail Elsa's obsessive self-control and fearful lashing-out in her voice acting, but that's okay, 'cos the plot lays those traits out for her. Casting Alan Tudyk as the Duke of Weselton was delightful. Both of the prospective love interests get to be something other than attractive objects. Olaf is a great example of what you can do with a character who just doubles down on positivity no matter what. Even the trolls get some variety of characterization. Major characters get a little bit of psychological complexity, which is damn hard to do in musicals. With the smallest characters, the screenplay gives them one deft brushstroke and moves along.
I'm really glad that Tangled and Frozen exist. In a better world, they might be ramp-up to some new Disney-musical tradition, one with a little more agency for female characters and with plots that don't necessarily end in weddings. That said, I don't see any animated musicals on Disney's upcoming slate, and that makes me sad.
A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin [audiobook]
This is the second novel in A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin's immensely popular series of fantasy novels.
... and this will probably be the last of them I read. From here on out, I'm content to experience this world through the HBO series.
Lord knows, I've *wanted* to like this series. Many of my friends adore these books, and they're held in universally high regard among fantasy fans. And I could respect many things about both this book and its predecessor. I can see that he's doing brilliant characterization. I can see that he's successfully adopting a wide variety of points of view -- and while he doesn't go into the dizzying depths of interiority that you see in modern literary fiction (e.g., The Corrections) he still gives you a convincing picture of how the huge plot-engine looks to all these different cogs on its wheels.
But man, I can only take so many of "and then the mace smashed through his jaw, shattering the bones on impact and reducing the flesh to a wet, oozing pulp" before the whole thing starts to feel like torture porn. I can only take so much relentless misery. Maybe these characters finally get to be momentarily happy in books three, or four, or five, but life is short and art is long. (Many, many pages long.) And moreover, I feel like the book thinks it's teaching me a lesson. "'They never tell you how they all shit themselves. They don't put that part in the songs,'" says Robert Baratheon before he gets gored in the gut in book one (followed, yes, by slow, painful death), and the hundreds of pages since then have kept up that drumbeat. "See? See? Medieval times were actually REALLY MISERABLE."
For fuck's sake I KNOW THAT. I know that if you lived in the Dark Ages, you'd probably have been a downtrodden serf, you'd probably have died young of either a now-curable disease or of getting stabbed in the face, and the closest thing to pleasure you could have hoped for was to drink yourself into oblivion on a Saturday night. I know that. That doesn't make me ignorant or weak for liking the fantasy tradition that doesn't focus on miserable face-stabbings and septicemia.
And I guess it fills me with a sort of nihilism towards the story. I see that things are happening, I see that things might go one way or another in the future, but I don't see why any of it matters. Eventually, somebody gets to be the king of Shit Mountain. Yay.
That said, experiencing it as a TV show might be just the thing. It could distance me a bit from the nonstop agony, and its duration of each section might go down to something bearable. And then, if I discover that later seasons are more to my liking, I can go back and pick things up with A Storm of Swords.
For now, though, it goes into the bin marked "great art I don't like experiencing". (It can sit next to Requiem for a Dream.) Time to read other things.
For next time, I'll finish watching Her and probably catch up on podcasts before starting another book.
 I was sad when I realized I'd hit the point in the film where Philip Seymour Hoffman's character was older than Philip Seymour Hoffman ever got to be.
 This still bugs me. Really, if your whole plot hinges on one character, for no good reason, not telling another character a key piece of information, then your story is really more about logistics than it is about people.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none