Synecdoche, New York

I had the luck to get a netflix copy of Charlie Kaufman’s film from Netflix just as it was released. These are some of life’s small victories.

I was especially excited because after seeing this film in the theater last year I knew immediately that I needed to see it again. Sadly I was not able to as, is unsurprising for a self-reflexive-times-20 film with a runtime of over two hours, it did not stay in theaters long. I recall immediately not grasping exactly whether it’s some sort of masterpiece or a pretentious and self-involved piece of junk (I had a similar reaction to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.) I must say Synecdoche fared much better on second viewing than Aronofsky’s similarly ambitious and uncompromising personal vision.

The first thing I need to say about this film is that I had a tough time telling Samantha Morton and Emily Watson apart before this. The film takes this similarity to a great extreme by having Watson play a version of Morton’s character in the giant theater piece. The only thing that helped me tell them apart is that Morton is signficantly more busty than Watson and doesn’t have an English accent. But let me tell you, you put them in a lineup next and I may not be able to differentiate them! They could pull some Parent Trap stuff if they wanted to!

Anyhow, for those who haven’t seen the film, here’s a quick intro: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman and also, I would assume, Kaufman’s alter ego in the same way Woody Allen does it) is a regional theater director (quite the same as the character he played in 2007’s The Savages) married to Adele (Charlie Kaufman regular Catherine Keener), an artist who paints tiny canvases that can only be looked at under a microscope. Needless to say absurdist Kaufman gags like this are present throughout. They have a four year old daughter Olive and their marriage is clearly about to fall apart. Adele goes to Berlin ostensibly for 1 month and apparently doesn’t return for many years, having divoriced Caden and re-married in the meantime. Shortly after she leaves, Caden is given a MacArthur grant and decides to develop a theater piece in NYC incorporating a huge crew of actors and city-sized sets. This piece eventually comes to include verbatim (or close to verbatim) accounts of his life experiences (see the end of Annie Hall for a similar re-invisioning of a personal narrative.) There are characters playing characters playing characters playing real people. Characters speak for real people as if they were emotional ventriloquists and how can you tell if it’s just an affair or a love-quadrangle if everyone involved is ostensibly the same person?

So, first of all this film is hillarious. There’s a great sight gag that involved Adelle excusing herself from Caden’s opening night performance of Death of a Salesman because she has to ship her paintings…in tiny little plywood boxes the size of a large marble! Hope Davis plays Caden’s therapist and tells of a novel written by a 4 year old about a Neo-Nazi and then commits suicide at 5.

The film is also incredibly touching at moments. Anyone who isn’t affected by the scene wherein Caden reads Olive’s diary that recounts an imagination game that Caden plays with Hazel as a child is just not human. The beauty and joy and tenderness that can exist in a parent/child relationship has rarely been expressed more vividly. And the character of Sammy, a man who follows Caden for 20 years and eventually plays his double in the theater piece (though note that what is theater vs. what is life and the value and meaning of each is a key theme of the film), (who is incidentally played by Tom Noonan, best known by me as the murderer in Manhunter) very ably plays the mirror to the true emotions and thoughts that Caden can’t bring himself to face.

Needless to say just looking at the cast that the acting is top notch – there’s not a false note in the film and while Hoffman is clearly the star the film can easily be called an ensemble as most of the characters (including Diane Weist’s, not introduced until about 1.5 hours in but is given many of the most emotionally wrenching lines and roles in the film) are very well developed.

The film deals with all of the same themes Kaufman has addressed in his previous screenplays: Obsessions with death, identity, longing, writers-block and the difficulty of expected creativity and general ennui. Caden is a quite morose, neurotic, inhibited and despondent character, though the scenes with he shares with his daughter show his brighter side. In the end, though, it’s clear that he is a pretty miserable character, never being able to be comfortable with those who love him, constantly longing for something or someone he feels he has lost and taking solace in the arms of those who seem just as desperate as he. There is a half poetic/half ham-fisted monologue by the theater-piece priest that outlines this sort of restless quite well.

On second viewing I began to look out for more of the small references to the arbitrary nature of time in the film. The first scenes in the Cotard household indicate that the day is September 21, October 31 and November 4 all at once. Years feel like weeks, all further cementing the feeling that one is in some sort of dream haze or some sort of fuge state. In fact, I was convinced on second viewing that Cotard was actually dead through most of the film (though that notion has since been determined silly and incorrect after noting that Caden’s last name is a reference to a psychological disorder in which the patient incorrectly believes that they are dead.) The other mystery that runs throughout is the gradual disintegration of what appears to be the outside world (though it becomes clear 3/4 of the way through the film that differentiation between “the outside” and just another stage set is impossible). There are tanks rolling through the streets, shock troops herding citizens onto buses and revolutionaries marching through the streets and Caden mentions late in the film that the world only contains 13 million people. Oh, and Hazel (Samantha Morton) buys and lives in a house that is perpetually on fire (Freud could decipher this one pretty easily).

Do I know what all of this means? Hell no. Probably never will, but the scope and ambition of this film, the amount of thought it encourages, the spot-on dark humor and the outstanding cast performances all make this a film that everyone who has a bit of patience and heart should see. It’s sort of like Inland Empire in the way the film seems to be an untainted reflection of the film-maker’s mind. But where David Lynch is hallucinatory and violent Kaufman is more introspective and tender. It’s certainly the most naval-gazing film I’ve ever seen and the dialogue goes from everyday conversation to over the top pseudo-philosophizing like throwing a light switch, but hey, I like this kind of stuff.

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One Comment on “Synecdoche, New York”

  1. John Says:

    I probably wouldn’t have watched it otherwise, but I’m totally adding this to my Netflix queue. It sounds excellent.

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