You can read thousands of reviews of Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York but do not look for answers to the millions of questions that will arise in your head after seeing the movie. “I don't explain what happens in my movies because I want the audience to have their experience of it,” Kaufman said in a recent interview. Well, with Kaufman’s generous permission let me share my experience with Synecdoche, New York.
Having seen movies written by Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), I became his blind fan who rushed to the opening day (after a debut at Cannes, the film was released on a limited basis in the U.S. on Oct. 24, and was finally distributed nationwide on Nov. 7) of Synecdoche, New York without any knowledge of the movie’s background or the meaning of the title.
Synecdoche (pronounced s[i^]n*[e^]k"d[-o]*k[-e]) is a figure of speech that presents a kind of metaphor in which a part of something is used for the whole, or the whole is used for a part.
Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director who receives a MacArthur genius grant and decides to make a play, which will replicate his real life. As the play gets bigger it turns into a life in itself, it has power to influence the lives of actors and Cotard’s own troubled lonely life. Thus, a play represents Cotard’s life, or Cotard’s life becomes eventually a play.
Meanwhile, Cotard is surrounded by beautiful women (played by Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, and Hope Davis), whose stories are stitched into Cotard’s life and play even when they leave him. None of the women can make Cotard happy. His wife wishes he was dead, his second wife leaves him, and the love of his life marries another man — real life situations that happen to millions of people. Yet, in Cotard’s life, all events have a dreamlike touch to them; no one can be sure of what is happening. The real and the unreal get mixed up and you realize that the audience and Cotard, and perhaps Kaufman himself, are equally confused.
In his appearance on the CBC show The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, Kaufman described relationships in his movies as “complicated or frustrated or whatever… whatever it is that they are.” Apparently Kaufman does not clearly understand what his heroes want and why they act the way they do.
The film's plot is unstructured and quite complicated, which will certainly not put off Kaufman’s fans. However, the movie struggles to keep the audience interested as it starts to drag after the first hour. I found my own way of staying entertained when the movie went from comedy into drama with surrealist elements: I saw the movie as the story of Kaufman’s life.
Cotard does with his art what Kaufman has been doing in Hollywood. Both of them are breaking rules of entertainment to open people’s eyes to the unappealing reality of our sometimes miserable existence.
Cotard finds a giant warehouse that serves as a replica of New York City. To make it seem more real, he creates another replica of the replica inside, and then another one and so forth. Thus, the project goes on for years. Kaufman worked on his grand debut for five years to show “how people live their lives — how people project onto the world a story about this very messy, confusing non-story world.” Cotard seems to reflect fears that Kaufman or everyone else has: "I'm afraid I'm gonna die and I want to do something important while I'm here."
Cotard and Kaufman are both doing something important but in thinking too much and trying to make their projects impeccable, they both run into time constraints. Cotard’s life-long play is an exaggerated model of Kaufman’s long movie, which for some viewers gets repetitive and monotonous.
In a 2004 interview with Charlie Rose, Kaufman said that “film is a dead medium” unlike theatre where “you’ve got accidents that can happen.” Synecdoche, New York is not dead, and it is about theatre where accidents do happen all the time. But more importantly, it is not dead because it’s as unpredictable as reality.
*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.
(Promotional poster for Synecdoche, New York from Sony Pictures Classics. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)
Synecdoche, New York
Philip Seymour Hoffman
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