Synecdoche, New York - 2008
Director(s): Charlie Kaufman
Writer(s): Charlie Kaufman
Cinematography by: Frederick Elmes
Editor(s): Robert Frazen
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Sadie Goldstein, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samantha Morton, Paul Spark, Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest
Last month I tackled Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and ever since it has been stuck in my head (along with PTA's Punch Drunk Love). Kaufman has a direct line to my heart and mind, and his films always linger in my head, to the point of me slightly obsessing over the little things that built the experience for me. So, what better way to expel a Kaufman film from my head, than by watching another Kaufman film. And I picked one of his most exceptional work; Synecdoche, New York. Let's talk about it.
The story follows theater director Caden Cotard (Hoffman), as his life starts to "slowly” unravel when his artist wife, Adele (Keener), leaves for an art exhibit in Berlin. Caden unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Fellowship and uses this new wealth to build a huge play that will finally allow his artistic vision to be fully explored. The play keeps getting bigger and bigger, to the point that the lines between reality and fiction completely blur as time keeps slipping away from everyone involved.
The summary above does not do it justice, but it is the best elevator pitch I can give without rambling for hours about everything that is happening at the same time and believe me there is a lot. Kaufman's script plays with the theme of death, time, identity and the barrier of art and real life in such a meta way that dialogue and details that may seem as filler is drenched are subtle meaning that pushes the themes forward. Simple things like a character's name Cotard (name of a rare mental illness, were a person hold the delusional belief that they are already dead), to the title of the film Synecdoche (a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa). And finally, one of the alternate titles for his play Simulacrum (an image or representation of someone or something), make for a reward experience as a repeat viewer.
The film feels as if everything you are seeing is a dream, and it plays with time in a way that can be a bit overwhelming to keep up. A typical scene can feel as if it took place within an hour of a day, but when you pay attention to the dates, decorations, and dialogue, the scene encompassed months of Caden's life. The opening sequence is an excellent example of how subtlety Kaufman played with the concept of time, and later in the film, the changes are more drastic and noticeable. This effect perfectly captures how time always slips by, and how one as an adult seem to measure our years by important holidays (New Years, 4th July, Halloween, and Christmas) and remark how quickly the year went.
There is a line said by Hazel (Morton), Caden’s love interest, that is permanently embedded in my head, and that is; “The end is built into the beginning.” And that line summarizes both the film as a whole, with many things that are set up in the first fifteen minutes are foreshadowing the end of many of our characters, but the central theme of death. We are born with a preset ending. We know that death is not the end of life, but part of life and that thought consumes Caden’s entire being. He is constantly obsessing over every single lump, bump and rash on his body. The television reflects his inner thoughts, as they show cartoons and commercials dealing with death. When he reads the paper, he goes directly to the obituaries, and wonders if he will be remembered like the greats of society. It’s both his fuel for his art and his downfall. I loved the way Cadence is contrasted by the carefree Adele, as she is shown to have a cough throughout the film and she never goes to the doctor or cares. She goes on to become one of the greatest artists in the world, with tiny pieces of art, while Cadence continues to blow up his play to a scale beyond reach and lives in obscurity. The search for perfection gets in the way of him achieving his goal.
The theme of art and life is far too dense for me to ramble on, and the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman only adds to the theme of one being unable to tell everyone's story truthfully. But I do want to talk about Sammy (Noonan), Cadence stalker for twenty-years and the actor that plays Cadence in the play. Sammy can be seen as a vehicle for the audience, and a stand-in for them as well. The stalking can be seen as the fandom of actors and how every single detail is of their lives is devoured to the point that the fan “knows” the actor more than the actor knows themselves.
I can go on and on about the writing, but at some point, I need to touch on the incredible performances from every single actor involved in the film. Hoffman has this impressive ability to make you feel sympathy even for the most self-absorbed assholes in the world. The range he portrays within the runtime is something otherworldly, and it baffles me that it got zero recognition. Catherine Keener's ability to show resentment and sympathy at the same time made me so uncomfortable, but in a good way, since it came across so genuine, that I felt like a voyeur looking into a failed marriage. When she and Hoffman argue in front of Maria (Jason Leigh) is deeply layers with subtle body cues and facial expressions from both actors, that just that scene alone is worth a review as long as this one. Samantha Morton as Hazel is heartbreaking because you see the love and happiness she desires to give and receive from Cadence, only to be kept at a distance by his insecurities. And Michele Williams, as Claire, has a lot to carry since her performance lives within the meta-reality of her playing a version of herself within Cadence's play. She does minor tweaks that create a world of difference between the real Claire and Cadence's version of Claire.
Quick note: I barely had time to talk about the score, editing, cinematography, and set design. But believe me, this review can turn into a book real quick if I don't sacrifice certain elements.
Synecdoche, New York may be better off with me not talking about it, as I feel I somehow failed to sell it or "review it" and I butchered the masterpiece that it is. But I hope that by throwing it out into the world again after eleven years, someone somewhere will find it and fall in love with it as I did. This is the type of film that is so deeply layered, that the viewer will always walk away with something new and it will create a conversation since it can be interpreted in so many ways. I cannot avoid the pretentious way of describing it as art, because this film is art. Please go watch it; it is on Netflix right now.
Synecdoche, New York is Why I Love Movies.
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