27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

“I think the movie is fun.  It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean?’  Who cares.  It’s a burning house that someone lives in—it’s funny.”–Director/writer Charlie Kaufman

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener

PLOT: Caden is a community theater director in Schenectady, New York, whose marriage and health are crumbling.  When things seem their lowest—his wife abandons him, and he believes that he’s dying—he inexplicably receives a MacArthur Genius grant.  He uses the money to create a meticulous recreation of New York City inside a warehouse, filled with actors playing characters from his own life, including one playing Caden the director himself.

Still from Synecdoche, New York

BACKGROUND:

  • Synecdoche is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who has been the screenwriter behind most of Hollywood’s big-budget weird films in the past decade.  His scripting credits include Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
  • Kaufman began the script for Synecdoche as a horror film to be directed by frequent collaborator Spike Jonze.  Over two years the script evolved into its current tragicomedy form, and, as Jonze was busy with other projects, it was agreed that Kaufman would direct, with Jonze co-producing.
  • Synecdoche, New York won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.

INDELIBLE IMAGESynecdoche is a movie that weirds us out more through the concepts and dramatic situations than through the visuals, but there is a lovely image of a tattooed rose that physically sheds a real dead petal as its owner expires.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Charlie Kaufman.  More to the point, Charlie Kaufman unleashed; unlike Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, where weird and puzzling events are given a rational (if obscure) answer by the end, the weirdness of Synecdoche deliberately frustrates all attempts at a logical solution.  Hazel’s house, which burns and smokes for decades without being consumed, is shamelessly absurd.  The movie is an exploration of dream logic, a life journey that fractures time, space and coherence, where individual events do not add up piece by piece on a plot level, but resolve themselves on an emotional level.

Original trailer for Synecdoche, New York

COMMENTS: “There is a secret something at play under the surface, growing like an invisible virus of thought.”  This might sound like a soundbite from a pretentious review of Synecdoche, New York, but it’s actually a snippet of the soundtrack of a children’s cartoon that’s overheard in the early moments of the movie.  Long before Hazel moves into her burning house with its extremely motivated seller, little clues like this have been scattered throughout to tell us that Caden Cotard’s strange world is very far away indeed from ours.

There are so many tiny bizarre details spread throughout the movie that it demands a second and third viewing to catch most of them.  Most people will not notice the fact that, according to newspapers and dates on milk cartons, several months pass on that first day.  As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more undeniable that we’re trapped in a bewildering land indeed.  A four year old child prodigy writes a novel about a virulent anti-Semite (later turned into a feature film), and kills himself at five.  Caden is pressured into buying a self-help book written by his therapist, and before cracking it open he looks it up on the Internet to find that an animated icon of himself is already shilling it: “It will change my life!”  For no reason that’s ever explained, a stalker follows him everywhere for years on end, which later qualifies him to be cast in the role of Caden Cotard in the play put on by Caden Cotard.

A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which the part is used to represent the whole (or less commonly, the whole is used to represent a part).  An example is speaking of a “head” of cattle when we mean the entire cow, saying “all hands on deck” when we mean the entire crew (not just their hands), or using the term “the big screen” to represent the entire movie industry.  In a way, every serious work of dramatic art is an attempt at synecdoche, because every story intends to say something universal about some aspect of human experience and existence by using particular characters in a particular situation as an illustration.  “Macbeth” is about unchecked ambition, with the fatally ambitious Scot playing the part that represents the deadly whole.

Synecdoche is also pronounced almost exactly like “Schenectady,” the New York town where Caden lives at the beginning of the movie.  The synecdoche/Schenectady confusion/similarity doesn’t stand alone: a number of homonyms and sound-alike word pairs reverberate throughout the script.  When Caden wakes his sleepy wife to tell her he has blood in his stool, she thinks he’s talking about his work stool.  When a doctor refers him to an ophthalmologist, Caden mishears and thinks he’s being referred to a neurologist; then, when the ophthalmologist in turn refers him to a neurologist, he thinks he’s being sent to a urologist.  Caden suffers from sycosis, a skin disease that’s giving him unsightly facial boils, but he takes pains to explains to his uncomprehending four year old daughter that he’s not suffering from psychosis–although we in the audience may disagree.  Throughout the film, words constantly slip, failing to correctly convey the thing they’re supposed to refer to.

Caden’s great project, the simulacrum of the city of New York staged inside a giant warehouse, also inevitably fails to recreate the reality of what it intends to represent.  Seeking truth, determined to be completely accurate in his depiction of the city, he finds he is facing an insoluble problem.  The city he is trying to capture with total, unflinching realism contains a warehouse in which a director is trying to create a lifelike representation of New York City.  So, to be true to life, he must create another warehouse inside his warehouse.  And, there is also a director inside the warehouse, so he must cast an actor in that role; but now there is an actor playing the role of a director inside the warehouse, so he must find someone to play that part too.  Soon, there are doubles and triples of each character running around and warehouses nested inside warehouses, and it becomes obvious that it will be impossible to literally create the totally uncompromising and true to life project Caden seems to need to give his life meaning.

On this level, the theme of the movie resembles the 1946 Jorge Luis Borges short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which royal cartographers can only make a totally accurate map of an empire by making it on a scale of one mile to one mile, so that the map ends up being exactly as large as the kingdom itself.  Writers have been exploring these ideas of recursion and infinite regress of thought and language–the concept that it’s impossible to express everything, because once we make our expression, we now must express that expression too, and so on to infinity–for years.  Kaufman is the first screenwriter to successfully explore this idea in movies.  The implication of the philosophical concept of recursion is that it’s impossible to truly know everything.  “Why is the sky blue?” Because the atmosphere scatters light at that precise wavelength.  “Why does the atmosphere scatter light?”  Following this line of thinking, we quickly realize that we cannot ever get to the bottom of things; our minds aren’t equipped and designed to comprehend ultimate reality.  For every answer we get, we can always ask one more “why?”  Trying to think our way to the ultimate truth, we find ourselves in a situation just like Caden with his infinite warehouses.

Caden tries to understand his bewildering and irrational world through his art, but he finds it’s impossible to do what he’s set out to do: to understand everything, to reflect everything.  His situation is absurd, but he persists.  As he obsessively sets his mind to the task, he grows from a spineless jellyfish who gets dumped on and abandoned by his first wife to someone who exudes confidence and control–at least on the set.  His personal life remains a sad mess.  As we watch him we grow to respect the fact that, although the task he’s set for himself is impossible, he presses on.  And his quest, although futile and halted by death, does actually give his life meaning, and gives him the strength to push forward through the disappointments of life.

And these disappointments are many; Kaufman is particularly cruel to Caden.  The director’s first wife, Adele, doesn’t respect his theatrical work and abandons him to become a famous artist herself.  He blows his chance at love with box office cutie Hazel. He ruins his relationship with a second wife by remaining obsessed with his former family and with his work.  Most painfully, his daughter Olive is taken from him, turned into a tattooist’s canvas by Adele’s lesbian lover, and lied to and told that her father has abandoned her.  Caden finds her, finally, as she’s dying.  In absurdly specific terms, she asks him to confess that he abandoned her for his homosexual lover so she can forgive him before she dies.  Reluctantly, he confesses to the lie; but she finds she still can’t forgive him, and expires.

The scene is completely impossible, from the improbability of Olive’s abduction to the headsets that magically translate her German speech to the dead rose petal that falls off her infected tattoo.  But the emotional reality of the situation is real, and gut-wrenching.  That’s the secret of Synecdoche.  Although we can’t make literal sense of the incidents that make up Caden’s life, by the end of the movie, we nonetheless know him, pity him, and admire him.  As one of the crew members observed on the DVD documentary, “it’s not about the way the plot adds up, but it’s about the way the feelings add up.”  Life may be bewildering, confusing, and frustrate our intellectual and artistic attempts to understand it; but the one thing we can do is recognize each other and our shared humanity.

Synechdoche the movie is so huge, and raises so many fascinating ideas, that it is impossible to do it justice in a short essay.  I have not mentioned the nearly flawless, mostly female, ensemble acting.  I haven’t mentioned Cotard’s Syndrome, or the hints in the movie that Caden may have committed suicide.  I have only hinted at the movie’s great sense of humor: the exchanges between Caden and his passively hostile host of specialist physicians are small masterpieces of sharp verbal comedy.  And I haven’t mentioned that this movie’s greatest flaw is that it’s fantastic sense of absurdist humor, which makes the first three-fourths of the movie so exhilarating despite the humiliations Caden suffers, deserts it in the dour and depressing final half hour as the director’s life runs out.  If I haven’t discussed these and other points in the detail they deserve, then such is the impossibility of describing a movie that’s so sprawling, jumbled, and intensely detailed.

Synecdoche, New York is an immense, over-ambitious work that attempts to be “about everything–dating, birth, death, life, family, all that.”  Such a project is obviously impossible and doomed to failure.  But, the film is also about the doomed impossibility of creating and immense, over-ambitious work of art about everything, about the regret that accompanies that futility, and about the necessity of continuing on regardless.  Caden’s play staged in the warehouse is an attempted synecdoche of his life, a part standing for the whole.  A single life, such as Caden’s, is also a synecdoche for all human life. And Synecdoche, New York, this confused and confusing thing, is a synecdoche of itself, and a synecdoche of us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…just when you think it’s safe to go back to the movies, the plunger sucks up something from a clogged drain like the unspeakable, unpronounceable Synecdoche, New York, and you’re forced to take back every prematurely made prophecy about ‘the worst movie ever made.’ Because no matter how bad you think the worst movie ever made ever was, you have not seen Synecdoche, New York. It sinks to the ultimate bottom of the landfill, and the smell threatens to linger from here to infinity.”–Rex Reed, The New York Observer (contemporaneous)

“…a portrait of a creative mind in artistic and emotional crisis, painted as a vast mural that encompasses 30-plus years, slips from mundane reality into nightmare fantasy…No film with an ambition this large, and achievement this impressive, can be anything but exhilarating… a miracle movie.”–Richard Corliss, Time (contemporaneous)

“With Charlie Kaufman… one expects something weird and wonderful. So it will come as no surprise that ‘weird’ is an apt descriptor for Synecdoche, New York... But ‘wonderful?’ Not really. This is the kind of maddening, overstuffed, overambitious, self-indulgent motion picture that will divide critics and viewers (those few who see it)… less a movie than a series of disjointed meditations on art, death, and the connection between the two. Viewers who love to ascribe meaning to the cryptic will have a field day. To me, it seems more like weirdness for weirdness’ sake.”–James Beradinelli, Reelviews (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: Synecdoche, New York – Sony Pictures.  Fans will want to download the press kit available here, which contains detailed bios of everyone involved in the film as well as ruminations on the intent behind the film from Kaufman and others.

IMDB LINKSynecdoche, New York (2008)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s New Film – montage of clips and soundbites from Hoffman, Kaufman and Catherine Keener on the film, produced by CBS television

Life Is a Dress Rehearsal: Charlie Kaufman’s Great Warehouse Experiment – Penetrating essay/review by Leo Robson of The London Times putting Synecdoche in the context of Kaufman’s entire body of work

Twitch – Synecdoche, New York – Interview with Charlie Kaufman – Interview with Kaufman centering around the dream logic of the film–although the interviewer, an expert on Jungian dream theory, spends more time elucidating his own interpretations of the film than Kaufman does supplying insights

DVD INFO:  The Sony Pictures DVD (buy) is almost reverential, packed with extras: a 19 minute documentary on the production; a 12 minute documentary starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman discussing Caden’s character; a 36 minute “bloggers roundtable” with five smart web-based reviewers discussing the movie; full-length versions of the three disturbing, surreal cartoons that are visible in the background of the movie; and footage of a 27 minute interview with Charlie Kaufman at a “The Script Factory” seminar where he discusses each of his scripts in chronological order, ending with Synecdoche (which is only very briefly discussed).  Also available on Blu-ray (buy).

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Zeldon.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

10 thoughts on “27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)”

  1. No, although I researched a lot of opinions before writing the piece, I had not heard of Steve or read his piece until you brought it to my attention. Steve is a professional who writes well, so I take being compared to him as a compliment.

    It seems the biggest non-obvious similarity between our reviews is that we both cite the example of Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science.” If you look at the paradox of Kaufman’s Synecdoche (the impossibility of creating a perfect recreation of a city inside a city) and that of “Exactitude” (the impossibility of recreating a 100% accurate map of a country without making the map as large as the country), the comparison is obvious. The story is very famous, and I’m sure Kaufman was aware of it when writing Synecdoche, and that many other commentators noticed the similarity between the themes.

    1. I mean, if three intelligent reviewers independently are reminded of the same obscure but memorable paragraph of prose, then the odds that the hyper-intelligent Kaufman had that particular Borges story at least in the back of his mind when coming up with his movie seem pretty good.

  2. I believe this article is brilliant because it explains some questions I had after watching SNY twice, and because it perfectly mirrors some of my own observations. I would therefore naturally consider your article brilliant. Which it is.

    And Rex Reed is an idiot.

  3. Your essay here is better than the film, which I found lumbering and tedious. Life is a play. OK. I get it. Borges at least was a master of concision. And a lot funnier.

  4. I highly recommend adding whatever Ebert has written about this movie. He named it the best of 2008 and the best of the entire decade; even considered putting it on his Sight and Sound ballot for 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *