Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York

Film review by: Witney Seibold




            I had to look up the word “synecdoche.” It describes the figures of speech that someone uses when they refer to a whole by a single part. The example the dictionary gave was referring to a laborer as a “hand.” Or when the government is referred to as “Washington.” As a film journalist, I used synecdoche all the time, as when I refer to “Hollywood.”


            Charlie Kaufman’s film “Synecdoche, New York,” the first he directed himself, is epic in scope, far reaching in its need to capture a single human consciousness on film, and utterly baffling. It’s like is someone tried to make a complete and holistic version of James Joyce’s stream-of-unconsciousness Ulysses. Every slight digression or fantasy or flight of mental whimsy is dramatized. Often even the dramatizations are dramatized. And not necessarily in the order in which they were received. Every affair had by Caden Cotard, the film’s lead character (and possibly an avatar for Kaufman himself), involves the women he’s having the affair with, the consequences of the affair, the guilt he has over having the affair, the crippling lack of self esteem over the affair, and then a series of re-enactments of the affair using different actors. And then he has affairs with the actors, just to make things all the more complicated.


            Let’s see if I can start to sum up the setup of the film, as an entire plot synopsis will only take pages, and only confuse both you and me:


            Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director who feels he is not reaching the true depths of honesty and humanity that the theater is capable of producing. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is openly not happy about their marriage. Their therapist (Hope Davis) has little of insight to say, and seems only interested in plugging her new book to her clients. Caden desperately wants to have an affair with Hazel (Samantha Morton), the box office worker at his theater.


            Caden is suffering many health ailments. And a mysterious man (Tom Noonan) seems to be following him. His young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) is also strangely ill, but doesn’t seem to show it.


            At this point in the film, one gets the sense that the time is out of joint. Although Caden, while cursing spite, has no interest in setting it right.


            The first clue we get that we’re not really living in any sort of reality is when Hazel moves into a house which is perpetually on fire. Hazel and the realtor tour the property in a haze of smoke, talking about what a pleasant place it is to live, despite being ablaze. This scene could have come out of a Buñuel film. Hazel and Caden almost have an affair, but it’s aborted.


            Adele moves to Germany, leaving Caden high and dry. The heartbreak gives him the impetus to begin an epic theater project of his own, one in which he can eplxore, honestly, man’s fear of death and loneliness. Or perhaps just his own fear of death and loneliness. He buys a studio in downtown Manhattan, and begins staging scenes from his own life, i.e. he begins restaging scenes seen earlier in the film with new actors. He begins having an affair with his star actress Claire (Michelle Williams), but it’s clear he’s only doing so to forget Hazel. Eventually the theater project (whose title is always under debate) begins to grind on for so long (17 years have passed before we know it) that he has to reenact the staging itself, actors are hired to play actors, and the studio set becomes a city unto itself.


            H, and there’s some footage of a tattooed stripper, and a strange aside involving the apocalypse. But that’s as may be.


            I could write an extended essay as to what all this may or may not have meant to me, but that would only be an interpretation, and not necessarily a finger on the film. Is “Synecdoche, New York” successful in capturing the totally and complete and ultimate human experience? Well, it’s way too oblique to do so, but I greatly admired the ambition to try. I may have been baffled, but I was glad to be lost in the mystery. It invoked the same feelings of being lost as “Inland Empire” or “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” I was lost, but never bored.


            The talent on display in this film in outstanding. Hoffman is an incredible performer, and I’m glad he’s finally getting the work and credit he deserves. Samantha Morton is equally amazing as a jilted free spirit who eventually settles down. Also involved in ways I don’t have the patience to describe are Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Working with Davis, Keener, Williams, and Morton. Include Meryl Streep in that list, and you have a collection of some of the best actresses working today.


            This film will baffle everyone, and even frustrate some. Just when you think you have a handle on everything, Kaufman pills back another layer, redefines everything, and expects us to play along. I could easily watch this film again, and I enjoyed it immensely. I just can’t really say why.

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 12:06 am  Leave a Comment  

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