Synecdoche, New York ****
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard
Samantha Morton as Hazel
Catherine Keener as Adele Lack
Michelle Williams as Claire Keen
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Maria
Hope David as Madeleine Gravis
Tom Noonan as Sammy Barnathan
Emily Watson as Tammy
Dianne Weist as Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems
Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.
It's been nearly a month since I saw "Synecdoche, New York." At the beginning of November I caught a late night screening, and spent another two weeks with the mindset of me hopefully seeing again. I held off on writing about it until I was able to get a second viewing. A few weeks later I got that chance, and spent yet another week trying to figure out a way to approach writing about this film. What angle to come at it with, how much to reveal in terms of plot analysis, and if I should get personal with my own anxious philosophies and feelings about mortality and death.
Suffice to say, Charlie Kaufman's directing debut is dense, unqiue, and probably the most essay worthy film of the year, clocking in at two hours and four minutes where nearly every minute could be analyzied with a volume of ideas. It's the film that comes out every now and then that will give nearly everyone who watched it a different interpretation of reality, and where every idea that someone presents almost seems like the right one, and yet at the same time nobody seems to be right. In a Samuel Beckett way, Kaufman creates thread after thread of ideas that seem like the answer to this spiral of a film, but they all seem to hit a brick wall at some point in dissecting them. But at the same time, it almost doesn't matter, as it opens fascinating discussion and reflection. I got more out of the last twenty minutes of "Synecdoche, New York" than I did out of some full films in years.
To try and explain the plot to "Synecdoche, New York" would almost be an exercise in self-indulgence, but I'll try to be as brief as possible. Philip Semour Hoffman, virtually in every scene and giving one of his most groundbreaking performances of his career, played Caden Cotard. Working as a theatre directing in upstate New York, Caden lives with his wife Adele and his four year old daughter Olive, and is a few days away from the opening night of his adaptation of "Death of a Salesman," where he does something new by casting young actors in the two lead parts. Adele, an artist who works with very small canvas', finds him to be wasting time by adapting someone else's work instead of concentrating on something personal. Caden gets his chance when he recieves a Genius Grant, and sets out to make something entirely personal, and worthwhile of the infinite money that he will recieve. Soon after, Adele goes to Berlin for her art show, taking Olive with her and leaving Caden forever. Caden rents a huge warehouse of his theatre piece, assembling scores of people to create a massive set of stories, trying to give every character their own personal story. The piece begins to obsess Caden, taking over decades of his life, and having him worried about his own mortality as strange medical disorders cause all of Caden's internal bodily functions to slowly shut down and cause him problems one by one.
Woven throughout Caden's life are a series of women, at the center being Hazel, a woman who works the box office for Caden's "Salesman," who also makes her intentions towards Caden known very early. As Hazel, Samantha Morton is rather unforgettable, reminding me of another Kaufman creation-Clementine in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." In all of his past works-"Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine," and even "Human Nature" to an extent-Kaufman creates some of the oddest love stories and triangles put to the screen. "Malkovich" involves a love story between a man and a woman where the woman only loves the man when he is in the body of John Malkovich. "Adatpation" involves a love story that blurs the line of fact and fiction. ""Eternal Sunshine" deals with a man realizing his love and professing his love for his ex-girlfriend through his memories of her. And now the relationship between Caden and Hazel reaches new boundaries of painful separation. I'll try to explain.
To be realistic, Caden reaches inside of his soul and hires an actor to play himself for his piece. He finds Sammy, an older man who claims to have been following Caden for years and knows him inside and out. He also gets an actress to play Hazel, creating a triangle between Caden, Hazel, and the actor playing Caden, who should technically fall in love with the actress playing Hazel. It is scenes like this, a confrontation between the four of them, that really emphasize what a unique role Charlie Kaufman has in the screenwriting field.
As the line between reality and theatre begins to blur, Kaufman finds himself creating a somewhat more accessible David Lynch type a film, more enjoyable and seemingly less self-indulgent in that he creates characters with seemingly real emotions and dilemmas instead of simply trying to screw with ones mind. The film begins with somewhat standard melodrama, giving small insight into Caden's personal life and career. Time is very quick in Kaufman's alternate reality-it wasn't until my second viewing that I noticed a few small details in terms of time moving forward. The film begins on the first day of fall, by the time Caden makes it into the kitchen its Halloween, and at the end of the night on a drive home it is New Year's Eve. When Caden tells Hazel its been a week since Adele left, she says that its been a year. It's clearly a comment on the fleetingness of life, and the perception of time depending on who the person is experiencing it. We've all had the experience of things feeling very quick or slow, while its the exact opposite for another person.
As for Caden's adventures-including a trip to Berlin to find Olive, who appears to be working at a peepshow during one portion of her life-the question of if he did them or if its all in his mind raises itself time and time again. While doing some research and reading several peoples opinions on the film, I discovered the meaning of the word Cotard, which stems from a disorder where a person holds a belief that he or she is dead, does not exist, or has lost his/her blood or internal organs, leading to delusions of immortality. Its clear that Caden is very self-absorbed. At the kitchen table he reads from a newspaper various headlines over the hustle and bustle of his wife and daughter. He mistakens Harold Pinter winning the Nobel Prize to Harold Pinter dying because the headline featured his name and age.
One can take the events of the film in a surrealistic, but literal sense. Or one can take them as them being in Caden's head, as he assures himself that he is a better person than he really is. A person of action and originality instead of trying to live vicariously through someone else, or even simply through a character in one of his plays. One can take them as a death dream-towards the beginning of the film, Caden is hit in the eye with a sink faucet. There are so many threads one can take in terms of intrepretation, but they all nearly find themself becoming failures as something gets in the way.
However, while seeming incoherent and impossible to understand, I was able to accept the fact that I would never have a full and clear understanding of what was in front of me, and I also accepted the fact that I would never be able to discuss the film with anyone without getting a new idea presented to me regarding it. Instead of struggling with the work, I embraced it, giving myself to the rather beautiful and lyrical flow of the piece. The final half hour of the film is so painstakingly beautiful that it had me being to question my own concepts of mortality, and understanding of the fact that we will all die one day. Life is so brief, its very easy to achieve nothing. It's easy to call oneself a failure because we try and try and try and never seem to work out everything to perfection. We love, and are hardly loved in return. We live, but how much of our lives is lived in reality and not in our minds, trying to make everything seemingly perfect?
The real main character of the film ends up being Charlie Kaufman himself, who seems to create a version of himself in every screenplay that he writes. I wish to know more about him-about his self-failings and loathing, his history with women, his ticks and quirks. If anything, he is the most honest writer out there at the moment, who opens up about his personal feelings and ends up making us identify with them, as much as that might scare us. I saw myself in this work. I saw my fears of death and failure surface. I saw myself in Caden, who works and reworks his piece over and over again. It takes years to find an audience for it, and when it doesn't he surrenders himself to the work and does what his director ends up telling him to. Complete with Jon Brions trance inducing score, which include strange and haunting electronic sounds, Kaufman created a masterpiece of life and death, and how close death is to all of us, especially those that do not fully live.
"Synecdoche, New York" is sure to divide people, but in a way I feel thats why Kaufman made it. There is no direct intrepretation, and no one answer. People will hate it, people will be frustrated by it, but I have a feeling that everyone will, in some way, give a personal response to it. This has probably been one of the oddest film pieces I have ever written-disorganized and messy. But I had a lot that I wish to say about this film, and have a lot more I want to. But I will stop here, without furthur disgressions. There is plenty I have to say about the film that I do not know yet, but I look forward to being able to sit down with it over the years and watching it over and over again, confronting my fears with the failings of the characters, and being haunted and absorbed in the fleeting and lonely life of Caden Cotard.