This is a post regarding my reaction to Synecdoche, New York, a film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind) I have no idea what would constitute as a spoiler for this movie but I’m not screening for them so if you’re going to see it and are sensitive to such things please don’t read this until such time as you have gotten an opportunity to see it.
To start with the 7th grade term paper staple I will define my terms:
A synecdoche (sin – EK – doh - kee) is a figure of speech in which the one of the following (or its reverse) is expressed: A part stands for a whole.
There is a cottage industry springing up for folks trying to explain this movie. Which seems a shame as they are spending time trying to intellectualize their response (rather than go with their emotional response) when Charlie Kaufman told you what it was about in the title.
Synedoche, New York (henceforth the shorter SNY) is Charlie Kaufman’s examination of the artists’ life, his experience in the artists’ life. The first criticism of this film, and most Serious Films (and make no mistake – this is a Serious Film), is that it is pretentious and masturbatory. Which is shorthand for “I didn’t like it so the artist is an elitist asshole who made it too hard”… but I digress.
The film opens with Kaufman avatar Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a regional theatre director languishing in Schenectady in an unfulfilling relationship with his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and young daughter. He is about to open a dreadful, unfulfilling production of Death of a Salesman (perhaps the prototypical America self-deception drama) and is failing at therapy.
Adele (who takes the life she examines and contains it on tiny canvases) bails with Olive for Germany, and global fame and success (highlighted by an ‘extra’ in Caden’s later opus walking through wearing a faded ‘Adele’ t-shirt), while Caden begins to mentally and physically fall apart and we first begin to slipstream through time. Caden loses months without recognizing it, only being made aware of it by amorous coworker Hazel.
Caden receives notification that he has received a Macarthur Fellowship, announces to a not-listening Adele (via phone) that he is going to make something big and real and true, acquires a hangar in New York and sets to.
And now, the scene set, the movie really begins, and becomes impossible to describe linearly.
So we move on to why in the world I’m writing this all down in a theatre blog.
Reason the first?
The Grand Overarching Theme of Synedoche, New York is Caden Cotard’s synecdoche. Caden immerses himself in his Great Work. His synecdoche is theatre. He substitutes the work for the whole of life, and it consumes him. Time compresses, and relationships tangle, knot, and slip away in moments until the fiction of his engrossing production becomes his only reality.
Reason the second?
Caden works on this production from early midlife until his (and most of the casts’) death. It is never finished because in his quest for ultimate reality each new person that he or a cast member interacts with needs to be added to the cast. Their lives and homes become part of the Synecdoche, New York he has had constructed in the hanger inside the Real New York.
Without predetermined boundaries (Caden would call them out for fake) the network of stories is as large as the population at any given moment. You can never tell them all. Or as Caden discovered, tell even one with all the richness and truth that it truly deserves.
Everything is a choice. How much of your life will you devote to your art? Really and truly devote? How much will you live in the Real World with everyone else? How does that balance compromise or enrich the work or your life? Separately, at what point does the chase for Truth and Purity in art become destructive, because no audience ever gets to view it?
Please understand, this isn’t a post where Travis explains it all to you. This is what I got out of this film on this viewing in this moment in my life. I really think that it’s going to say different things to me each time I view it, and I will view it several more times. I recommend that you give it a try if you have a chance.