Sony // 2008 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // March 10th, 2009
sy*nec*do*che (noun) -- a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent a whole
In his directorial debut, quirky screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) strives to make one point clear to his audience in very complex film: he didn't just make a film that's simply "about death." As his main character attests of his play-within-the-film, "...it's not a play just about death. It's about everything: dating, birth, death, life, family. All that." That's true -- about the play-within-the-film and about the film itself -- but it also masks something important. Synecdoche, New York is a film about death. Death is its central concern, and it is one of the very best, boldest, and most thoughtful films about death to hit American screens in years.
Setting up the plot of Synecdoche, New York is difficult to do without revealing too much, but the story revolves around a theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote), from Schenectady, New York (with the title literary term being a play on this place name). As his wife Adele (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich) seems to be losing interest in him and his health deteriorates in alarming ways, he flirts with other young women in and around his local production of Death of a Salesman. Among them is Claire (Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain), his vaguely vacuous (at least at first) lead actress, and Hazel (Samantha Morton, Minority Report), the spunky lady at the box office. A new factor is added to these entanglements when Caden wins a MacArthur grant. The funding it provides allows him to move his theater company to New York City and pursue his dream of making something astounding, vowing not to "settle for anything less than the brutal truth." As the years roll by, the scope of that truth gets bigger and bigger...
Let's start with the simple stuff: Synecdoche, New York features inspired acting from a big fantastic cast, it has moments of great humor and great pathos, and it creates a rich visual world for its characters to inhabit. It's one of the very best films of 2008, but it got few awards and, I suspect, most viewers wouldn't actually like it. The reason for this last claim can't help but sound hopelessly snobby: the film is very complicated, very dark, and it develops slowly -- elements that most people aren't looking for in their weekend entertainment. But I shouldn't underestimate audiences too much, considering that films and especially the best TV shows have been recently providing more mental challenges that a lot of viewers are happily keeping up with. For those not afraid to think while watching a movie, Synecdoche is a wonderful treat -- a film that takes a great deal of unraveling, supports multiple interpretations, and allows you to pick up on new things with each viewing. Kaufman is a screenwriting treasure in his ability to grow these amazing puzzle films and each of his scripts has given my brain a welcome workout. But if your mind is going through a couch-potato period, it's best to wait on watching this one.
While viewers do their mental heavy lifting in this movie, though, there are plenty of simpler pleasures to be enjoyed along the way. As I mentioned above, the acting is phenomenal. Whether you come to like Caden or not, Hoffman inhabits the character beautifully -- through all the emotional twists and turns and through a long aging period. He manages to be just as pretentious as the part requires, but also noticeably aware of his own delusions of grandeur and the naïve, almost embarrassing, nature of his ambitions. Apart from the delightful Tom Noonan, Hoffman is surrounded by female talent in Synecdoche. Morton gets the meatiest role as Hazel, and she's brings both moxie and sweetness to the film's most likeable character. In a story very much concerned with doubles, Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) plays her doppelgänger very well -- with Kaufman cutely referring to the way people tend to mix these two actresses up.
Catherine Keener has always been best at playing cruel, witty women -- having done so memorably for Kaufman before, in Being John Malkovich -- and she brings that talent to this role as Caden's wife, too, with perhaps a bit more humanity. We can really feel for her, at the same time that we recognize her harshness, when she says to Caden in desperation that he disappoints here, but that, "everyone is disappointing -- the more you know someone." The humanity might not come through completely when she utters unimaginably hurtful lines, like in this half-horrify, half-amusing exchange while visiting their therapist together:
Therapist: "There are no terrible things to say in here -- only true
Adele: "Can I say something awful?"
Therapist: "Yes, please do."
Adele: "I've fantasized about Caden dying -- being able to start again, guilt-free. I know that's -- that's bad."
Therapist: "Caden, does that feel terrible?"
Therapist: "OK, good."
Hope Davis (American Splendor) plays the therapist and provides a good share of the laughs this film offers. Last but not least in this list of great female performances is Dianne Wiest, who is given the strangest role in the film and does not appear until its last half-hour, but at that point injects it with a dose of serenity and almost-maternal wisdom that we and Caden sorely need.
Moving on to the more complex themes, one can't really blame Kaufman for not selling the death angle in Synecdoche. For the most part, death is a theme that American audiences only want to think about in its most violent, outlandish manifestations. They're thrilled to see people on screen blown up, shot up, or sliced up in all kinds of gruesome ways, but they find a slow, rotting death from disease much harder to watch -- perhaps because it is the kind they themselves are likely to meet someday. Synecdoche is certainly full of disease and rot, with Caden contracting all manner of strange and disgusting ailments as he ages. His quiet terror at his own mortality, and the more pressing mortality of those he cares about, is eloquently rendered and is one of the most memorable portraits of death and the fear of death in recent memory.
As much as Kaufman denies autobiography in this film -- or at least, he did so at a Q&A session he did in Berkeley that I moderated -- one has to assume that mortality is very much on Kaufman's own mind. The film is about an underconfident artist with tremendous ambition to say something sprawling and true, which is very much how Kaufman portrays himself in Adaptation. He even includes Death of a Salesman in the film, and the German root of his name, "Kaufmann," roughly translates as "salesman." Considering all the word play in this film -- from the title that takes us back to vocabulary from our high school literature classes, to the main character's descriptive name "Cotard" (Wikipedia this one after you've watched the film), to the equally descriptive name "Capgras" that flashes on the screen for a moment on an apartment buzzer. I suspect that Kaufman will be stuck with assumptions of autobiography for a long time, and those making the assumptions can't exactly be blamed, considering the way Kaufman penned Adaptation.
Another thing Kaufman often denies, and has denied in relation to this film, is being influenced by other works of art. Whether he has been or not, it is interesting and worthwhile to think about the other rich texts that Synecdoche draws from and resonates with. For me, the first on that list would be Fellini's 8 1/2, a beautifully surreal Italian movie from 1963 about a film director with grand ambitions and crippling writer's block. As he struggles with the creative process, muddles through marriage and affairs, and builds a hulking metal structure for one of his sets that rises higher and higher into the sky, this film director's story certainly mirrors the story of Kaufman's theater director in Synecdoche, and the two movies are a nice pair to watch together. Another productive comparison would be between Synecdoche and Don DeLillo's masterful book White Noise, whose protagonist also has a crippling fear of death, and which offers the best meditation on mortality of any American novel I've read -- and a surprisingly funny one, too. Lastly, Kaufman accomplishes something here that Ian McEwan also accomplished brilliantly -- and with a very different strategy -- in his novel Atonement (which really is better as a novel, despite the valiant effort made by Joe Wright's film adaptation). Both Kaufman and McEwan reveal the absolute gravity of one of life's most crucial realizations, and one that many of us never fully comprehend: that every single person in the world is every bit as real and complex and vulnerable as you are. McEwan communicates this idea skillfully in the first section of his novel when the little girl, Briony Tallis, comes up against that truth. Kaufman does, too, as Caden progressively acknowledges the complexity of every human life in his ever-expanding play. He voices his epiphany in one of the many memorable lines in the film: "There are millions of people in the world. And not one of those people is an extra."
I'd like to say a bit more -- and say it a bit more cerebrally -- about the film as a whole, so I'll go through the special features and technical qualities here and then include another section with spoilers below, for those who have already seen Synecdoche. Visually, this DVD transfer is pretty good. Though the grain level is perhaps a bit high, the colors look great -- or, more accurately, they look as generally unappetizing as they're supposed to in most of the New York scenes, and they brighten up nicely for a few scenes in a vibrant Berlin art district. In the auditory realm, Synecdoche doesn't disappoint -- particularly with beautifully sad music composed by Jon Brion. For the most memorable song, "Little Person," Kaufman and Brion collaborated, adding vocals from jazz singer Deanna Storey, and they set the mood of the film perfectly. As Storey slowly lets out the lines "I'm just a little person/one person in a sea/of many little people/who are not aware of me" with soft piano chords in the background, we start to get a sense of the film's central message and the meaning of its cryptic title. Regarding special features, Sony offers up a nice selection here, doing justice to this complex, difficult film in its DVD release. "In and Around Synecdoche, New York" is a well-paced, 19-minute making-of featurette. Kaufman doesn't talk much here, but there are interview snippets with lots of cast and crew, mostly focusing on how challenging the film was logistically -- with its massive sets, intricate plots, and dramatic aging processes. There's even a cute acknowledgement of how complicated the script is when one crew person working on sets shows us the elaborate chart she drew up to help keep the film's layered sets straight. "The Story of Caden Cotard" is 12 minutes of an interview with Hoffman about his character and the film -- which drags a bit. More enjoyable and unique is "Infectious Diseases in Cattle: Bloggers' Round Table," which features 36 minutes of lively discussion among five internet critics who had written about the film. They talk a lot about the deeper meaning of the film, including philosophical and literary references and whatnot, so this extra should satisfy anyone who craves more intellectual discussion of Synecdoche. Another fun five-minute extra gives us a longer look at the bizarre animated shorts that show up on Caden's television early in the film. Lastly, Kaufman refrains from doing a director's commentary -- which is unsurprising, given his frequent and justified hesitance to tell fans what his films "mean" -- but he does show up on the special features in a taped session of a screenwriting master class he did in Britain. This excerpt from the session is basically a 26-minute interview done by (of all people) Toby Young, the smug, over-rehearsed new judge from Top Chef. Despite my distaste for the interviewer, it's always illuminating to hear Kaufman talk, and you can tell that he considers the questions and answers very carefully before responding. He may have once had a reputation for being a shy interviewee, but lately he's been great at working the crowd. When I moderated a Q&A with him in Berkeley for this film's press circuit, he kept the college crowd fully engaged and really made them laugh, to boot. For example, when asked by a somewhat presumptuous young woman what he's been reading, he decided he didn't want to tell her and just answered "pornography."
***Now entering SPOILER territory -- spoilers through the end of Synecdoche and a minor spoiler for the series finale of Six Feet Under***
Here I've collected a few more thoughts on three aspects of Synecdoche, for those who have already seen the film:
* On Cinema and Narrative
Ultimately, I think with Synecdoche, Kaufman constructs a kind of bittersweet monument to the failure of cinema, of theater, and of narrative projects more broadly in their ability to meaningfully represent human lives -- consistent with his ode to the frustrations and limitations of screenwriting in Adaptation. What Kaufman subtly and insistently asserts with Synecdoche's sprawling, meandering, increasingly populated story is that a film -- or any narrative -- is an always-insufficient container for the complexities of people. And further, that a mode encouraging viewers to categorize some people as important protagonists and others as disposable extras does a certain violence to one's worldview -- a violence that Kaufman himself to some extent replicates by setting his story inside the psyche of one (straight, white, male) protagonist. Like Borges imagining a map that is so detailed it that it recreates the earth exactly, Kaufman imagines a narrative so detailed and so big that it merges with the life of every participant, and every human being becomes a participant. But such a story is beyond any artist's capabilities, particularly in a medium as temporally and economically controlled as cinema, and every film must instead content itself to be synecdoche -- offering a never-satisfactory part to represent an always-elusive whole. Synecdoche, in this sense, is one of those rich, rich texts that is simultaneously a critic and a perpetrator of a certain kind of narrative transgression.
* On Death
Death and narrative have always maintained close relations, with narrative applied to real deaths in texts like eulogies or biographies and with the end of a life often serving as a convenient end of a story in fiction. For works of fiction that are centrally about death, then, the way death serves or does not serve as a conclusion and how it is represented, bears an unusually heavy weight. In Synecdoche, which takes death as its most prominent topic, Kaufman faces this challenge in a big way. I think Kaufman succeeds greatly in the course of action he does choose, using a similar strategy as Alan Ball, who was faced with the same problem in concluding his acclaimed death-obsessed HBO series on a family of funeral directors, Six Feet Under. Both Kaufman and Ball engage in a kind of too-perfect wish fulfillment that can satisfy their audience on one level by providing fitting closure through death, but also alert them to the artificial nature of narrativized death, through hinted framings as dream and daydream, respectively. Death in Synecdoche is a fitting end for a life, a long-anticipated cathartic climax, only in the protagonist's mind/dreams. For Kaufman, and for us, it is simply an end, a place to stop a story that could and should (but can't) outlive its protagonist, going on forever and in infinite detail.
* On Dreams
Like a number of great surrealist filmmakers before him, Kaufman in Synecdoche tailors his narrative to the measures of dream logic, allowing him to visualize wonderful moments: Caden seeing himself in a series of nihilistic-yet-cheerful television commercials, a real estate agent trying to sell a prospective homeowner a house that is perpetually on fire, a self-help book that defiantly erases its remaining pages when its reader refuses to cooperate with its demands, and a flower tattoo that wilts and dies with its owner. The dream structure also allows Kaufman to render a kind of authorship freed from practical limitations when Caden's MacArthur grant magically provides enough funds for him to take over most of Manhattan and employ a huge percentage of its residents to create a play whose rehearsals go on for decades. What interests me most about Kaufman's use of dreams is how qualitatively different it is from most, as exemplified by a contrast with David Lynch, a recent master of the dream film-genre, particularly in Mulholland Drive. While Lynch's dream work is mesmerizing, it is also rather alienating in its perpetual disorientation and perhaps hinders emotional connections we might make with his characters. Kaufman, by contrast, applies dream logic in a way that is less alienating, more comic, and more smoothly integrated with narrative conventions. For example, space and characters' personalities are still coherent in Caden's world, but it is time that seems to slip by remarkably fast -- as it so often does in dreams. We're shocked when, after Caden mentions that his wife and daughter have been gone for a week, Hazel says, "It's been a year...I'm gonna buy you a calendar." The many points of consistency that allow us to keep our bearings in this world of dream logic make it more possible to connect with these characters on an emotional level -- to cry when Hazel dies, or when Caden finally comes to the end of his journey.
Occasionally, Kaufman's lines about death in this film feel a bit too much like blunt instruments. There is a random scene in an airplane in which an old man tells Caden "death comes faster than you think," that was an example of this sometimes-overdone theme, for me.
The emotional balance between Schenectady and New York City doesn't seem quite right to me, either. How does Caden become so attached to the residents of NYC when his life has been grounded in Schenectady? Kaufman never really shows us. And what is the significance of the hometown that he leaves, beyond providing a clever play on words for the title?
In his directorial debut, Charlie Kaufman makes a film about a director -- a figure who is associated with control and clear vision -- who feels hopelessly not in control. He confesses to Claire, "I don't know what I'm doing," and she replies, "That's what's so refreshing."
Whether or not Caden's anxieties mirror Kaufman's, the latter has risen to the challenge masterfully and his direction is indeed refreshing. He has created a bold film that few people will like or even sit through, but those who do will never forget it and the "brutal truth" that it really does capture. As one of the participants of the bloggers' roundtable poignantly notes, after watching this Synecdoche, New York you might find yourself thinking: "Thank God some other person feels this way...it's actually less lonesome to have a Kaufman in the world."
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Screen Animations
* Screenwriting Masterclass
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site