Synecdoche, New York
by Jef Burnham
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Charlie Kaufman is known best for the quirky elements of his screenplays, such as a portal into the mind of John Malkovich or a machine that erases memories of failed relationships. Unfortunately, it seems he has been defined more by these gimmicks than the actual content of his films. His latest work, which also marks his directorial debut, is no less gimmicky—in fact, far more in many ways. But knowing Kaufman’s previous work cannot prepare you for the experience of such a magnificent and demanding work as Synecdoche, New York.
Kaufman’s world here is rooted firmly in the logic of dreams. This, of course, is nothing new. There have been dream films from the start. However, notable works such as Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou present dream images that seem far removed from actual dreams. Kaufman’s dream logic extends to the real world, with far less emphasis on strikingly bizarre imagery than the real concerns of a real person and how they manifest themselves outwardly. For Synecdoche’s protagonist, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), there is constant fear of abandonment, the inevitable breakdown of his body and the potentiality of dying unfulfilled. The manifestations of these fears dominate the screen, as when his wife absconds to Berlin with his daughter, who becomes the youngest person ever to have full body tattoos. In what I find to be the most resonating piece of dream logic, the faces and identities of those around him, especially the women he loves, become blurred. All the women after his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), appear at one time or another in the guise of former box office girl, Hazel (Samantha Morton). It has to be noted that it is shocking how much Samantha Morton and Emily Watson look alike as their individual Hazel characters.
The title is an obvious play on Schenectady, New York, where the film opens, as Caden works there as a director of regional theater. Synecdoche is a term that is defined roughly as a small part of something replacing, or standing in for, the whole. Literally in the film, this refers to Caden’s magnum opus. With the freedom afforded him by a MacArthur grant, Caden sets about producing an honest work of theater that ultimately requires him to construct a life-size replica of Manhattan inside an abandoned warehouse that is itself inside New York City.
Deeper than this superficial application of synecdoche, Kaufman examines how the running time of a single film, or a film and its sequels, is representative of the entire life of a character. Here he tests the audience by instilling in us a sense that we have been with Caden for years. “Everyone is disappointing… the more you know someone,” Adele says in the beginning of the film, a phrase which echoes back to us in the end. At first, we are excited by the family drama and Caden’s growing list of disorders, but there is a point, and it will be different for everyone, where the viewer loses that desire to see Caden’s story through. It is as if he was our own depressive, neurotic spouse of fifty years, and we are suddenly in the position of his ex-wife, who we looked upon with scorn in the opening sequences. We too have become distanced from Caden and want a divorce. Revel in that moment and enjoy one of the rare occasions that an American filmmaker elicits an honest and potent response from you without indulging the common audience’s expectations. It is people’s ability to interpret this moment that will determine the film’s success, for many will decide simply that the film is poorly made without ever considering that this distancing from Caden may serve a purpose.
Kaufman proves to be as fully capable a director as he has been a screenwriter. Synecdoche is refreshingly focused on themes rather than theatrics. And at the risk of turning this into a book on the subject, I’ll simply say that here Kaufman’s goals and techniques set him far and above the majority of his peers.
Kaufman cites Hoffman as his key collaborator on this film, which makes sense since the film is composed of some 200 scenes (the average film is much closer to 100), and Hoffman is in every one of them. Hoffman’s performance is as epic as the film itself. Synecdoche also features, with the exception of but a few names, the very best among working actress: Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Dianne Wiest.
Synecdoche, New York is one the greatest artistic achievements of this decade, at least, but I fear it will not prove to be as influential as it could be for the simple reason that the film industry panders to audiences rather than focusing on the art. It is, after all, a business. We are overdue for a revolution, however—a new movement in cinema. Film has settled into a comfortable stasis since the movements of the 60s and 70s, in America reverting back to much the same formulas that were utilized in the 1930s. And it is time for a change. I’m not saying we need more quirk in cinema, simply that more filmmakers should be striving to draw honest emotions from the viewer—not like the swelling of triumphant music and false tears of the Hollywood industry, or the cheap jumps of horror movies that we see all too often. Kaufman sets the example that filmmakers ought to be utilizing the elements of film that should have separated it from the conventions of theater decades ago.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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