“Here’s what I think theater is: It’s the beginning of thought. It’s the truth not yet spoken. It’s what a man feels after he’s been clocked in the jaw. It’s love, in all its messiness. And I want all of us, players and patrons alike, to soak in the communal bath of it—the mikvah, as the Jews call it. We’re all in the same water, after all. We’re soaking in our menstrual blood and nocturnal emissions. This is what I want to try to give people.” —Caden Cotard, Synecdoche, New York
“It will open to confused audiences and live indefinitely.” —Roger Ebert
The money sequence in Being John Malkovich has the famed actor crawling through a portal leading into his own head, which has been rented out like a carnival attraction, the ultimate in vicarious experience. As metaphysical conundrums go, a man entering his own consciousness is a real doozy, which debuting screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze present as an echo effect, with multiple Malkoviches chirping his name in a deranged chorus of narcissism. In the screenplays that followed—Human Nature, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and to some extent Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind—Kaufman continued to explore the contours of the human brain, mining its potential for love, lust, memory, anxiety, creativity, and deterioration. Throughout the late ’90s and ’00s, he was one of the few screenwriters to assert authorship over his directors.
A.V. Club contributor Mike D’Angelo described Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, as akin to “taking up permanent residence in the Malkovich Malkovich feedback loop.” (This was not a compliment, as he also referred to it as a “dour exercise in solipsism.”) That’s about as good a description of the movie as I’ve come across, at least insofar as the experience of watching it: The story of one playwright’s endlessly expansive attempt to stage his own life—and the many other realities that spin off from it— Synecdoche is full of Malkovichian doppelgängers and conundrums that just keep piling up. Where Mike and I part ways is on the “solipsism” part. Yes, this is a film about a Kaufman-esque figure tortured by various neuroses, maladies, and relationship problems—to say nothing of the terrifying encroachment of death—and yes, there’s no doubt that Kaufman’s grand opus crawls deep inside his own portal and for much, much longer than the brief scene allotted to Malkovich-land.
But the difference is right there in the title so many people found baffling. (For the record, I think it’s a great title, in part because it prepares viewers for a challenge they may or may not wish to confront.) To put it in junior-high-school essay form, one might say something like, “Webster’s defines ‘synecdoche’ as a figure of speech in which a part is used to represent the whole.” In Synecdoche, New York, the part is Charlie Kaufman and the whole is us. The film may play like a “Malkovich Malkovich feedback loop,” but it ultimately looks outward, extrapolating from one man’s problems a much broader and more philosophical assessment of what it means to be human. It may not be universally appealing, but its appeal is universal in that it applies to a broad spectrum of feelings and experiences that everyone goes through, not just brainy writers from New York.
Though his performance is dialed down from the merciless self-parody of Nicolas Cage’s “Charlie Kaufman” character in Adaptation, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Kaufman alter ego Caden Cotard as a beast of burden, doggedly battling through a host of spirit-crushing problems. Though his latest regional-theater production of Death Of A Salesman—featuring 560 lighting cues and a much younger cast than Arthur Miller envisioned—has drawn praise, he can’t even drag his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) to see it. The self-hating part of him (which is to say, virtually all of him) can understand she has a point: Reworking the classics for regional theater is a creative dead-end, and he should be doing something original.
For now, he has more pressing problems: After fruitless attempts to save their marriage—sometimes in front of a counselor (Hope Davis) who coaxes his wife into cruel honesty—Adele has decided to pack up for Germany and take their daughter Olive with her. In the meantime, his psychological stress has begun to manifest in a completely physical breakdown. After getting clocked in the head with a faucet knob, a simple stitch-up job at the doctor’s office sets off a series of more dire ailments: His pupils aren’t opening properly. He isn’t salivating for some reason. He’s having seizures. Horrible “pustules” are popping up on his body. And in this scene—proof that Kaufman hasn’t lost his gift for mordant humor—Caden’s eye doctor offers a troubling diagnosis:
All this terrible news is prelude to the grand experiment at the heart of Synecdoche, New York: Given a MacArthur genius grant to develop a theatrical project, Caden sets about literally staging his life. That includes not only stuff like his romantic relationships—one with his assistant (Samantha Morton), another with an eager ingénue (Michelle Williams)—but peripheral characters, too, because the guy at craft services has a story, and the cameraman shooting rehearsals has one, too. Then if he has an assistant, Caden will surely need someone to play her (Emily Watson) and he’ll need a double, too (Tom Noonan)—and on and on and on. It’s a production that will never stop expanding, will never see an audience, and will only be completed when its creator dies.
And therein lies Kaufman’s philosophy in metaphor, a despairing slant on Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” idea, except the players are confined to random circumstance and choices they can’t take back, and at the end of the line, nobody’s watching and there may not be any point to it, anyway. (Boy, would this movie make a great double bill with A Serious Man.) You could look at Synecdoche, New York from countless angles great and small: As a window into the creative process, with its dead-ends and contrivances and fits of inspiration, all in a messy and half-pretentious search for some kind of truth; as a religious parable, with Hoffman as a creator-God who has a hand in everything but doesn’t necessarily have a grand design; as a terrifying portrait of a man in decline, hurtling toward death with an acute sense of loss and regret. (For a time, when it was still in development at Sony, the film was billed as “Untitled Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman Horror Project.”)
In truth, Synecdoche, New York is like a Rorschach test, one that prompts a spectrum of reactions—some people I know felt defeated by the film, others thought it was the most moving thing they’d ever seen—and different readings, depending on the viewer. (To quote Williams’ sycophantic actress: “It’s brilliant. It’s everything. It’s Karamazov.”) With a film this dense and impossible to unpack wholly, I think the natural reaction is for people to latch onto a specific thread and follow it through to the end. For example, when I first saw Synecdoche, New York, the auteurist in me was trying to puzzle out the connections between it and Kaufman’s philosophical inquiries, and maybe get an idea of where his work was going. (And the first time—and the second and the third and so on—there’s also the ever-present problem of figuring out what the hell’s happening, period.) Now I’m a husband and the father of a young daughter, and to me, the pain of Caden losing his family seems more central to the film than ever before, informing every decision he makes in his personal life (and some in his creative). Take a look at this absurd, hilarious, yet exceptionally painful scene in which Caden visits his estranged daughter (now a tattooed, bitter, German lesbian who’s been wildly misinformed about his offenses) on her deathbed:
So what of the experience of sitting through Synecdoche, New York? It’s no great slight against the film for me to confess that it’s hard to digest, especially in its second half, when the story-within-a-story and all the doppelgängers within reach a tipping point where they start to lose coherence. And the troubles aren’t alleviated by Kaufman’s directorial style, which mimics Spike Jonze’s unfussy, excessively drab approach to shooting his scripts; this complements the matter-of-fact surrealism that bleeds into his characters’ lives, but in Synecdoche, it can be suffocating, too, to be denied the cinematic grandeur of what Caden is creating. Maybe a more distinctive touch will emerge when (or if) Kaufman directs again, but my sense is that he was so consumed with the practical challenges of making this film (which was independently financed, in addition to being barking mad logistically) that he wanted to keep the shooting as simple as possible. Still, there’s a sickly brown-green pallor to the images that seems apropos; this is a movie that needs to see a physician immediately.
Late in the film, a eulogist lays it all out on the table: “There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for 20 years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out.” That sounds pretty goddamn grim—and yes, Synecdoche, New York is no burst of sunshine—but if you compare it to something like Amélie, which reduces life to a happy-making Rube Goldberg machine greased more by fate than by will, I prefer the tougher road. These choices may destroy our lives, but we’re out there making them, creating as we go.
Next Week: The House Of The Devil
March 4: Serenity
March 18: Glengarry Glen Ross