Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York movie poster


Whether it actu­al­ly is or not, Synec­doche, New York has the feel of a very, very per­son­al work of art. I know next to noth­ing about writer/director Char­lie Kauf­man, and don’t even nec­es­sar­i­ly feel like I do now. Then again, few peo­ple do know Kauf­man, as he has famous­ly man­aged to side­step much pub­lic­i­ty despite per­pe­trat­ing a suc­cess­ful screen­writ­ing career in an indus­try in which the cult of per­son­al­i­ty applies to every­one.

Synec­doche, New York is Kaufman’s first film as direc­tor, after a string of play­ful yet brainy screen­plays. The best antecedents I can name would be the sur­re­al satires of Lind­say Ander­son (like O Lucky Man! — read The Dork Report Review) and the Post­mod­ern decon­struc­tion of Tom Stop­pard (espe­cial­ly Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern are Dead, which wreaks hilar­i­ous havok with no less a holy rel­ic than Ham­let). Kaufman’s hit parade so far includes Being John Malkovich, Human Nature (under­rat­ed! see it!), Con­fes­sions of a Dan­ger­ous Mind, Adap­ta­tion, and Dork Report favorite The Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind. Being John Malkovich and Eter­nal Sun­shine are both pure plea­sures to watch, but Adap­ta­tion showed the dark­er side of Kaufman’s bril­liance. As I under­stood the film, the very life itself of screen­writer “Char­lie Kauf­man” (Nico­las Cage) slow­ly becomes the vio­lent, sexed-up Hol­ly­wood melo­dra­ma he loathes to write. To describe Synec­doche, New York in short­hand, it’s as if the cyn­i­cal, chal­leng­ing nar­ra­tive nature of Adap­ta­tion were crossed with the deep emo­tion­al impact of Eter­nal Sun­shine.

Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New YorkHere’s The Dork Report’s the­o­ry to explain Hazel’s enig­mat­ic burn­ing house: could it be an allu­sion to the Talk­ing Heads song “Love -> Build­ing on Fire”? I’m being seri­ous here…

But what it’s actu­al­ly “about” would take a lot of analy­sis to fig­ure out, and my sin­gle view­ing is not enough to unpack it (assum­ing my IQ would be up to the task any­way). Like Adap­ta­tion, it’s actu­al­ly a lit­tle frus­trat­ing to watch, but in a good sense, in that the audi­ence is con­stant­ly being chal­lenged. I have to admit that I don’t ful­ly “get” it, but I also think it’s clear there’s no sin­gle key to unlock­ing any one mean­ing of the film. I’m giv­ing it the full five-star Dork Report rat­ing because I have enor­mous respect for any such uncom­pro­mis­ing, chal­leng­ing, affect­ing, and frus­trat­ing work of art in cin­e­ma. That it was pro­duced as a major motion pic­ture star­ring numer­ous famous faces and released in mul­ti­plex­es nation­al­ly along­side the more typ­i­cal fare Saw V and High School Musi­cal 3 is noth­ing less than a mir­a­cle, and gives one hope for the future of the film indus­try. At least four peo­ple walked out of the screen­ing I attend­ed, some dur­ing an uncom­fort­able nude scene fea­tur­ing Emi­ly Wat­son (not uncom­fort­able in that she isn’t beau­ti­ful, because she is, but because the sex scene is so utter­ly frank). It’s a pity they did, for they missed one of the most weird­ly mov­ing last moments of a film I’ve ever seen (although it did have prece­dent in Peter Weir’s The Tru­man Show, which also sug­gest­ed the voice of God towards his sup­pli­cant is akin to that of a film/theater/television director’s towards his actor).

The clos­est thing I’ve seen to Synec­doche, New York is Spike Jonze’s Michel Gondry’s bril­liant music video for Björk’s Bach­e­lorette (Jonze Gondry is a long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor of Kaufman’s, and co-pro­duced Synec­doche, New York). (UPDATE: cor­rec­tions thanks to com­menter Greg. I can’t believe I mixed up two of my favorite direc­tors!) Less a pop music pro­mo than a short film that stands on its own mer­its, Bach­e­lorette recounts the tale of a young coun­try girl who writes her auto­bi­og­ra­phy and moves to the big city, where she falls in love with her pub­lish­er. A hit, her book spawns a the­atri­cal adap­ta­tion, in which a young coun­try girl writes her auto­bi­og­ra­phy, moves to the big city, and falls in love with her pub­lish­er. A hit, it too spawns a the­atri­cal play. You get the idea: the tale is infi­nite­ly recur­sive. But each copy is a copy with­in a copy, each more dis­tort­ed, flim­sy, and sad than its source mate­r­i­al. Entropy and decay set in, and the world(s) col­lapse in upon them­selves. Her life basi­cal­ly ends at the point she fin­ish­es her auto­bi­og­ra­phy and looks only back­wards instead of liv­ing for the future. Watch the video here:

Synec­doche, New York is a pun on the New York city Sch­enec­tady (the loca­tion of Caden’s orig­i­nal the­ater com­pa­ny) and the lit­er­ary term for a fig­ure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole (for exam­ple, “The White House said today…” as used by news­cast­ers rather than spec­i­fy­ing the admin­is­tra­tion, or even more specif­i­cal­ly, the Press Sec­re­tary). The­ater direc­tor Caden Cotard’s (Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man) artist wife Adele (Cather­ine Keen­er) divorces him and moves to Ger­many with their daugh­ter and Maria (Jen­nifer Jason Leigh), who may be her lover (guest Dork Reporter Snark­bait points out that this is Keener’s sec­ond sex­u­al­ly ambigu­ous role in a Kauf­man film, here and in Being John Malkovich). Caden wor­ries for the rest of his life that Maria is a bet­ter replace­ment for him­self as hus­band and father.

Caden wins a MacArthur Foun­da­tion Genius Grant, and uses the funds to move to Man­hat­tan and craft an epic play housed in a dis­used the­ater illog­i­cal­ly large enough to hold a scale mod­el of New York City as his set. Out­side, the real Man­hat­tan descends into chaos and war­fare. At one point, the char­ac­ters leave the the­ater and walk past mys­te­ri­ous civ­il rights atroc­i­ties such as clown-cos­tume-clad sol­diers herd­ing cit­i­zens onto armored busses at gun­point.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis in Synecdoche, New YorkHope Davis, as the shrink­est with the mostest, offers to shrink Philip Sey­mour Hoffman’s head

Caden’s can­vas is infi­nite, there is no script, and he hopes to find his sto­ry as he goes along. The play is in per­pet­u­al rehearsal for decades, and remains for­ev­er unti­tled. I hate to use this kind of cop-out phrase pop­u­lar in col­lege lit­er­a­ture class­es, but it tru­ly is “a metaphor for life.” As Caden tries to find mean­ing for the trau­mat­ic events in his life, and to ratio­nal­ize his deci­sions, he casts actors to play him­self and the sig­nif­i­cant peo­ple in his life. Like mem­o­ries being processed by the human brain, he is now able to replay recent painful events in his life over and over, giv­ing direc­tion to his actors on how to express their (his) pain, all with the emo­tion­al safe­ty of know­ing that it’s all just play­act­ing.

Soon, he takes even anoth­er step back, and casts anoth­er set of actors to play the first. Real­i­ty itself begins to break down as in Björk’s Bach­e­lorette, also fea­tur­ing a play with­in a play with­in a play, cast with sev­er­al pairs of oth­er actors play­ing her­self and her lover as their affair, and entire world, dis­in­te­grates. A sim­i­lar theme of copies and dou­bles also fig­ures into Adap­ta­tion: writer “Char­lie” may or may not have an iden­ti­cal twin broth­er, shame­less­ly able to make the kinds of com­pro­mis­es nec­es­sary for suc­cess in the movie biz and life itself that he is too weak or too ashamed to do him­self. Is it sig­nif­i­cant, as Kauf­man moves from writer to writer/director, that the cen­tral char­ac­ter of Adap­ta­tion is a writer, and that of Synec­doche, New York is a direc­tor?

Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New YorkA scene from Synec­doche, New York, star­ring Saman­tha Mor­ton as Hazel, Emi­ly Wat­son as Tam­my as Hazel, Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man as Caden, and Tom Noo­nan as Sam­my as Caden. Got that?

Caden is beset through­out with a host of mys­tery ill­ness­es that for­ev­er threat­en to kill him but nev­er car­ry through their promise. I caught at least two hints that he may in fact already be dead: his shrink Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) makes a seem­ing slip of the tongue and asks why he killed him­self, and lat­er, one of his dop­pel­gängers (Tom Noo­nan) com­mits sui­cide.

The walls between Caden’s life and his play blur; which is real and which is the play? The dis­pas­sion­ate direc­tor watch­es from a dis­tance as oth­ers do the dirty work of liv­ing his life for him, such as con­duct his love affairs and breakups with Claire (Michele Williams), Hazel (Saman­tha Mor­ton), and Tam­my (Emi­ly Wat­son), that he may not have the emo­tion­al strength or sex­u­al poten­cy to do him­self. Caden even­tu­al­ly replaces him­self and takes the sim­pler, less demand­ing role of one of the most fleet­ing­ly minor back­ground fig­ures in his life. Is he an actor in his own play, fol­low­ing the script and direc­tion from some­one else, an invis­i­ble exter­nal force… God? He essen­tial­ly abdi­cates respon­si­bil­i­ty for his own life, and dies on cue.

Must read: exhaus­tive fan site

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD and Schoot­ing Script from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.