New York's God of rot


Synecdoche, New York: 118 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Charlie Kaufman. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

Samantha Morton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New YorkRecently I have been practising my pronunciation of the word synecdoche (si-neck-duh-kee), and trying to come up with an easy working definition. That task is itself synecdochic of trying to explain what Synecdoche, New York is all about.

A thumbnail synopsis might read as follows: Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is a theatre director. Awarded a grant and artistic carte blanche, he sets about producing the most ambitious play in history, building an immense New York set within a vast warehouse and hiring thousands of actors to populate it with the everyday lives of its citizens.

His cast of characters includes himself and those nearest to him, play-acting the events of his domestic life while the director looks on. Is it all part of his grand ambition and the integrity of his art? Or an overblown exercise in self-indulgent self-examination? Probably a bit of both. Inevitably, sooner or later reality and fiction start to blur.

Thematically, fans of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman will find this familiar territory. The cannibalistic tendencies of self-obsessed artists are a staple of the Kaufman diet. In Being John Malkovich a puppeteer finds a portal into the mind of a famous actor, and takes over the controls. In Adaptation, a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, suffering from writers block, writes himself into the screenplay he's been commissioned to write.

Familiar, too, will be Kaufman's playful approach to 'reality'. Aware that films are, by their nature, already at a remove from reality, Kaufman, with seeming reverence for David Lynch, adds additional layers of 'unreality' between audience and characters. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind physicalises the memories of the film's protagonist. In Adaptation, you are watching a movie about the process of writing the movie you are watching.

In Synecdoche, New York Kaufman, as first-time director, takes his conceptual aspirations to fuggy new depths. The film is thick with symbols and dense with ideas. There is an internal logic to Kaufman's convoluted opus, but not much in the way of lineal, literal meaning.

The title is a clue. Linguists and logophiles might know that a synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part is used to describe the whole, or the whole to describe a part. So, 'per head' is 'per person', while to 'use your head' to solve a problem is to 'use your brain'.

Fair to assume then, that just as Caden's corrupted created world is 'synecdochic' of his real world, what we are watching is the reduction of a whole life into two hours, which also represents something vaster than what can be literally portrayed on screen. What exactly does it all mean? Theories will abound. Maybe Caden thinks he's God. Maybe he is God. Whatever the truth, fear of death, sickness, decay and meaninglessness are central motifs.

Kaufman has been criticised for coldness; that in bottling empathetic characters with mind-boggling ideas, he emphasises the latter, to the detriment of the former. That can be said of Synecdoche, New York.

Although Caden's successful artist wife, Adele (Keener) augments his own self-loathing; although the infatuated box office girl Hazel (Morton) and Caden's doe-eyed leading lady Claire (Williams) are objects of emotional and physical desire; and although his estranged daughter, Olive, embodies all his love and longing and regret, the niggling sense that all are merely symbols in Kaufman's design makes it hard to empathise with any of them.

But don't think for a second that this is inaccessible muck. Another thing Kaufman has in common with Lynch is his humour, which is dark and absurd but always surprising. Witness Caden reduce Olive to terrified hysterics, by explaining the meaning of the word 'plumbing' with a biological analogy. Or Hazel buying and moving into a house that is literally, slowly burning. Such brilliant comic touches play a role in winning the audience over.

Those with a working knowledge of American geography will realise the film's title is a play on Schenectady, New York, where part of the film is set. But geography isn't really important. Disjointed time sequences, the surreal goings-on and logical contradictions are enough to indicate that there's something here beyond the physical reality. Think you can get it in a single viewing? Good luck. But have fun trying.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue

Topic tags: Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton



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Existing comments

Thanks for that, Tim. Nice review. If I wasn't already a fan of Lynchian/Kaufman film metaphysics, this would have convinced me to see the film.
Rob | 14 May 2009

Thanks for the great review Tim. Probably give this one a miss based on your article but interesting to see what people are doing with film. Liked your statement that movies by their very nature are not reality.

Keep the reviews coming, enjoying them very much.
Jeff | 15 May 2009

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