Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)

 Facsimiles of life

I've been postponing writing this review. I'm terrified of it. Synecdoche, New York, directed by Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), is a terrifying film. In its breadth it's all-encompassing. Like every Kaufman effort it spits on conventions, rejects standard structure and dares to poke uncomfortable places. It's about all of life. Real life. Fake life. There's no distinction. I'm so glad this was made, but I'm at a loss for how to put it in words. It almost feels like one of the director's own scenarios.

Caden Cotard (an impeccable Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an ambitious Broadway theater director, living with an artsy wife and cute kid. His wild re-imaginings of Death of a Salesman bring him heaps of credit, but his home is another sort of heap. Caden's not the person to complain, he simply allows his anxiety to build up until he spends a day feverishly scrubbing the dirty house with a toothbrush.

He fears dying and believes himself to be ill of any manner of afflictions. When his family leaves him through no real fault of his own, he takes the prize money of an award to construct an elaborate new play: life, starring himself. The stage is an old hangar in the middle of the city and an industry of actors and builders arrives to recreate New York inside. Of course, within this version, with its own facsimile of Caden, there has to be another hangar, and within that another, and soon the whole thing becomes a Droste Effect of repeating Cadens interfering with each other.

Synecdoche, New York finds endlessly fascinating angles to its characters. Caden is obsessed with authenticity, but utterly clueless how to establish it. The play is just a way for him to figure out who he is, but this life-long endeavor sparks the ire of everyone around him. It is reductive and expansive at the same time. Caden fails at every turn to get any grip on his existence. He struggles so hard, it's painful. Decades pass in which nothing is finished and Caden digs deeper and deeper into complication and artifice.

I expected this to be a gross and depressing story, about a stunted man losing everything. Turns out it's hilarious. Whether it's intentionally so or a result of the disconnected nature of the events and – weirdly – the editing, did I ever laugh out loud. Sometimes hysterically. I think the most surprising and funniest things are the ones that hit home and in this Synecdoche, New York is often shockingly confrontational. Your only recourse is hilarity. There's a fifteen second story arc in which Caden visits the dentist three times. In the first two the dentist measures with growing concern the bad condition of his teeth, the third is a grisly smash cut of jaw surgery, with Caden's mouth a bloodied pool. You must laugh.

But don't think it's morose. Yes, the characters live in a bleak reality, where death is right around the corner and their bodies disease-riddled sources of concern. However, the film presents itself uncompromisingly and matter-of-factly, skipping between years with the blink of a shot change. The characters feel the full brunt of the emotional impact, but that doesn't mean you do. Throughout their ordeals, the viewer remains somewhat of an observer, someone invited to peek into these disturbed lives and judge on their authenticity, rather than live along. I'm happy for it, since I don't know if I'd survive Synecdoche, New York as a straight drama. It would also be eighty hours long.

It would be perfectly valid to try to find the meaning in this. By all means, take any of the hundred plot strands, piece them together and figure out who Caden is, what he represents, why his arcs run this way or that. Anything and everything that happens has meaning and reflects upon human life. It should be recognizable to you, since you're living one. I'd have to see the movie again, and again, to get a hold of it. That is the main difference between movies and life: Caden only has the one shot at it, whereas we can peer into his over and over.

In lieu of any true cognition, for now I'll drift emotionally on the vague and disturbing shores of this tale of artifice and identity, endlessly duplicated, and have it resonate on a deep level. I carried Synecdoche, New York with me for days after seeing it. I still sometimes think about its wicked brilliance and sublime absurdity. It's terrifying.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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