Archive for Synecdoche New York

Synecdoche, New York

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on 2 June, 2009 by Ally



noun a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in England lost by six wickets (meaning ‘the English cricket team’).

— ORIGIN Greek sunekdokhe, from sun- ‘together’ + ekdekhesthai ‘take up’.

Charlie Kaufman, 2008

Charlie Kaufman, 2008

Synecdoche, New York is a film unlike any other I have seen. Not in terms of its relatively conventional directorial style, rather that story is one that has never been imagined before (with good reason). It is two hours of cinema trying to encompass all human experience by telling the story of a theatre director whose pet project has similar aims. It is, to quote that character, “about everything.” It is a film my head may never fully comprehend, yet I know my heart already does.

But first the context. Synecdoche, New York is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter behind such quirky hits as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While viewers were easily charmed by the emotional resonance of those otherwise cryptic films, Synecdoche is obsessive both in its search for deeper truth and its headlong plunge into mind-boggling narrative devices. This makes it harder to penetrate, but I’m fairly sure it’s brilliant.

I feel obliged to attempt a summary. To simplify it almost beyond recognition, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a New York theatre director who has earned renown for his unconventional staging of Death of a Salesman, although he is quietly dissatisfied with it. His personal life is even less fulfilling. He is plagued by mysterious medical complaints, he flirts achingly with box office receptionist Hazel (Samantha Morton), and he cannot form strong bonds with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) or their daughter Olive. Adele eventually leaves him to pursue her own artistic career in Berlin, taking Olive with her.

Thanks to his professional success, Caden is awarded the MacArthur genius grant. He uses this to fund a neurotic new project. He fills a disused warehouse with replica apartments, populating it with actors who “perform” their lives based on his daily notes. He aims to create a piece of absolute, brutal realism by perfectly replicating the minutiae of daily life for every character. There are no bit-parts, as in life we are each the main character of our own story.

His new wife Claire (Michelle Williams) plays herself, while an eerie stalker called Sammy (Tom Noonan) is cast as the fictional version of Caden (Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan)). At Sammy’s (Tom Noonan) suggestion, Tammy (Emily Watson) is cast as the fictional Hazel (Samantha Morton).

To reflect Caden’s real life, Sammy and Tammy proceed to cast their own version of the play, building a second warehouse inside the first. And the cycle continues… Envision an inverse Truman Show, an infinite loop of Shakespearean plays-within-plays, a never-ending self-referential Russian nesting doll.

Meanwhile the impossible frequently happens. Caden’s seductive counsellor Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) sells him books which appear to predict his situation as he reads. He is also able to follow Olive’s progress through her childhood diary, which updates itself as she grows. I can but speculate what this all means, but Caden’s surname might be a clue.

I won’t spoil any more plot points for you. Just know that when you leave the cinema, you may find yourself looking at the world with new eyes.

You are the lead in your own story.

And everyone else’s extra.