starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener
written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I don't feel up to writing about Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (hereafter Synecdoche), because, as with something like Mulholland Drive, it's in the writing about it that one is bound to discover one has said altogether too much about oneself and altogether not enough about the film. The picture is a lot like Nietzsche's abyss, you know: the more it's examined, the more it's a dissection of the critic's own fears and prejudices. There's a scene early on where theatre director Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman--cast because he's fabulous, and maybe because "Hoffman" incidentally rhymes with "Kaufman") sits by himself on the floor next to a telephone and we notice more than he does that there are a couple of strange boils growing on his leg. It's just something Caden lives with, and this visual comes sandwiched in the middle of an extended, uncomfortable sequence that begins with a gash to the forehead (and a glimpse into Caden's vanity when he's told it will scar), progresses through gum surgery and the revelation that Caden's contracted a virus that's made it difficult for him to salivate, and ends with his wife (Catherine Keener) and five-year-old daughter abandoning him, moving to Germany with monstrous nanny Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
The way one chews over this passage of the film has a lot to do with the degree to which one has experienced the same kind of growing body horror, the same sense of desolation at the Groundhog Day litany of morning-radio wake-up calls (so much like Prufrock's coffee spoons), and the same confrontation with the certainty of mortality. It's an organic rumination--a running conversation, if you will--and each subsequent viewing of the film (I've seen it twice) marks the time between viewings with an almost sadistically implacable insight. The second time through, after it's revealed that winsome ticket-taker Hazel (Samantha Morton) has bought a house that's actually on fire, the inexplicability of some joke brilliantly-executed but hopelessly obscure the first time around evolves into an almost physical reaction to how what begins as unknowable--even frightening--becomes representative of a literal hearth: cozy, a haven, and yet always in danger of burning itself to the ground. The miracle (and faint optimism) of the film is for me embedded in the small observation that Hazel's house never burns down.
Already someone I would've compared to Orson Welles in terms of genius within the plastic confines of the medium, here Kaufman, following an impressive body of work rife with doubles and puppets, hands of destiny and dark, and ambiguous resolutions, steps into the company of Krystof Kieslowski, making a transition from gifted fantasist to gory excavator of the flat, ugly baseness of what it means to grow old, die, and regret the choices made and those made on one's behalf. It also speaks of course to the doomed, hopeless quality and artificiality of creation; to the way that men endlessly build monuments against mortality (not like Shelley's Ozymandias, but like Shelley's "Ozymandias"); and to that extra-textual tension between the expansive, extended theatre project that forms the centre of the film's, and Caden's, pursuit and the film itself. (And all of Kaufman's films, and all cinema, and all art, and eventually every pursuit in life that leads to disappointment and grief.) The picture is a synaptic stimulant, one mnemonic device after another, with Caden the Kaufman surrogate who himself casts a surrogate in his play-within-the-film (two, in fact: first a heartbreaking Tom Noonan, then a butched-up Dianne Wiest) and proceeds to have the surrogate speak for the surrogate and on down, down, down. With Synecdoche, Kaufman's crafted a sometimes-maddening, always-provocative existential tract that demonstrates a frightening comfort in asking big questions in ways that, for all their misdirection and complexity, are unerringly straightforward and true. What's devastating about Synecdoche (and make no mistake, it's really fucking devastating) is that it isn't a comedy of futility, but an essay of hubris: this little man begins to understand--again, like Prufrock, too late in his own epic--that life is only a tragedy because a mortal man in all his florid imperfection is always the doomed, melancholic figure at the centre of it.
Michelle Williams plays Caden's second wife, Claire, in a definitive performance that captures, in a fashion near-identical to that of her late husband Heath Ledger in this year's other great American film, The Dark Knight, the unbearable losses within the film and without. Together, Williams' and Ledger's turns elicit a gathering, post-millennial, post-9/11 feeling of doom and melancholy--the people we lose and the people we leave behind. It means something that we embrace the films we embrace (and reject the ones we reject), just as it means something to the fabric of Synecdoche that Claire, an actress in the film, is asked to play herself in Caden's project and that, at the end of it, she's a young woman without a husband raising a child on her own. The relationship men have with their children is another avenue to explore: how natural creation is secondary in importance to men who, after all, don't do the heavy-lifting in the biological birthing process--and once that aperture is opened, the idea that all artistic creation is a secondary abomination is quick to follow.
Synecdoche is about eternity and mortality in a direct way, too, when everyone in Caden's life dies and he's left to wail that his suicide attempt in real life was arrested while his doppelgänger's in half-life was not, as well as when Caden repeats a phone call to his lover (first imaginary, then demon, then literal in a mini-"Divine Comedy") separated by decades and punctuated by his parents' deaths (notably off-screen and stage-left). Through it all, throughout this sifting through the visceral knowledge of loss, the way that we feel absence like a phantom limb rings these little depth bombs of a beautiful girl telling decaying Caden that he's "pretty," or a fleeting glimpse of impossible domesticity as Caden, laden with the weight of existence like a Dostoevsky hero (or a David Lynch, let's face it), putters around in slippers and a robe, cleaning the apartment of a woman who, like his lost daughter and an unrecoverable past, only ever holds the tattered echo of things past.
Distressingly personal but in the sense that one gains insight into not so much Kaufman as oneself, Synecdoche has made me introspective and, frankly, miserable since I first saw it. It's surgically invasive, and as such it's no surprise to me that it's had difficulty in both interpretation and distribution. I do wonder in a rhetorical way whether the film would be received differently were it a lost Kieslowski or a Godard at the peak of his narrative aggression, though it reminds more as a whole of David Lynch's "Hitchcock" pictures (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive), which found in their rhythmic Americana banality the dull thrum of existential horror. Whatever its watermarks, the picture is Kaufman shot through--the answer to the question of what a film would look like if Kaufman stopped talking about love and started talking about the futility of love. It's a remarkable achievement, good enough that it should be pointless to argue its relative value. The only conversations worth having about Synecdoche are the ones that thoughtful people ultimately have about art: why is it affecting, why does it work, and, more specifically for a Kaufman film, how did it know? Heady, rich, emotionally rigorous, and unabashedly intellectual, it's a crystallization of what film can add to the philosophy of art--a benchmark for this moment in time. To not recognize that is a bad mistake, and a terrible shame. Originally published: October 24, 2008.