Synecdoche, New York (review)

Charlie Kaufman Kills Me

It was Charlie Kaufman, at the multiplex, with a mindfrak.

He’s made my head explode before — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich — so he is a repeat offender. Be on the lookout for this dangerous criminal. Other crimes include: knocking you out of your comfort zone; torturing your understanding of the border because dreams and reality; and stalking and harassment by following you home from the multiplex and lingering in your brain for days and weeks and forever.
Off all the breathtakingly audacious things Kaufman — screenwriter and, for the first time here, director — attempts with this astonishing and utterly unique movie, the first to note is this: he got away with giving it a title that no one can pronounce and hardly anyone knows what it means. The pronunciation is like this: sin-neck-dokey (as in “okey dokey”). Yeah, it kinda sounds like Schenectady, and you need to know that to understand the beginning of the joke of it. Because synecdoche is a literary term that’s similar to metaphor, but not quite. Synecdoche is when a part of something stands in for the whole thing — like how when we say “a hundred head of cattle,” we don’t mean just their heads but their whole bodies, of course. But — and here’s part of the mindfrak of this — it can also mean the opposite, when a word describing the whole of something actually means just a part of that whole… like how “society,” in certain contexts, actually means just “high society.”

I could joke and say that I don’t have to deconstruct the “New York” part of the title, but this is a Charlie Kaufman movie…

Kaufman’s stand-in for himself here is playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman: Charlie Wilson’s War, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), who is living in Schenectady directing plays when he wins one of those genius awards, which comes with a ton of money and hence allows him to embark on his great dream of creating a play that really means something. So he heads to New York City and buys an enormous warehouse in which to mount this grand production, which begins to take shape as he tells his cast that “we’ll start by talking honestly and out of that a piece of theater will emerge,” and around which further reality accrues like so much intellectual flotsam and jetsam as Caden proceeds to start building a full-size replica New York City within the warehouse. Actors start to play real people, start to reenact the real life really happening outside the warehouse, some of which is also happening inside the warehouse. So an actor comes onboard to play Caden the director, and Hazel (Samantha Morton: Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Libertine) his wife and stage manager, and so on. Eventually, of course, a replica warehouse must inevitably become part of the story, with actors playing actors playing actors…

It’s like putting two mirrors face to face with each other and seeing how their images infinitely regress. It’s like seeing life as a theatrical work in progress, always lines to tweak so they sound more natural and notes to take from the director on how best to replicate reality and keeping at the emotion of the piece till it rings true. But even the first image in the mirror, the “real” layer of Caden and his life, is a put-on, too. He’s suffering from a strange disease that is shutting down the autonomic functions of his body, so that, say, he has to consciously salivate, and cannot cry. Not that he never wants to cry: when he is confronted with one moment at which you can tell, with no doubt, that his heart is surely breaking, he has to squirt artificial tears into his own eyes so he can weep over it. It makes you laugh and it makes you cry, and it makes your head explode: are our tears genuine tears, or are we only performing an emotion for ourselves, at the behest of the director who directed us to do so?

So we’re the first images in the mirror, then, us out here sitting in the theater, playing ourselves, analyzing our performances as we go? Life is theater and theater is life, and it’s not “all the world’s a stage” but “all the stage is a world”? But then where’s the real reality? If we’re all in Caden’s warehouse, then what’s outside the warehouse?

That just occurred to me right now, as I write, and it makes me feel like I want to look over my shoulder and see what’s there, which is an awfully creepy feeling indeed.

This is like The Matrix except no one ever discovers they’re in the Matrix.

This is like a horror movie that gets more horrifying the more you think about it.

I should stop thinking about Synecdoche, New York, except I can’t.

But no: it’s only a movie. It’s only Charlie Kaufman goofing around with movie stuff. It’s only Kaufman fooling with movie time, like how he compresses half a year into the first sequence in the movie, which appears to depict a single morning in Caden’s life but actually stretches from September to March and is still, at the same time, just one morning. Time get compressed and stretched out at the same, er, time, like we’re falling into a black hole. (See, it’s just Kaufman being a sneaky clever bastard again, pulling in not only paradoxical literary stuff no one understands but also paradoxical physics stuff no one understands.) It’s only Charlie Kaufman being Charlie Kaufman and messing with us.


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