Synecdoche, New York (review)

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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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Mon, Nov 24, 2008 6:31pm

in movies Synecdoche has slightly different meaning that what you wrote on the review

on books it means a part standing in for the whole, but on movies it means an object that represents someone off screen

a perfect example would be the shirt at the end of brokeback, or the jewel that Aragorn wears around his neck for most of the LOTR

I haven’t seen this movie yet so I don’t know what it means here though

Laurie D. T. Mann
Mon, Nov 24, 2008 8:49pm

I saw the movie over the weekend. I have very mixed feelings about it – it’s a very twisted movie. However, I’m glad I stuck it out because I think the last half hour is extremely strong.

The main issue of the movie – it’s not clear “what’s real.” The movie is really quite similar to All That Jazz, but in All That Jazz, fantasy and reality are mostly separate. In Synechdoche, NY, they’re almost completely fused in Caden’s mind.

I don’t think most of the action is “real” after Adele leaves. But I don’t think most of the movie is purgatory either (mostly because a number of the characters, but not all of them, do age).

For example, when someone wins a MacArthur genius grant, they become pretty well-known (at least in their own areas). While the grant is a nice chunk of change, it couldn’t support the kind of magnum opus Caden was trying to mount.

But I agree that parts of it were like mirrors reflecting in mirrors.

Tue, Nov 25, 2008 10:41am

in movies Synecdoche has slightly different meaning that what you wrote on the review

on books it means a part standing in for the whole, but on movies it means an object that represents someone off screen

Wow. That makes the title sound even *more* appropriate.

Tue, Nov 25, 2008 10:44am

I don’t think we can talk about what’s “real” and what’s “not real” here. This movie isn’t really trying to work as part fantasy and part reality, or even as a puzzle in which we’re meant to determine where the dividing line is. (There are clearly things that are “not real” before Adele leaves.) It’s as if Kaufman is saying, Movies are *all* fantasy anyway, so why pretend otherwise. (Or, maybe, he’s saying that We all live entirely in our own heads anyway, so why pretend otherwise.)

Wed, Nov 26, 2008 9:35am

This is a pretty astute summary, MaryAnn. One thing you might find interesting: I saw this in Toronto, and in the Q&A afterward, Charlie Kaufman said he was talking with Spike Jonze about their ideas of real “horror” stories, and that conversation turned into Synechdoche, NY.

I tried to write a review of this myself, but only got one sentence: After this breathtaking masterpiece, how can anyone make a film about anything ever again?

Tue, Dec 02, 2008 7:12pm

****SPOILER KINDA*******

It seems that there is maybe too much to talk about here. It’s a lot to get the head around. Definitely gotta take your traditional movie-watching glasses off before you go into this one. Any thoughts on the burning house? I chuckled at it each time it showed up, but I felt like I wasn’t really getting the joke. Not that it was a joke or that there was necessarily anything to get, but whatever.

I remember a quote about truth I came across in a Calculus book once – something about truth residing in the spaces between discrete steps (the implication being that Calculus uncovers some truth by turning those discrete steps into infinitesimals and bla bla bla). Anyway, I thought of that as Caden added layers to his production.

Tue, Dec 02, 2008 7:55pm


I almost mentioned the burning house in my review, then I pulled it out because it would have entailed writing a whole book. But this was my initial thought: I thought the burning house was in a dream. And I thought: Wow, that’s an awesome metaphor for the immense anxiety that must come with so big a purchase as that of a house. But then it became clear that this was not a “dream,” that the Samantha Morton character was “actually” living in a house that was perpetually on fire without ever burning down. And that’s when I realized that in this movie, we can’t put down a dividing line between “reality” and “not-reality,” and that maybe it’s all both at the same time.

Wed, Dec 03, 2008 10:15am

“…the Samantha Morton character was “actually” living in a house that was perpetually on fire…”-MAJ

I think I’m on board with that. Walking out of the theater I was thinking that the movie makers here were simply asking us to allow for the fact that a person could live for years in a house that is perpetually on fire and that a house can be perpetually on fire in the same way that Sam Raimi asks us to allow for the fact that Spiderman can do all the things that a spider can. This was more satisfying than understanding the burning house as a sort of fantasy sequence. But this flick really is a reality non reality fantasy reality soup that defies clear definition. Maybe the fire house was just put in the movie to make that “she died of smoke inhalation” line hillarious. The more I think about it, the more I feel like this movie is the cinematic equivalent of someone glueing your furniture to the ceiling while your away on vacation.

Wed, Dec 03, 2008 10:42am

!!!!!!!!******* SPOILERS IN MY LAST POST — SORRY!!!!!!!!!!!

Wed, Dec 03, 2008 11:29am

Walking out of the theater I was thinking that the movie makers here were simply asking us to allow for the fact that a person could live for years in a house that is perpetually on fire and that a house can be perpetually on fire in the same way that Sam Raimi asks us to allow for the fact that Spiderman can do all the things that a spider can.

No, I don’t think they’re the same at all. *Spider-man* is meant to be realistic — there’s a scientific rationale for Peter Parker’s abilities, and within the context of the story, there’s no question at all that he really can do these things. There’s nothing dreamlike about the Spider-man movies.

But *Synecdoche* exists in a whole different place, one that is not concerned with being “realistic.” Within its own context, it is dreamlike and offers us little basis upon which to assume *anything* we see is “real.” It’s as if the whole movie is a dream: not a dream of Caden’s but a dream of ours, of us in the audience or maybe even of our collective cultural consciousness.

We could talk about *all* movies being collective cultural dreams, of course, but we don’t need to talk about *Spider-man* like that in order to appreciate it for what it is — we would talk about *Spider-man* like that only in a meta context that is larger than the film itself. Not so with *Synecdoche,* which is, arguably, framing that argument in itself, about itself.

Wed, Dec 03, 2008 1:17pm

“…within the context of the story, there’s no question at all that he really can do these things.”

This is really what motivated me to make the comparison. Spider-man
isn’t a construct of Parker’s dreams; he fights crime on the same
plane in which Peter buys groceries. Hazel’s burning house exists
across town from Caden’s brick house (I don’t know if it was actually
brick, but you know what I mean). This is superficial but I think relevant
in that it reinforces the interpretation of the SNY world as one that
can’t be divided into real and non real parts. It’s not gonna do much good
to push this comparison too far. I do agree that SNY is unconcerned with
being realistic. Spidey lives in a universe of laws and boundaries and
SNY plays out in something very different, something self-contained that
doesn’t acknowledge a distinction between a chair and an idea. Or so it
seems to me.

Wed, Dec 24, 2008 1:20am

This is first time that move actually grabbed “me” and yanked me out of my context in a way that made me experience in a palpable how bizarre we really are and how the world and our actions in it are completely weirdly absurd. It’s a cinematic LSD tab. I still haven’t sorted it all out, but I’m afraid to watch it again right away. It’s very much a play on the dual nature of man so aptly described in Becker’s Denial of Death. We’re soul and stench, spirit and green poop, angelic wisps of consciousness and disgusting blood. We’re a totally untenable contradiction.

Oh, and mentioning Spider-Man anywhere near words about this film is — not to take the defecation analogies too far — like pooping on the Mona Lisa. It’s so irrelevant, so much of a bring down, so wrong. Come on.

Wed, Dec 24, 2008 4:57am

“mentioning Spider-Man anywhere near words about this film is — not to take the defecation analogies too far — like pooping on the Mona Lisa. It’s so irrelevant,…” – David

I’m curious which “it” is “so irrelevant”. Spider-Man? The comparison?

SNY is unfamiliar and challenging (to me, at least). It is not something easily discussed. We all look for sign posts in unfamiliar territory. Spider-Man and SNY are both films. Is that all they share in common? In both I see things on screen that I could never see in life outside the theater – a house perpetually on fire, a web-slinging man soaring between skyscrapers. We think we know how to read the web-slinger, so why not see if that can tell us anything about how to read the burning house? Setting limits on how we can try to puzzle our way through SNY would be the greater “bring down”, don’t you think?

Wed, Dec 24, 2008 9:18am

It was a bring down to me because it yanked me completely out of the moment — like jumping from a Bergman film to Spongebob Squarepants. Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoy Mr. Squarepants. But it’s precisely because SNY is do difficult to process, its impact so visceral, that analogizing to conventional, light entertainment like Spider-Man seems ridiculously out of place. But, that’s just my opinion. You have to find meaning where you can, and if it works for you, that’s what counts.

Sun, Mar 15, 2009 12:52am

to continue the burning house discussion, i think its heavy symbolism for the fact that we often make choices that we follow through to completion even though we know it’s got to end with disaster. The burning house is Kaufman, I mean Cotard, and her character chooses to spend the rest of her life living within the confines of his fractured and burning structure. He is dying and falling apart actively, just like the house is. When they finally find their completion in each other, all her hens come to roost, so to speak. She has finally become fully consumed by his self-destructive life, and it literally suffocates and kills her. Thats what I got anyways.

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Tue, May 19, 2009 4:22pm

To continue about the burning house…

I thought that the burning house was a metaphor for two things. When Hazel buys it, she’s talking to the estate agent as if nothing strange is happening, and you think the joke is going to be that they don’t notice the house is on fire. Then Hazel casually mentions that it might be a problem living with all the fire.

This struck me as being an exaggerated version of how Caden sees the people around him; everyone is perpetually close to death, but they choose to ignore it where he’s painfully aware of it. All the time horrible and screwed-up things are happening in the world and we all have to strike a difficult balance – you can’t be a Hazel who just shuts her eyes and lets the horror creep up on you, and you can’t be a Caden who is so hyperaware of every little problem that he withdraws from the whole world.

The other thing ties into the issue about time MaryAnn mentions in her review. Obviously a fire couldn’t burn at that level for decades, and obviously Hazel couldn’t last so long before succumbing to smoke inhalation. Which is another hint that the portrayal of time in this movie is not to be taken literally, that the editing is almost the cinematic version of a novel with an unreliable narrator. But it also reflects what Caden was saying at the first rehearsal, that some of us die quickly and some of us live a long life, but really we’re all dying. As the Manic Street Preachers once sang, “Life is a slow suicide”.

Also, it was kind of funny.

I loved this film. I had heard word beforehand that Kaufman had overreached himself, but I think it might be his best work. It did seem very influenced by Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice, but there’s nothing wrong with having influences, especially ones that are so good. I felt really saddened and shaken as the credits rolled, then about half an hour later I was euphoric. Few movies can touch you that way, surely?

Sat, May 23, 2009 7:29am

Someone asked Kaufman about the burning house after the screening at Toronto last year. He kind of shied away from addressing it, indicating he wanted the audience to form their own opinions. He did that to almost every question actually. But on this one I got the impression that he didn’t actually have his own interpretation of the burning house… it just seemed like a cool idea to him at the time.

Sat, Jun 13, 2009 6:09pm

I just saw SNY over in england and am trying to make sense of all the ideas in the film! Reading everyones comments helps you see your own thoughts i suppose.

For me the burning house seemed to be about choices we make in life, as we don’t (in ‘reality’) have the luxury of knowing the outcome of any of the choices we make, or the knock on effects they will have on other peoples lives. By creating a situation where hazel sees the way she will ultimately die and chooses to take this path anyway, living in the knowledge that her house will kill her, another reality is turned on its head.

In reality every choice has a potential risk that you may be emotionally or physically damaged, but you must make decisions anyway. Hazel lives in the moment, in everything she does, thus accepting this risk, but living. Caden, conversely, recreates (transfers into a bell jar) his entire existence and that of an entire community in NY in order to extract some kind of answer or meaning. In his real life is unable to take any risks or to resolve any of the relationships in his life, and lives a desolate lonely reality. He becomes merely a spectator watching the play of his life, where events replay over and over agian, but nothing ever changes or evolves, it is merely refined. As the director he has full control over the refining process. In his reality (if it exists) he is completely unable to take control, to show his ‘masterpiece’ to an audience, or to act at all by the end of the film without verbal prompt to breath or die.

His own physical pain is the only thing he addresses in his life. Pain is perhaps used as a manifestation of emotional dissonance and repression, a form of psychosis? But while Caden is unable to resolve his own feelings and seems constantly close to death, he in fact outlives almost every character. Maybe the others all die as a consequence of the way they have lived their lives?

Just a few thoughts. It truly is a mind boggling film.

Sat, Jun 13, 2009 6:14pm

Ps. Sorry, the above post is a TOTAL spoiler!

Thu, Oct 22, 2009 8:06pm

I think maybe the burning house is a metaphor for how we often get ourselves into difficult, tricky, even dangerous scenarios with the full knowledge of the risk … and yet we go ahead and do them anyway. We’ll start dating someone we know isn’t right and will probably just end in disaster, but we choose to do it.

Or maybe Kaufmann was just joking about how Hollywood films rig houses to consistently burn so they can be filmed again and again without having to rebuild the house.

I don’t know. There are many explanations, and each one could be right.