Synecdoches, New York and otherwise
Earlier this week, Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of Being John Malkovitch auteur Charlie Kaufman opened in New York and Los Angeles. If you were an English major in college or just happen to enjoy reading literary dictionaries, you’ll remember that a synecdoche is “a term denoting a part of something used to refer to the whole,” and in this case, it’s also a play on Schenectady, NY, a town best known until recently as home to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. In any case, the title, in addition referencing the setting of Schenectady, also reflects the aim of the film — to offer up protagonist Caden Cotard, a small-town theater director, as a microcosm for man’s great existential dilemmas. If Kaufman is to be believed, these dilemmas are as follows: What is true art? What is the meaning of life? Why has my four year old daughter been given a full-body tattoo by German lesbians?
In grappling with these questions, Cotard is apparently supposed to serve as part to our universal whole. Like all of Kaufman’s protagonists, he’s a misunderstood genius and pathological loser, content to spend his life tormenting himself with doubt and loss. The movie opens with his career on the up — he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant half an hour in — and his wife on her way out, and follows him over the next forty years through he stages the play that will be the culmination of his career. Under Cotard’s direction, the play begins to metastasize, reflecting everything around it an an effort (transparent enough?) to fully mimic, or perhaps surpass, his own life. One finished? Unfinished? production later, the film closes with Cotard wandering around the post-apocalyptic landscape of his own creation, a thinly-veiled commentary on the dangers and paradoxes of producing art. Through Cotard, we witness the ravages of deflated love and premature aging, and a meta level (something our director is quite fond of) we experience two hours of Kaufman fumbling through his half-baked intellectual musings. While Kaufman tries to use the film as a means of engaging with deep philosophical issues, he instead ends up hiding beyond the smoke and mirrors that make up the entirety of the film. The wizard is in, in other words, but he doesn’t have much to say. Ultimately, in spite of the ambitions of the plot and the nuance of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting, the only thing that truly achieves universal resonance is Kaufman’s failure to inject meaning or coherence in an overambitious, overburdened, and ultimately hollow script.
By a long shot, Synecdoche is Kaufman’s most ambitious film to date, pursuing the boldly Proustian project of examining the intersection of art and life. The premise is sprawling to begin with, and rather than go anywhere really meaningful with it, Kaufman relies on cheap postmodern tricks to explore it. He builds walls within walls, cities within cities and characters within characters, and as a result, renders his movie nothing more than a self-referential shell. Alongside the standard Kaufman fare of weird chronology, pop culture tics and fragmented narration, the film is sprinkled with tidbits sure to entertain the attentive viewer. At one point, a page from Cotard’s in-flight reading briefly flashes onscreen. The first line? “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Later on, while breaking in to his ex-wife’s building, Cotard scans the names next to apartment buzzers, and one name in particular is singled out. It’s Capgras, a reference to the psychiatric disorder in which the patient can no longer recognize their loved ones. Rather than supplement the plot, tricks such as these stand in for it, mimicking the way Cotard hires an actor to play him who hires an actor to play him in the disastrous mise en abyme that consumes his life and our plot. The final verdict? A train wreck, but to its credit, I haven’t had as much fun disliking anything in quite a while. Kaufman may have fallen short of his ambitions — and it would have been impossible not to — but unlike most filmmakers, and least he’s forcing people to think in the process.
To close, here’s the LA Times‘ Jay Fernandez, and his reaction to reading the script before it went into production.