Synecdoche, New York (2009)
Only twice in my life have I seen an audience so in awe, to the point of paralysis, after a film that they helplessly stare intoxicated at the end credits. The first instance of this was after Akira Kurosawa’s incredibly visceral Shakespearean epic Ran (1985) the second was Charlie Kaufman’s much anticipated Synecdoche, New York. Shortly after witnessing Kaufman’s latest offering a friend of mine proclaimed; “That film makes Ran look like the Hannah Montana movie!” Despite being a religiously dedicated Kurosawa disciple, I completely agree.
On the face of it Synecdoche, New York looks like business as usual for Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malcovich) as he delves into yet another complex, fantasy world filled with zany characters searching for the answer to the human question. Synecdoche however is easily Kaufman’s most impressive offering; he may have just created his very own Citizen Kane. This is among one of the most ambitious, moving and extraordinary films I have ever seen and will surely be remembered as Kaufman’s most notable work. The scale of the story and the many themes Kaufman examines were truly exhausting and draining to watch, partly due to the films’ length, but they were also infinitely rewarding. As this morbidly sad tale about a tortured soul of a man, Caden Cotard, unfolds one is transported and immersed in the relentlessly surreal odyssey that is his life.
Caden Cotard, magnificently played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a troubled hypochondriac and dissatisfied playwright who has long since lost all passion for his work. After suffering several apparent health scares and his wife Adele’s (Catherine Keener) desertion, which separates him from his young daughter, Caden is a broken man. He receives the McArthur ‘Genius’ grant due to the success of his adaption of Death of a Salesman; he sees this as a chance to prove his ex-wife wrong and put all of his effort into a meaningful and career-defining production. Caden finds an abandoned airplane hangar in New York, assembles all the actors he can muster and begins work on the most ambitious theatre play ever attempted. His project aims to go far beyond conventional theatre and attempt to create multiple lives and stories of pain and suffering on a daily basis. Gradually he quite literally begins to force his whole being on the project by hiring actors to play himself, his various lovers and friends to re-enact scenes from his own life. In using his own experiences as material he hopes to find the answers to his problems and even about himself. In his attempt to achieve a sense of reality he becomes a victim of his own success and the boundaries between the real and the theatrical become blurred; he ultimately creates his own simulacrum. The real world fuses with Caden’s creation and the theatrical becomes superimposed on his life. Without an audience, the play continues for decades continuing to re-enact Caden’s life as it unfolds in an attempt to find the answers to his existence.
Even in that brief overview one can find more than enough intellectual fat to chew on. One of Kaufman’s most prolific themes is art imitating life; this key notion is explained by Caden, when asked about his play, who claims his project is about ‘everything’. Kaufman uses characters like Craig Schwartz (Being John Malcovich) and Caden as Icarus-like protagonists whose ambition to achieve their dreams ultimately becomes their downfall. Synecdoche includes many aspects of Jungian psychology such as the ‘shadow’ and collective unconscious and his use of magical realism is also borrowed heavily from the likes of Franz Kafka. His other literary influences include heavyweight 20th Century SF writers Stanislaw Lem and Philip K Dick; Kaufman’s approach to the concept of the simulacrum, ambition and the human condition are remarkably similar; think Time out of Joint meets Roadside Picnic. Kaufman almost overloads the film with constant, obscure references to his vast amount of influences and theories; it is a testament to his genius.
Synecdoche, New York is as interesting a film as you’re ever likely to find, however this film is not for everyone. Kaufman’s film is essentially Caden’s play; ambitious and vast in scale yet paradoxically very introverted and personal, it can be seen at times to be too self-indulgent. Some will love it, some will despise it. If you didn’t like Kaufman’s previous films chances are you will not like Synecdoche. I have found many mixed reviews about the film, some say it’s a truly exceptional film others claim it to be self-indulgent tripe of the highest calibre. Whatever way you look at it this film has generated such an incredible level of response that very few films match. Synecdoche has got everyone thinking, fans and critics alike, and that is the mark of a truly great film.
Personally I loved it and would go and see it again, and again. Synecdoche is an emotional and impossible journey into the possibilities of art and life which I’m unlikely to experience again for some time, or at least until the next Kaufman film arrives. Synecdoche begs a second viewing and a deeper analysis which I really can’t attempt right now; perhaps once we evolve into those super-intelligent, floating brains from Futurama I will give it a shot. At this point I would usually make a last ditch effort to sum up the film, but I really can’t, the only thing I will say is see for yourself.