Monday, 1 June 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008) - ickleReview (cinema)

Left to right: Tammy playing Hazel (Emily Watson), Hazel (Samantha Morton), Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Sammy Barnathan playing Caden Cotard (Tom Noonan). Image source:

Synecdoche, New York is a weird film, but that's what you'd expect from something both written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Spike Jonze originally developed the project with Kaufman intending to direct it himself, but when Jonze was unavailable, Kaufman took on his first directing role. This gave him more freedom than he would be allowed when working with another director. He worked with Jonze on Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), and with Michel Gondry on Human Nature (2001) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Although these films are oddball, they are not quite as extreme as Synecdoche, New York gets in parts. Kaufman certainly takes risks.

Curiously inverse, the film is about a director taking on his first project as a writer. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a stage director working in provincial Schenectady in upstate New York. He directs Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman with young actors cast in the lead roles. The production receives favourable notices, but Caden's life is still miserable. He is plagued by haywire bodily functions and diseases; his marriage to artist Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) is miserable; their counselling sessions are dreadful opportunities to say horrible things to each other; and their 4-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) has green poo and an annoying whine. Adele, who paints miniature pictures, leaves to pursue her art career in Berlin, taking Olive and her best friend (lesbian lover?) Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with her. Even his affairs with the buxom, nubile box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) and lead actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams off of Dawson's Creek and Brokeback Mountain) are unfulfilling.

When Caden wins an arts fellowship, he sets out to write and direct his own play for the first time, aiming to create something brutal and true, which ends up being about his own life and the everyday lives of everyone around him. By this stage normal reality has broken down; a confusing, dreamlike, mixed-up temporal world remains, which is something like a cross between The Truman Show and any other Kaufman film. He hires out a giant abandoned warehouse in New York for rehearsals and performance space, constructing a life-sized replica of the city inside it. (It was only towards the end of the film that I realized this was like the huge studio hangers in which sets are constructed - duh!)

The film sometimes moves at a bewildering pace. I often found myself confused about the identity of the female characters: who was his wife, his daughter, his wife's lover; which girl is the real Hazel, which is the actor he hires to play her in the stage version of his life? I didn't actually realize the real Hazel and the stage Hazel were played by two different actresses (see photo above), so similar did they look, especially as they aged, which is a credit to the casting director, the make-up artist, and the costume designer, as well as the actors' performances (plus my ignorance). It was often enjoyably unclear which level of reality I was watching.

Some of the small details in this film are beautiful. When Hazel is still in the early flirting stages of her relationship with Caden, the second time we see them together, he sits outside the theatre in Schenectady on a beautiful sunny day. The previous scene in that location he was stressed out, talking on the phone, trying to escape the stresses of his production. Hazel arrives in her car and comes over to sit next to him on a bench. In that two-shot, I noticed they were wearing shirts in matching shades of brown, subtly complimenting each other - a small hint in costume design that they were really more compatible than Caden and his wife Adele, and that an affair was likely to ensue.

Hazel later buys a house that is on fire. No explanation is ever given and although the characters notice it's on fire, they don't react overly concerned, as if it's a minor complaint, or even a sellable feature. The house remains on fire for the rest of the film, its rooms dark with smoke and small fires all over. Hazel eventually dies from suspected smoke inhillation, one of the many unexpected jokes in the film. Kaufman's attitude is that these sorts of things don't have to mean anything:
"It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it's funny in a weird way. You don't have to worry, 'What does the burning house mean?' Who cares. It's a burning house that someone lives in - it's funny. You can get more than that if you want to. Hopefully the movie will work on a lot of levels and people can read different things from it depending on who they are." (Press kit production notes)
It doesn't matter what this means, but it could be some kind of metaphor for the way our houses and possessions eventually end up killing us.

Ultimately, the film isn't entirely successful. It is perhaps a little long, a little out of hand, but at least someone has taken these risks. They pay off in installments. I certainly agree with Kaufman's belief that the film is not static: that it would seem a little different each time on repeated viewings. It plays cleverly with synecdoche (a figure of speech which will be familiar to most students of English literature - meaning a substitution of a part for a whole, a whole for a part: the screen for movies, or the law for police). Here is the definition according to Richard A. Lanham:
"Synecdoche (syn EC do che; G. 'understanding one thing with another') - Intellectio; Quick Conceite.

Substitution of part for whole, genus for species, or vice versa: 'All hands on deck.' Of this figure, Kenneth Burke has written: 'The more I examine both the structure of poetry and the structure of human relations outside of poetry, the more I become convinced that this is the "basic" figure of speech, and that it occurs in many modes besides that of the formal trope' (The Philosophy of Literary Form, p. 26). If this is so, at the center of figuration stands scale-change. To define A, equate it to a part of B, derived by magnification. Experience is described in terms of other experience, but at a different level of magnification. Scaling has certainly formed a central part of postmodern aesthetics, and of the aesthetics of computer-generated electronic text as well. And similarity of part to whole, self-similarity as it is called, is a central characteristic of the fractal geometry introduced into modern thinking by chaos theory. The putative centrality of synecdoche is receiving at least a fair trial in the current sensorium.

See also Antonomasia; Metonymy." (Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 148)
Synecdoche is realized, for example, in Adele's miniature paintings, which she paints through magnifying glasses, and which patrons at her exhibition have to view through special magnifying spectacles: an example of scale-change. The individual illnesses Caden develops, such as not being able to produce tears or salivate, are indicative of his wider social malaise: an example of part for whole. Schenectady is also deliciously close in pronunciation to synecdoche, a suggestion that it is also representative of more than just itself.

I sensed watching this film that Charlie Kaufman has a lot of "issues". And he's not afraid to share them with us. Another director might have been able to silence a few of these. But since Kaufman was in the director's chair, there was no one to say "no" to him. My suspicions are indeed confirmed by how Kaufman and Jonze talk about the writing process:
"My process is to start by thinking about something and see what comes," says Kaufman. "I'm not very interested in things like writing towards an end." "Charlie would call and say I want to put this idea in the film and that idea in the film," says Jonze. "And suddenly there were dozens and dozens of ideas. Charlie has a real desire to put everything he's thinking and feeling into the thing he's working on at the time." (Press kit production notes)
No shit.

I'd certainly watch it again, now that I'm a little wiser. It could stimulate hours of discussion. I'm sure each viewing would make me a little wiser still, as well as a little more confused. There are a number of remarkable moments, such as the minister's speech towards the end, which comes out of nowhere (and indeed was written the night before it was shot). It stands, to some extent, as a summary of the film; and could be Charlie Kaufman's own voice coming at us a little too directly:
"Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won't know for twenty years. And you'll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it's what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn't really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved. And the truth is I'm so angry and the truth is I'm so fucking sad, and the truth is I've been so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long have been pretending I'm OK, just to get along, just for, I don't know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own, and their own is too overwhelming to allow them to listen to or care about mine. Well, fuck everybody. Amen." (Source: IMdB)
Which reminds me a bit of this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, which I happened to read the day after (but maybe that's just critical paranoia on the loose, rather than synchronicity):

Click on the image to enlarge it. Source: Transmogrifier and the "Calvin and Hobbes of the day" iGoogle gadget.

Nugget: if you liked Kaufman's previous films, this is certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.