Synecdoche, New York
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Weist, Tom Noonan
US DVD: 10 Mar 2009
As a critic, it is often taught that you should never use first-person perspective when reviewing something. Hearing the phrases “Nickelback sucks” and “I think that Nickelback sucks” result in two different effects: one comes off more as fact, the other as mere opinion. All criticism, when you boil it down, can be construed as mere opinion—but the use of a third-person perspective, by and large, gives off the air of authority when discussing the subject at hand.
I have always tried to remove the first-person perspective from my own reviews for this very reason. When it comes to reviewing Synecdoche, New York, however, I have to make a pretty definitive exception.
When I was 14-years-old, I heard of this movie called Being John Malkovich that was coming out to theaters, and the concept (puppeteer finds a hole into the head of John Malkovich for 15 minutes before dropping you out on the New Jersey Turnpike) really intrigued me. I convinced my mom to take me (it was, to the best of my recollection, my first ever rated-R movie), and, well, I cannot even begin to describe how much I hated the movie.
The thought of people crawling into my mind and controlling me—it disturbed me, shook me to the core. I wanted to walk out on this film so badly but knew I just had to see what the ending was. I had nightmares for days.
The worst part of it all, however, was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s knotty, existential musings were still brewing in my mind well over a week after I saw it. Some months later, I buckled down and watched it again, finally coming to terms with the film, and actually enjoying it.
Each subsequent viewing has only made me love and appreciate Being John Malkovich all the more. Now, nearly a decade after that initial viewing, it is my unquestionable favorite film of all time.
Yet would I still love that movie if I didn’t hate it so passionately at first? Was some of this love just me projecting my own personal insecurities onto Charlie Kaufman’s meta-masterpiece? It’s hard to say, but one thing is for certain: no film has ever stirred so many emotions during its first viewing for me as Being John Malkovich did, and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to feel that way towards a movie ever again.
It’s fitting, then, that when I saw Synecdoche, New York for the first time in theaters, that exact same feeling of hatred returned. Yet I didn’t hate the film because I hated the concept (nor did it give me nightmares); I hated this film because I hated its execution.
In Synecdoche, New York, we are introduced to Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, as reliable a character actor as there ever was), a theatre director in New York whose marriage with Adele (Catherine Keener) is crumbling at an alarming rate. When Adele leaves for Berlin with their daughter in tow, she never comes back, forcing Caden to deal with the various women in his life: from manipulative box-office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) to aspiring actress Claire (Michelle Williams), to Caden’s condescending therapist Madeline (Hope Davis), there’s almost no end to the social juggling act that ensues for the rest of his days (and that whole crying during sex thing isn’t helping matters either).
Caden’s fortunes turn, however, when he receives a MacArthur genius grant following his epic production of Death of a Salesman, which now allows him to create, in essence, whatever he wants. It’s not long before his desire to create something true to life takes a shockingly literal turn: Caden rents out a gigantic warehouse and builds a full-scale model of New York inside, soon populating it with actors who, in turn, fill in for people in his life.
At one point, Caden even casts an actor named Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself, who in turn winds up building a replica warehouse inside of Caden’s warehouse, wherein another New York model is made, wherein more actors are cast to play the actors playing the current actors, etcetera etcetera. Needless to say, the plot of the movie is unabashedly “Kaufmanesque” in nature.
Glancing at the critical reception to the movie, people seem to be firmly divided into two camps: there are those who love this movie to death, and those who find it to be the most pretentious, over-indulgent film of all time. Both groups are 100 percent correct in their assessment.
When watching Synecdoche, New York for the first time, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed by the proceedings. Synecdoche, New York, as Kaufman explains on the “In and Around Synecdoche, New York” featurette, is a movie that adheres to dream-logic in a real, tangible world. This explains why Hazel, when shopping for houses, picks one that is perpetually on fire. This also explains why Caden keeps finding his image plastered on children’s TV shows, websites, and other locales that he’s never visited. Some have argued that this whole movie is a dream sequence, given that within the first five minutes of the film, a faulty sink faucet bursts off and hits Caden squarely in the head, forcing him to visit a never-ending trail of doctors who keep referring him to other doctors.
Yet this logic falls apart under close scrutiny: the opening scene of the film is Caden waking up, going downstairs and reading the newspaper. The DJ on his alarm clock radio station notes how it’s September 22nd. When Caden picks up the newspaper, it’s October 12th, and by the time he looks down at the obituaries, it’s the 17th. He goes to the fridge to get some milk, but notes that the milk has expired (the expiration date is October 20th), and before the scene is over, the same radio DJ is wishing everyone a Happy Halloween.
Caden, quite obviously, is out of sync with the rest of the world, a trait that manifests itself in his conversations with Adele. Before they go to sleep, he tells his wife that he thinks he found blood in his stool. “Your stool at work?” she sleepily asks, marking the first of several times that Caden’s words are misinterpreted by the people in the world around him.
At one point, he tells Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that he must see his four-year-old daughter. Maria, Adele’s oldest friend and fellow artistic bohemian, looks at Caden quixotically and informs him that his daughter is 10-years-old. Yet time is not the only thing that is off-base with Caden: as the movie goes on, he loses more of his own personal identity amidst his sea of doppelgangers, finally culminating with Caden losing his own sense of gender.
For such an endlessly complicated script, it’s no surprise that every single person involved in the making of this film has to be on their A-game to try and make these dense themes accessible as possible for the audience. Though the special effects, score, and Oscar-worthy production design all rank up with the best mainstream studio productions, it’s Robert Frazen’s jerky, jumpy editing that winds up making the movie more inaccessible than it actually is.
Case in point: during the movie’s first half, Caden is courting Claire, and—in a quick jump-edit—we see them getting married. So quick this jump is that we’re not sure if it’s an imagined sequence or real life. Immediately following, Caden is at home, looking at a magazine that shows his daughter naked, now 10-years-old, and with a full-body flower tattoo. He turns to Claire and says “I have to find my daughter”, to which she counters “But your daughter is right here!”
The camera pans to a child’s bed, and therein lies the daughter that Caden and Claire had together. This reveal is quick and unexpected, and also forces the audience to accept that within the past minute of film time, Caden has been re-married and has actually raised a second child. Without any establishing shots to ease us into these developments, we’re forced to accept them at the surface level, and even the most ardent of avant-garde cinema fans will be scratching their heads during these confusing moments.
Speaking of establishing shots, given how there are warehouses within warehouses within warehouses in the movie, we the audience are never really given any frame of reference for the increasingly-meta environment of which we are submerged. In short, we are never actually sure what warehouse we are in, which is really more detrimental to the middle portion of the movie than its final scene, where in Caden is driving around some warehouse with bodies strewn about the streets.
At various points in the movie, small, subtle hints are given that the world as we know it is heading for apocalypse. When Caden—now an old man—is driving around the warehouse with the corpses all around him, we’re never sure if these bodies are real or if these are actors simply lying still, accurately reflecting the world outside the warehouse(s). Many of these quibbles, however, are subjective.
Because of the film’s numerous interpretive features, it’s hard for any one person, critic, or patron to give an accurate reflection of what this movie is about, as it will mean different things to different people. It’s surprising, even, how many of the critiques of this film are written in the first-person perspective (like this one from Newsweek, for example). During the “Infectious Diseases in Cattle: Bloggers’ Roundtable” DVD featurette, one critic notes how Kaufman wanted this film to be like a play: every time you go to see live theatre, there are going to be subtle changes and nuances from night to night, simply because that’s what human nature is and live theatre presents us with that ever-changing opportunity.
Kaufman wished to achieve the same thing with this film, as it will always change every time you come back to it, even though each frame is permanently set in history. What’s interesting is how Kaufman has achieved this effect: no two viewings of Synecdoche, New York are going to be exactly the same, largely because all the little details that you didn’t notice the first time around (like Sammy’s stalking figure being ever-so-slightly out of frame during the film’s first half-hour) will factor in to how you interpret the subsequent viewing.
Even after viewing it multiple times, there are still things that I myself keep noticing. Look at how Caden’s job is that of a theatre director—essentially telling others what to do for a living—but when it comes to flirting with a girl as seemingly-timid Hazel, he keeps insisting that she tell him what to do, step by step, going as far as obliging her when she makes him beg her for a kiss (“for fun”, she says with venomous delight).
This reversal of roles comes into play later when an actress named Millicent (Dianne Wiest) comes in to play the part of Ellen, Adele’s housecleaner (wherein another fantastical element is introduced: Adele no longer lives in New York, but Caden—pretending to be Ellen—can communicate with her by leaving notes in her penthouse; though eventually the burden of playing her becomes too much, forcing him to give the role to Millicent).
Caden, collapsing under the stress of directing his multi-city epic, gives the role of director to Millicent (“I know it’d be non-traditional casting”, she warns), and he takes the part of Ellen in exchange. Millicent gives Caden an ear-piece, and—for the rest of his days—she tells him what to say and do, and he does so without question. It’s almost as if he’s lost so much of his identity, he needs someone else to dictate it for him. During the final shot of the film, everything begins to fade to white, and then Millicent, without any hint of emotion, proceeds to give Caden the final stage direction of his life ...
Ultimately, Caden’s creation—which is a large-scale theatrical re-enactment of his own life—not only consumes him, but controls him. Adele’s specialty was in creating miniature portraits, which, as time went on, grew smaller in size. Both Caden and Adele were doing the same thing—representing life in an art—but both went about it in opposite ways.
Early on, before leaving for Berlin, Caden asks Adele if she’s disappointed in him. “Well, everyone’s disappointing, the more you get to know them” she counters, obviously trying to console him but failing in the process. The scene hurts not because Adele is intentionally trying to destroy Caden or because Caden reacts with tears: it hurts because, against our deepest wishes as a viewer, we can’t help but find at least a small bit of truth in it.
It’s fitting, then, that what may very well be the film’s defining moment comes right at the end, not during a funeral, but during a recreation of a funeral. Following the death of his mother, Caden is staging the conversations that took place during the service, at least until Millicent—now the director—decides to try something new. She goes to the actors on stage, whispers something in their ear, and then the man playing the priest, amidst a swell of organ music, says the following:
“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 may 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’s no fate, but there is: it’s what you create! And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only 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, but it never comes—or it seems to, but it doesn’t, really.
So you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along, something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel cherished, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is, I feel so angry! And the truth is, I feel so fucking sad! And the truth is, I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long, I’ve been pretending I’m okay, just to get along. I don’t know why. Maybe because ... no one wants to hear about my misery—because they have their own.
Well, fuck everybody.
Everyone says “Amen” in response, acknowledging the truth of what’s just been said. When we step back and look at the big picture, we realize that our lives are very futile, very valuable, and—in the large scale of things—they exist for only a blip of time. Synecdoche, New York, consumed with all this existential dread, actually manages to capture the feeling of near-death angst remarkably well, enough to the point where it’s not Caden that’s feeling it—it’s the audience.
Synecdoche, New York isn’t a feel-good film by any stretch of the imagination, and there is much to digest—especially if you’re viewing it for the first time. Repeated viewings gradually reveal more layers to this twisty, knotty piece of meta-fiction, but, ultimately, Synecdoche, New York—glaring flaws and all—remains one of the most profoundly unique, overambitious films to come along in some time. What you take away from it is what you put into it, and, personally, I’m more than happy to give it just a little bit more.