Review of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK–a Charlie Kaufman experience
I attended a screening of this movie where the writer Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) was present and I immediately wanted to write a review of it. But I found it difficult to start because the film is so complicated to summarize. As Kaufman himself said, “It’s something to be experienced like a dream.”
It could have been a nightmare. Kaufman said the film came into being when Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal asked him and frequent collaborator Spike Jonze to do a horror movie. They two men talked and decided what scared them most were things like the passing of time, isolation, heartbreak, illness and mortality. They pitched it to Pascal and she greenlit it (an amazing leap of faith, considering the subject matters).
Her gamble paid off. Kaufman was only going to write it with Jonze (Adaptation, Malkovich, both from Kaufman scripts) intended as director. But Jonze went off to direct the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are so Kaufman took the directing reins for the first time.
It’s fitting then that his directorial debut is about a director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who sets out to mount the biggest play of his life after his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking their young daughter with her. He takes over a huge warehouse in Schenectady, NY and painstakingly reconstructs a microcosm of his world, complete with replicas of buildings and roads and his own home, to explore it in a way which might allow him some control. He hires a cast of hundreds to represent people in his life, including himself. The rehearsal process stretches over 17 years and when some of the doppelgangers start falling for the real people and vice versa, Caden has no idea how his play will end and we have no idea what’s real and what’s stage acting.
Of course, this synopsis doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the script. As expected in a Kaufman film, there are many things that will mystify viewers. But instead of annoying or shutting out the audience, Kaufman somehow pulls us into the experience anyway and keeps us watching though we may not understand what we see. He makes us think about our own grand issues in life and manages to move us even if we’re not sure why. The tone is melancholy but the film also has many humorous moments. And the incredible cast of Oscar winners and nominees (including Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) makes even some of the absurd moments seem grounded and relatable.
There is a running motif of a burning house in the movie which I asked Kaufman to explain. His reply: “I don’t want to explain everything because it takes away the possibility it may mean something else to someone else. It means what it means. If it means nothing to you, then it means nothing.”
Some might say that’s a frustratingly obtuse response (my friend thought it was a cop-out) but to me, it was perfect. I’d been sitting there thinking, “Why don’t I get it?” His answer liberated me. I can think it’s profound or it’s garbage but at least I don’t think I’m stupid for not understanding it.
But I did comprehend Kaufman’s dream analogy. He said, “You don’t understand your dreams. But sometimes I wake up and I’m devastated in a way that I’m not in my waking life.”
And that’s what it feels like after watching Synecdoche–as though you’ve just awoken from a mesmerizing, shattering dream.
Note: The title of the movie is not a typo. Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something represents the whole or the whole stands in for a part.
The trailer is below.