Synecdoche, New York

Dir: Charlie Kaufman

Rating: 3.5

Sony Pictures Classics

124 Minutes

Syn-ec-do-che: a figure of speech by which a part signifies the whole

Let’s just say I have this friend. Things are usually doom and gloom with him, so this recent fugue isn’t anything new. I tried to get him to write for Tiny Mix Tapes when I was editor there, and he did get off two really, really great articles, but his neurosis proved too difficult to overcome and he quit. So when the opportunity to review Synecdoche, New York arose, and knowing this guy is a big Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) fan, I asked him to write about the film for my new site. A week before the screening, this guy called me out of the blue. “I think I’m dying,” he said. “My right side isn’t working anymore. I see lights. There is pain shooting down my arm. I wake up convinced I’m going to die. It’s terrifying.” I tried to reassure him that it was only stress. Besides, he had just moved in with a girlfriend, only to break up a few weeks after signing the lease.

I have to admit, I was afraid my friend would melt down after seeing Synecdoche, New York. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a hypochondriac stage director, Kaufman once again creates a sad sack character trapped in a depressive life with the urge to create, but whose own self-loathing keeps him walled in. But while in Adaptation Nicolas Cage played both an alter-ego of Charlie Kaufman and his not-so-Charlie-Kaufman twin brother, the scope of Kaufman (via Cotard) expands in Synecdoche as Hoffman creates elaborate plays that mimic every moment and permutation of his life until he just blinks out. It’s dissolution via infinite expansion. When I asked my friend how he felt about the film, he replied, “It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It made me want to kill myself.” But, so did the suicide of David Foster Wallace.

So, my friend told me that he would need to see the movie a second time before he could write an accurate review. Fine by me. His life had fallen apart, sleeping on the couch, jacking off to porn all day. My own savior complex was satisfied with the gift of a film. But how could I know what went on in his mind as he watched Cotard worry about first brain cancer and then his failing marriage? Did he take comfort as Hoffman begins to piss blood and break in pustules or did he obsess about his own collapsing health and doomed relationship? Except his girlfriend didn’t flee to Berlin like Catherine Keener does in the film. She is just down the hall.

That’s right. My friend is trapped within this prism of space and time for now. Cotard isn’t. Time is out the window. Soon, he wins a grant, marries a leading actress (Michelle Williams) and takes over a warehouse in New York City to stage an epic play about his life. But how long has Keener been away? A week? A year? It no longer matters. Soon, a man who has been tailing Cotard the entire film becomes a stand-in for him, a synecdoche. Is Cotard still living his own life? Does his suffering matter when there are so many people out there with so many thoughts, desires, pains, joys? Cotard’s sense of identity just vanishes.

And within my friend’s pain and Kaufman’s destruction of identity rests the problem. Is it really possible to extract our own ego from our existence? In a speech David Foster Wallace gave at a Kenyon College commencement, he said there is a never a moment in our life when we’re not there. We attempt to empathize with others, try to see things from their perspective, but ultimately it’s an experience that cannot escape us and our perceptions. In Synecdoche, New York, the ego grows to such an extent that it eventually bursts; there is nothing left to do but die. Yet, it was Wallace, not Kaufman, who elected to commit suicide. But the faults of circling too far outward and too far inward do arrive at the same conclusion. Then why write? Why make art?

My friend sent me a long, rambling review in the form of a suicide note. It was frightening, yet brilliant. However, he failed to see beyond his own pain, his own psychosis. There was too much ego. But what do I know? I can never touch his agony. I’ll just keep my head down, write my own review (he later rescinded his) and pretend it’s all okay. Just pretend it’s all okay.

by David Harris

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