New York (15)
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
Screening at from 15th May 2009
According to Wiktionary, a synecdoche is ‘A figure of speech by
which an inclusive term stands for something included, or vice versa’.
Examples include ‘fifty head of cattle’ and ‘a fleet
of ships, fifty sail deep’. So basically, the title is a fancy way
of saying the Schenectady, New York-set film is meant to represent the
whole of humanity. But although there’s much to admire, it doesn’t
quite succeed on that level.
When we meet Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he is a middle-aged
man being woken by his alarm clock on the first day of autumn. By the
time he’s finished breakfast with his artist wife Adele (Catherine
Keener) and daughter, Hallowe’en has been and gone. Yes, this is
one of those pictures (that was a synecdoche right there).
Cotard is a small-time theatre director whose artistic ambition extends
to casting unusually young actors for parts in Death of a Salesman. But
as Adele flees for the relative glamour of Berlin, a strange disease apparently
begins attacking his bodily functions, and he decides he wants to do something
“important”, while he’s still alive. “That would
be the time to do it”, chimes his psychiatrist.
Forty years then fly by, as Cotard wins a massive grant, decides to put
on a massive, sprawling production in an ever-expanding warehouse, finds
a new wife (Michelle Williams), has a kid with her, secretly longs for
a yet another woman (Samantha Morton), cries a lot, bodily and emotionally
breaks down more and more, philosophises quite a bit, apologises to his
daughter (who is now a tattooed stripper on her deathbed) for something
he’s probably never done, meets a man who’s been following
him for twenty years, and never, ever, gets his play ready for an audience.
That’s just scratching the surface of the stuff that happens within
“We are all hurtling toward death”, Cotard tells us. “Yet
here we are, for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we will die; each
of us secretly believing we won't." But this isn’t a ‘seize
the day’ film; that would be far too simple, and the script is weighed
down by too much cynicism. Instead, we are presented with dramatic cinematography,
highly skilled performers often creating a deep emotional impact, and…nothingness.
To give an example, Cotard is well named, because ‘Cotard’s
syndrome’ is a rare psychological disorder whereby the person is
convinced they are either dead or decaying, like the main character here.
And indeed decay is everywhere in the film, decay that inevitably results
in utter death, and annihilation.
Synecdoche is Charlie Kaufman’s debut as a director, having already
written scripts for Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind – films that are similarly difficult to grasp. In all of his
work, desires are frustrated not by rivals or unfortunate material circumstances,
but by ‘random’ events, by a cruel ‘god in the machine’
that could never be understood. In this universe of constrictive contortions,
happiness is almost entirely elusive, or could only ever last a single
night, making the anguish of loss sharper than the dull pain of loneliness.
Despite apparently trying to say something about what it is to be human,
Kaufman is just like Cotard – lost in his introspection and grand
There is a sense in which Synecdoche may well be the extreme culmination
of a process that has been going on for four decades, but must now end.
As the basic workings of western society have been obscured by seemingly
endless credit, the decline of heavy industry and worship of the commodity,
there has been a trend for insulated and isolated creatives to disengage
with the world, and instead look for truth deep inside of themselves.
But individual psychologies are the products of interactions with their
environments, and change is the only constant.
Here is the line in the sand. This far, and no further, down the cul-de-sac
of our own minds. It is 2009. The global economy is plunging in to a historic
economic crisis. Only the wealthiest will not feel the coming storm, and
its implications. It is time for talented people to take a long, hard,
look at the world, and make art that truly says something about the whole.