Whose Reality is it Anyway: Movie review by Alan Steinfeld
Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman
*****5 Realties points, because of the truth it portrays.
Synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part stands for a whole or a material stands for a thing . A definition you will only understand after you see the movie…maybe?
Synecdoche pronounced like Schenectady (at least by the women at the box office) is the upstate, NY town where the move begins. It is here we find our not-so-happily-married main character Caden Cotard, played by Philip Morris Hoffman, directing a new version of Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman, (a thematic clue for this movie). Throughout the course of his life and career we do not just see – Cotard’s personal dramas ranging from the mundane, to the ridiculously, to the highly simpatico and everything in between, but we get to almost live them through Hoffman’s superb talent.
But the film is really about Charlie Kaufman, who is probably the most creative, edge-stepping filmmaker in Hollywood today. This time he has truly out done himself. Kaufman is the only writer/director I have seen that can turn a first rate comedy into an existential tragedy. He has been known to make some pretty good reality sandwiches in the past: Being John Malknovich, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless and Adaptation. But while these attempts were frenzied send-ups of possibilities of the imagination, Synecdoche is a truly epic masterpiece of self-reflection.
Kaufman keeps a steady line of narrative flowing through the whole fragmentation of time and space; mixing it up with internal and external realities. Well in this case it is hard to know the difference. Somehow we don’t care because we sense the underpinning of that surrealistic dreamscape throughout. This is because during the film it occurs to us that perhaps Hoffman, playing Caden Cotard, a director /writer is actually playing Kaufman, director /writer, portraying himself as Cotard. It gets even more reflective (some might say indulgent), as if looking into a room full of mirrors, when Cotard agrees to let someone else, Sammy, play himself playing Cotard (playing Kaufman) in the staging of his great epic to nowhere. As Cotard gives the direction to his cast that “you are actors playing actors”, we see other people in Cotard’s life, we have come to know (and like), become characters in that play. Here we get into levels and levels of deconstruction as everything starts to fragment and multiply like some Medusian serpent head. This escalates until we think: “Kaufman can’t keep juggling with all these pieces up in the air at once.” And then when we feel he has almost lost it, he pulls the carpet out from under us and throws us another curve. We cannot help from being hooked into seeing into Kaufman’s bewildered compulsive mind state; only to find out at the film’s resolution that Kaufman has slyly turned the tables on us. We come to realize that it has been our reality all along. Kaufman has gotten behind our defenses, by revealing his own insecurities. But because of the levels that reflect off the screen into our own mind we see he is really showing us our own ego driven obsession with the world of people, places, things, times and events. He breaks open the head (as it were) to expose wiring of our personality structure. This is the purpose of great art, no matter how convoluted it may appear, is to see more of ourselves.
In watching the film we never forget we are looking at the creative process. It is continuously being made visible as Kaufman/ Hoffman/ Cotard /Sammy try to navigate the loose ends of this fabrication. The only hold of security that the audience has in this enduring mess is Hoffman steady portrayal of Cotard’s disintegration. By the end of the movie Hoffman looks wasted and so is the audience for having to endure the frailties of his life and loves; yet we don’t want this artfully artificial artifice to end. We know it must at some point, but only when we are thoroughly exhausted of it.
It is a surrealistic death of a Death of Salesman. In this case we are being sold fantasies of what we thinks life is, only to discover it was all in the making. And where Cotard and Willie Lowman end in defeat, Kaufman ends in victory in a sort of liberation from a delusional consciousness, which is the myth of Western civilization’s ‘Cult of the Personality’.
Catherine Keener gives an amazing performance as Cotard ‘s artistic and passionately dispassionate estranged wife. She should get a supporting actress nomination for this; out of film filled with wonderful supporting roles. Hoffman, like always, is totally captivating as Kaufman’s hypochondriac-tic alter ego self in a movie of altered egos. Actually at the end of the move you come think that everyone is your altered ego and all our hopes and dreams and unfinished relationships and projects are just like everything else - footprints on the sands of time. That is if you have spent enough time on the planet to have seen such illusions wash away.
My only problem with this film is that even though it shows the hurts, disappointments, hopes and fears that life contains; it fails to show the absolute splendor and wonder of it all. Because it lacks this clear spiritual perspective, it is only a reminder not a wake up call against a desperate life.
I have been on a Henry David Thoreau kick lately so I have to add his quintessential perspective about this Kaufman’s exposition: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Yes, in the neurotic obsessive consciousness of Kaufman he pieces together the very private puzzle of desperation that reflects the mass confusion of humanity on earth. Kaufman’s portrays the existential angst, and only partially conjoins the awe of another of Thoreauian understanding: Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
Nevertheless, I totally recommend seeing Synecdoche, New York. It is a sobering yet disturbing movie-going experience. I do suggest, not seeing it alone. It is too much of an earth shaking reflection of our mundane reality. See it with friend so you can look at each other at the end and say: “What?” or “Oh no.”