Synecdoche, New York

May 20, 2009


I am still struggling to get to grips with what it is that I think about this film. What I can safely say is that never has a facet of a films name (in this case ‘synecdoche’) ever represented so accurately the film itself. The word in question refers a small part of something which can be representative of the whole and vice versa, and indeed minute aspects of the film and the individual feelings which it evokes can be applied accurately to the film as a whole. The film itself can be interpreted and understood correctly from so many points that it’s hard to classify any particular opinion as positive or negative. If you find it indulgent, farcical and pretentious then you’re right, but if you find it to contain an ocean of meaning and misery which deals with universal themes of human existence then you’re probably just as right. This is one of the reasons that it’s received such mixed reviews, and why negative reviews cover the same ground as the positive ones. Check out Peter Bradshaw’s review as compared to Jonathan Romney’s. I agree with much of what both of them say. It’s a paradox.

To say that I disliked the film and was frustrated by it would have been true if you’d asked me as I left the cinema, but having had some time to ruminate on it some more I wouldn’t be so confident in this opinion. It deals primarily with death, and in the first half of the film this becomes acutely depressing as the facade of realism melts away and we swim upstream against a surreal reality of Kaufman’s creation. The first half is thoughtful, often hilarious and has the look and feel of a smaller film which is lost in the grandeur of the final scenes. The film jumps years in a single cut, and age and illness grip the characters tighter as time moves on. However, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard seems to take these leaps in unison with the viewer and is equally baffled by the passage of time. In this way the film represents the way in which humans experience time more accurately than other more ‘realistic’ pieces. It takes for granted life’s brief candle and highlights the power of time’s passage to distort memory. At times you’ll become engorged with nostalgic misery, and if you’re looking for escapism you’ve come to the wrong place.

For an examination of the plot look at other reviews or go and watch the movie yourself. There’s no guarantee you’ll like it, and in fact in many ways it is a film that doesn’t want to be enjoyed. Cotard is an introspective hypochondriac, crying during or after sex at least twice in the film, an indecisive artist who cannot complete his theatrical masterpiece despite an unlimited budget. He eventually cocoons himself in a warehouse within a warehouse within a warehouse in New York, and in the final scene of the film is directed by an actor via an earpiece. The actor in question is a woman hired to play him, and is better at knowing himself than he is. This is just a small example of the dense meaning within each and every encounter within the film, though by the end you get the feeling that this weighs down the narrative and prolongs the inevitable death of the main protagonist.

Each aspect of the film itself becomes a sum of its parts, and as others have pointed out it feels like a Woody Allen movie for its intellectual discourse and obsession with death and art reflecting or in this case becoming life. There are moments of beauty and of poignancy, though I doubt that any viewer will appreciate every aspect of the film. By the time the credits roll imperfection and futility seem to become the film’s point, and it is doubly frustrating that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the film’s various ideologies and modes of expression. I think that while a minority of people will actually enjoy the experience that is Synecdoche, New York, most people should watch it. The tapestry it paints is so rich that there will be at least a small portion that will inspire you, and the film is all about representing big and small in the same breath.

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