The View From Here

First look -- Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

Michael Bonner

“I’ve been thinking a lot about dying recently,” says Philip Seymour Hoffman’s neurotic theatre director Caden Cotard early on. And, certainly, you could be forgiven for thinking that the odds were stacked against him. Within the first half hour of Synecdoche, New York, there are enough portents of doom lurking around you’d think you were watching a tragedy, were it all not so funny.

He finds a magazine, Attending To Your Illness, in his mailbox; the milk in the fridge is off; he reads about Harold Pinter’s death in the paper. “This is the start of something awful,” he mutters. In couple’s therapy, his artist wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) admits she’s fantasised about Caden dying, so she can start again, “guilt free”. He develops a mystery ailment. He’s referred to an opthologist, then a neurologist. His dentist recommends gum surgery. He’s also fumbling towards an affair with Hazel (Samantha Morton), who works in the box office of his local theatre. Meanwhile, with days to go before opening night, rehearsals for his production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman are “awful”. Caden’s got 560 lighting cues. “I don’t know why I make it so complicated,” he grumbles to Adele. “Because that’s what you do,” she says. She leaves him shortly after, relocating to Berlin with their daughter.

Then, when it looks like things can’t get much worse, he receives what looks like a gift from above. It’s a grant to do something creative for the community. Seizing the opportunity to turn his life around, Caden decides to mount “a massive theatre piece”, the point of which partly will be to help him discover his “real self”. So Caden rents a massive theatre space, inside which he builds full-size replicas of New York streets. It’s an enormous undertaking – “When are we going to get an audience in here?” asks one of his actors. “It’s been 17 years.” Caden casts to play himself a man called Sammy (Tom Noonan), who’s been secretly following him for 20 years. Soon, there is an actor playing Sammy playing Caden. He builds a replica of the rehearsal space inside the rehearsal space. “Fictional” versions of the characters begin relationships with the people they’re playing.

As anyone familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s previous films will presumably have gathered by now, Synecdoche, New York is a vast and quite extraordinary piece of meta-fiction, far more ambitious than his previous screenplays for Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. Here, Kaufman strives to comment on big issues. There are ongoing themes you may recognise from Adaptation, particularly about the all-consuming nature of obsession and the undignified struggle of the creative process. And how some great works of art collapse under their own weight; a criticism you could perhaps level at Synecdoche, New York itself. It is, as you might gather, quite exhausting trying to keep up with Kaufman. And it’s easy to be sidetracked by what appear to be absurdist digressions. Books start directly addressing incidents in Caden’s own life. He learns of his daughter’s current activities in Berlin through her childhood diary, which seems to be writing itself. The colourful flower tattoos on one character’s body wilt and die as that person’s own health deteriorates. Hazel lives in a house that perpetually seems to be on fire. Early on, Caden catches a glimpse of Sammy following him in a television cartoon, before he’s even met him. It’s entirely possible that one character – Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), who’s introduced in the film’s final act – doesn’t actually exist, and when she starts delivering prompts and directions to Caden through a hearing aid as he walks round what’s become the stage set of his life, you wonder whether she might be God. There's even the tacit suggestion Caden himself is dead; Cotard's syndrome, for those looking for clues, is a rare neuropsychological condition where the sufferer believes they're dead. It’s hard to find appropriate points of comparison for all this – perhaps Grant Morrison’s run on the Animal Man comic or Borges’ short story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. Whatever, Kaufman’s ambition is tremendous.

Certainly, it’s hard to work out whether to like Synecdoche, New York, or to admire it as a creative exercise. Structurally, it’s a considerable achievement; gradually building – like Caden’s rehearsal space – a complex, self-referential plot that convincingly adheres to its own logic. Looking back at my notes from last night’s screening, there’s nothing to suggest that Kaufman has arbitrarily created weird-for-the-sake-of-weird scenarios. Everything works. Meanwhile, Hoffman does loneliness, despair and heartbreak brilliantly, as the series of relationships he embarks on in the film gradually fall by the wayside. And Hoffman is well served by a formidable female cast – apart from Keener, Morton and Wiest, there’s Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams and Emily Watson. It’d be a churl who wasn’t moved by the sight of the elderly Caden, bent over a walking stick, hobbling alone through his now-derelict replica of Synecdoche, New York in the film’s closing minutes.

Quite how you respond to all this is up to you, of course. Although you need to buy in to Kaufman’s vision, be reassured that, in fact, Synecdoche, New York is actually a very simple story of one man’s life. Caden lives in the real Schenectady, New York; synecdoche is a figure of speech denoting a part of something that’s used to refer to the whole. Caden is all of us, then. “There are no extras here,” one extra says. “Everyone’s a lead.”

You can watch the trailer here

Synecdoche, New York opens in the UK on May 15


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