Vagrant Journalism

Published pieces from the past, the present and of the potential future.

27 October 2008: Kaufman Goes Mental in ‘Synecdoche’

Posted by Christina on March 23, 2009

synecdoche-new-yorkThis really and truly was a rather bizarre movie. If you got it then you were among the elite who understand filmmaking of this caliber and if you didn’t get it, then it might have provided for water cooler conversation fodder for the following Monday. I enjoyed it but did have my moments of unabashed confusion and bewilderment. Also, only someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman could pull off something like this (see ‘Love Liza).

New University Newspaper: Kaufman Goes Mental in ‘Synecdoche’

Kaufman Goes Mental in ‘Synecdoche’
by Christina Nersesian
Volume 42, Issue 6 | Oct 27 2008

It seems as though with the release of “Synecdoche, New York,” the inevitable and long-awaited directorial debut from one of cinema’s most prominent writers has finally come to pass. Charlie Kaufman creates a world where he plays puppet master for not only the verbal level of character interaction, but for the film’s overall display as well. Kaufman’s work is enhanced by the truly all-star cast, which runs the gamut of Oscar worthies to independent film starlets. While the audience experiences the stellar script materializing before its eyes, the content does, however, veer off course as things wind down into overly symbolic and somewhat impractical referential gestures.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a small-time theater director whose life we enter as he fittingly premieres Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the neighborhood playhouse. His wife, Adele, played by Catherine Keener, is a painter of miniscule art and, like any Generation X suburban couple, husband and wife prescribe to marriage counseling. However, things run amuck in Caden’s life when Adele takes their 4-year-old daughter and her paintings to Berlin, pursuing her career and an alternative lifestyle.

In a series of encounters, Caden strikes out with buxom box-office babe Hazel (Samantha Morton) and is followed by a lanky and balding guy. Later, Sammy (Tom Noonan), creates a surrogate wife and daughter with his plays’ perpetual female lead, Claire (Michelle Williams), and takes part in a liaison with Tammy (Emily Watson) among other things. After a whirlwind of experiences, Caden realizes his mortality once his body’s automatic functions start shutting down, and he embarks on a life-long theater project funded by a MacArthur Fellowship.

What follows is an overtly meta-textual and somewhat incestuous plot arch that replays every moment in Caden’s life as he inserts his experiences of progressive delusion and psychosis into his project. While his masterpiece is meant to outdo every work of expressive art ever made, it’s, in truth, a concoction of every aspect of his life rebuilt in a gigantic hangar-turned-theater. The audience is taken through a truly cerebral haunt of one man’s consciousness.

The film utilizes tropes throughout, continually providing plays on words running from the magnitude of the title to small sidewalk conversations. The film takes place in Schenectady, New York, which clearly plays on the title’s use of synecdoche, a literary term for using a part to describe the whole, which can also refer to the way in which Caden’s play represents parts of his life as a whole. Then, in a rather largely forgotten conversation with his daughter, Caden explains he has sycosis, explaining his grotesque facial pustules, or psychosis, explaining his mental instability — or both.

The multi-tiered presence of referential symbolism is nearly endless. Caden’s last name, Cotard, is no mistake either. It deliberately refers to Cotard’s Syndrome, a neuropsychological disorder that renders one completely nihilistic about one’s own existence, believing he or she is dead. It’s perhaps for this reason that Caden relentlessly recreates his real-life experiences in his colossal play as he tries to enliven his deadened and lonely soul.

Talent abounds in the film, as Kaufman’s signature characters run rampant throughout. It’s with each persona’s idiosyncrasies that we can compare characters to ones we’ve seen in previous screenplays like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation.” Much like the characters in the film, his story location has its own idiosyncrasy. Schenectady, New York is famed for having the zip code 12345.

A conversation piece for our generation, “Synecdoche, New York” is for the water coolers and wine party types alike. It is sheer brilliance that makes it a true Kaufmanian film, incorporating those virtually existential themes of humanity wandering amongst the proverbial journey of life through love and loss.

“Synecdoche, New York” is a true culmination of an artist’s integrity, yet, it is perhaps this intense packing of so many levels of thought that might render the film rather unattainable at first. Not for the faint of heart or thoughtless, it might berate your psyche at first, but provides great fodder for conversation later.


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