Spoilers? Oh yeah.
We love a competition. Winners, losers, that makes simple enough to understand. Takes all the complexity and difficulty out of things. A bunch of amateurish tone-deaf singers who if they were performing in a bar you’d walk out on ‘em. But call it American Idol and make it a competition… A bunch of assholes that would make you ask for a new table in the restaurant if you were sitting close enough to hear their inane blather while waiting for their meal, but call it Big Brother… Watching people eat bugs is entertainment for kindergartners, but call it Survivor… So to try to entice you into a challenging film that is well worth your time even if there are no car chases or explosions, I’ll mention that the Rotten Tomatoes score for this movie is 62 and that two of the first half dozen blurbs include one from Chris Carpenter of the Orange County and Long Beach Blade which says “one of the worst films of 2008” and Robert Roten from the Laramie Movie Scope who writes, “This might be the best film of 2008”. Any time you have that kind of disagreement among critics, the movie is almost always worth seeing.
SYNECDOCHE, NY is about a middle-aged writer-director trying to make sense of the existential issues of being a human being through his art as the clock both winds down and speeds up. That’s also the plot of the movie. Charlie Kaufman builds a wildly complex artificial world in which we see everyone from both the outside, inside, and in the interpretation of the other characters. That’s also what the protagonist does. The movie is about a play within a play. The play in the movie is too. The movie is an attempt by an artist to make something real and true through his art. That’s also the background for the story of the movie. SYNECDOCHE, NY is the movie equivalent of both a hall of mirrors and a Russian nesting doll. It is simply the most demanding and rewarding and deep movie made in the last several years.
If you finish this movie and don’t immediately want to watch it again then you’ve missed the boat. If a movie has ever demanded repeated viewing to mine its depths, this one does. This isn’t new territory for Kaufman. Every one of his movies throws so many unexpected twists at the audience that, like a good book, they can’t all be digested in one sitting. The movie follows the life of a man, who could be any man or woman, through the last half of his life. To begin to follow what is happening you have to face both the idea that the second half of a life is profoundly affected by the reality that you have less time ahead of you than you have behind you and that, as my high school band director once warned us when we were far to young to understand, every summer is shorter. Over the hill is an apt metaphor because not only are you past the mid-point, but things are accelerating in an uncontrollable fashion. So you start with the abandonment of the classic three act structure in favor of the kind of subjective time sense that causes you to say “my god, is it Thursday already?” and leads to “my god, are you already 50?” and then add the juxtaposition of objective reality, subjective reality, memory, real people, your perception of people, your perception of events, how your memory differs from actual events. This is a movie where looking away from the screen for a couple of minutes might cause you to lose the momentum of the story the same way waking in the middle of the night causes you to lose contact with the dream you were living in just a moment before.
“Knowing you don’t know is the most essential step to knowing, you know?”
The first scene in the movie sets the tone and tries to ease you in to what is about to happen. Caden Cotard wakes to his clock radio telling him that it’s the first day of fall. On the radio a literature professor is being interviewed about the melancholy of autumn. She quotes part of Rilke’s poem, Autumn Day:
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters into the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
The scene continues, superficially having the slice-of-life feeling of many independent films. But little things are happening on the periphery that tell us what is really going on. Caden wanders downstairs to get his first cup of coffee. His wife passes him in the hall. We see his daughter and wife discuss her morning bowel movement. Something has changed with it- it’s green. Perhaps it is a symptom that there is something wrong. The phone rings. Caden doesn’t answer and his wife leaves his daughter to talk to her friend as he gets his coffee. The radio, which continues to play in the background as we eavesdrop on the wife’s telephone conversation, tells us it is October 8. Caden mentions that he doesn’t feel well as he goes out to get the morning paper. As Caden fetches the paper we see a man watching him from the other side of the street. We don’t know it at the time but this is Caden’s alter-ego, watching him from a slight distance in the same way you watch yourself in dreams, apart yet connected. Along with the morning paper, Caden gets the mail, which includes a magazine called “Attending to Your Illness”. He seems puzzled why he has a subscription to this. As he opens the newspaper at the breakfast table we see that the date is October 14 at the same time the radio tells us that it is October 15. Time continues to compress. The newspaper, now dated Oct. 15, 2005, says famous American Playwright Harold Pinter is dead. However, Pinter did not die on that date. The “mistake” does mirror Pinter’s own obsession with ambiguity and the unreliability of personal memory, which further leads us to believe this narrative is subjective and perhaps a memory rather than any kind of objective set of events. On the television (again a background item touched only briefly by the camera) is a cartoon where two talking farm animals are discussing viruses. All of these clues occur in the first five minutes of the movie.
SYNECDOCHE, NY is so dense that it requires a lot from the viewer but that attention is rewarded with the kind of real insight into the human condition that only the best books can provide and few movies even attempt. Everyone’s perception of the world is forced through the funnel of their understanding, and, like Jorge Luis Borges realization that any truly accurate map would require that the map be the same size as the area it represents, we realize that our understanding of events around us is basically reductionist to the point of uselessness. In perhaps one of the most poignant and troubling scenes in the movie, Caden Cotard finds the daughter than was taken from him at five years old. She was taken to Germany when her mother left Caden with a female friend who would later becomes the daughter’s lover. Caden sees his daughter again when she is ten years old, featured in an art magazine, naked and tattooed from head to foot. But in spite of searching for years he only is rejoined with her as she lies in her death bed, dying from an infection caused by the tattoos that had outraged him years before. When he finally meets her she asks him to beg for forgiveness for him abandoning her and being homosexual. He tries to explain that he isn’t homosexual and that he didn’t abandon her, she was taken from him. Her reply is that the lover that she shared with her mother said that he would say that. Trapped in a situation where he has no choice but to put his daughter’s needs ahead of his own, he asks for forgiveness for leaving her (which he didn’t) and for being homosexual (which he isn’t). Then, she refuses to forgive him with her dying breath. It’s a powerful scene and disturbing in a number of ways.
Which is the bottom line on the whole movie- powerful and disturbing. I can’t actually say it’s a great movie because it is so relentlessly unhappy. There are funny turns of phrase and funny situations but they are small and things never stop being uncomfortable. I realize this is what Kaufman was going for, but it’s hard on the audience. I don’t know what the feel good movie of 2008 was, but I’m pretty sure this was it’s antithesis. Yet, it is so unique and affecting that is simply must be seen by any fan of film.