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movie log: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Posted on Friday, May 22, 2009 in movies

Viewed March 21, 2009 and then again April 18, 2009: Synechdoche, New York written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, starring too many people in too many significant roles to list right here – notably among them Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Diane Wiest – but I’d better stop.

This movie stunned me, to the point where (kind of a silly measure, I suppose), I couldn’t even make an entry about it here until I saw it again, and then after that until I could figure out how to use words to describe it. I still haven’t arrived at that point, so I’ll just push on inadequately.

“Synecdoche” is a word that rhymes, more or less, with Schenectady, which is a city in New York where the movie opens. It (the word) is a grammatical term referring to the use of a word or phrase having a broad scope in place of one included in that scope, or vice versa; where, for example, “wheels” might refer to a car, or “Washington” to the government located in that city. And the movie is, in part, about substitution – not necessarily about that kind, but not excluding it either – and about reference and reflection and cause and effect.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard (a referential name in itself), a theater professional who, at the outset, is involved in directing a version of “Death of a Salesman.” He’s cast a young man as the aging Willy Loman, and at one point tells the actor that this casting will add to the pathos since the audience will know that the young actor can imagine himself getting old – a concept that has to be imagined by and reflected in the minds of simultaneous participants (director, actor, audience, playwright) in order to have any meaning. This is kind of a throw-away line but it’s a hint of things to come.

Cotard begins working on a grand piece of theater. He is going to recreate elements of life – or more particularly, of his life, although here again one is a substitute for the other – by staging them inside a huge theater. One assumes that he initially intends there to be an audience, but this performance can not possibly be viewed – it can only be experienced by the participants, and indeed since this becomes part of his life, those experiences modify and affect him, which means they have to be reflected in the performance. The project becomes a model of real life – his and others. More and more, what happens inside the model affects what happens outside. The project becomes self-referential, self-modifying, and recursive, to the point where there’s no hard lines between the model and the reality.

The theater project is a large part of Cotard’s life and of this movie, but not all. As the years pass (something like 60 of them) his life changes; he meets a number of people, mainly women (one wonders how much they are parts of himself or he of them). He goes through various family and personal relationships most of which are, of course, reflected in and affected by his project. Time does not always move clearly or at a sensible rate; characters’ thoughts are affected by their surroundings, but those surroundings are perplexingly affected by their thoughts in turn. Things stand in for each other. (It may or may not be intentional that in one scene where Cotard is talking to his therapist, played by Hope Davis, that he uses the word “hope” more than once – perhaps in a minor way carrying this theme one level out beyond the movie.)

The movies that Charlie Kaufman has written – at least the ones that I’ve seen – always seem to be about interactions between the mind and reality. I admit I haven’t always liked them, but it’s also true that I’ve liked each successive one more. Either he’s getting better at it or it’s getting through to me. Here, where he’s directed his own work, I think he’s gotten it just about perfect. The depth and complexity are, shall I say it again? stunning. Bear in mind that I’ve left out a lot; I’ve only got so much disk space for this entry.

See it. See it and repeat.

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