I first saw “Synecdoche, New York” two weeks ago with my friend Ben; when it ended, he turned to me with a questioning and demanding look on his face which said, “Well, you’re the film critic—tell me what I just saw.” We then spent the next two hours trying to figure that out.
More than any other Charlie Kaufman film (he wrote “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but this one he actually directed, too), it’s difficult to understand; Ben and I really had to think hard about it and bounce ideas off each other before we finally “got it.” But by then, it was too late to decide whether or not we actually liked the film. So I had to go see it again. And I’ve got to tell you, when I saw it the second time yesterday, it made a lot more sense because I knew what was going on and where it was going. So I enjoyed it a lot more.
While some people might say that if you have to see a movie twice to enjoy it, it’s a bad film, I would disagree. Because when you finally do understand it, it’s moving and a joy to watch and is filled with so many things to make you think.
So what is “Synecdoche, New York” really about? you ask. Well, before I tell you what it’s really about, let me first just tell you what it’s about. It’s about a man named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is a theatre director in Schenectady, New York (a town in upstate NY, near Albany, home to General Electric, and the birthplace of television). Caden is directing a regional version of “Death of a Salesman.” He tells the young actor playing Willy that the real tragedy of the play is not that Willy meets a tragic end but rather that the audience recognizes that the young actor playing Willy will one day grow old and meet a pointless, tragic end himself. (Breaking the fourth wall is a motif in Kaufman films.)
Caden’s wife (Catherine Keener), who is an artist specializing in painting microscopic portraits, criticizes Caden for recycling an old, tired play and urges him, instead, to do something original. A few years later, after his wife has left him, Caden finally gets his chance when he is awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. To explore the meaning of life, Caden mounts a play in a huge warehouse in New York City. He builds a set the size of New York City, and hires hundreds, and then thousands, of actors to portray real people and to discover the drama of real life.
The play starts to take shape through a series of improvisational exercises. But as Caden discovers that the essence of life is larger and larger—there are no extras in life, he says, since everyone is the main character of their own life—the project gets larger and larger and starts to get out of hand. Years go by; the actors are still trying to find the heart of the play and there is no hint that they are ready for an audience.
Things take on a “curiouser and curiouser” quality when Caden decides that he too plays a part in life and hires an actor (Tom Noonan) to play himself. And then he must have all the elements of Caden’s life to interact with, so then actors are hired to play actors. And then, with the addition of the-play-with-the-play, actors play actors playing actors. And there must also be a warehouse within the warehouse to stand for the real warehouse. And as the play gets deeper and more complex, there is a warehouse inside that warehouse inside that warehouse.
Is your head spinning yet? Well, I’m not done, because there are many more surreal elements to add. A woman that Caden has a close relationship with (Samantha Morton) buys a house that is burning. Years go by, the fire continues to burn as she lives in it, but the house is never consumed. Another example: Caden reads the diary of his four-year-old daughter (Sadie Goldstein); although the diary has been abandoned at age four, her entire life is recorded in it. More examples: Caden’s dead father shows up at the funeral of his mother. The warehouse is impossibly huge; it is in New York, yet all of New York can fit inside. When Caden is on an airplane reading a book, suddenly the book’s author (Hope Davis) shows up next to him. He also sees himself in television commercials. I could go on and on.
Now how can all this be? Is it one big, crazy, giant metaphor? Is it all a dream? I think one of the keys to understanding this picture is remembering that within the first few minutes, Caden suffers a major blow to his head. In my view, this shakes up his brain and changes his perception of reality. Things that don’t seem right to us actually are true from his point of view. (In one scene, Caden goes to see an ophthalmologist who tells him that the eyes are the same thing as the brain. Caden responds, “That doesn’t seem right.” The ophthalmologist looks at him for a moment and says, “‘Right’ ethical or ‘right’ accurate?” I think that’s another key to understanding the film.) After all, everyone lives in their own head; no one can see out of anyone else’s eyes. If we have two different views of reality, who’s to say that one’s view is accurate and the other’s is wrong?
But the question remains, is Caden’s view (and the view of the film) real or is it all in his head? If my high-brow readers will forgive me a Harry Potter reference, I think the answer can be best summed up by what Dumbledore said to Harry after their surreal conversation in the train station in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
So that’s one of the big issues in “Synecdoche, New York.” The other big issue, of course, is life. In the play, art imitates life, and life is a series of improvisations, as we all try to figure out who we are. But real life never has an audience and can’t be wrapped up nicely—even after death—in a neat little artistic package. That’s what this movie is really about. I think.
Oh, and by the way, as to the title. “Synecdoche” rhymes with “Schenectady” where about a third of the movie takes place, but really the word “synecdoche” means a word that is a figure of speech where a part of something stands for the whole, or vice versa. (For example, saying “my wheels” to mean “my car,” or “count noses” to mean “count people.”) Caden’s play stands for all life. But it too, is life.
Life is a pretty big topic for a movie like “Synecdoche, New York” to tackle. Fortunately, the warehouse, expanding infinitely, is big enough to encompass it all.