Friday, August 14, 2009

The Cinema of Loneliness: Synecdoche, New York

After writing last evening on loneliness and disillusionment in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957), I am posting my original review of Charlie Kaufman's superb Synecdoche, New York (2008), which first appeared in the Austin High School Maroon newspaper last winter. This is the first of a series of articles on The Cinema of Loneliness.

Synecdoche, New York is a film about the decay and deterioration of the human body; an existential examination of how time and space destroys any meaningful relationship we have. Synecdoche, New York is a mournful remembrance of lost loves; a devastating spiral of man’s frustration with his meaninglessness, targeted towards creating an insurmountable artistic masterpiece that somehow conquers death. The film is about a man desperately making stabs at creating lasting bonds.

Synecdoche, New York may be about all of these things, and it may be about none of these things. The film has so many ideas, all of them profound, that a review is almost perfunctory. This is a movie that must be seen firsthand – I think it’s one of the best films of the year, but you might think it’s the worst.

Here’s another synopsis that doesn’t begin to do justice to Charlie Kaufman’s incredible work: self-obsessed, neurotic theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is so concerned with his own Freudian plight that he only fully realizes his own insignificance when he embodies another character in his own play. His play is an ambitious retelling of his entire life, where Cotard directs an actor playing Cotard directing an actor playing Cotard directing an…well, you get the idea.

The set is constructed in a large warehouse, where Cotard builds a life-size replica of New York City, and his theatrical focus widens to include the individual stories of his lovers, his neighbors, and, finally, all of New York.

“There are nearly thirteen million people in the world,” Cotard says. “None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”

Eventually, life and art become mirrors of each other, and merge such that Cotard may only exist in the reality of his production. The play never gets an audience, but maybe that’s because every potential audience member becomes an actor in the play. Seventeen years pass, and Cotard barely notices.

The women in his life appear and disappear, but his perception of them is always informed by his delusional projections. Notice how Hazel (Samantha Morton) is large and chunky when Cotard first meets and courts her, but grows younger and thinner once they have broken up and she is with another man. She only seems beautiful to Cotard when she is unattainable (how appropriate for a film that is concerned with perception versus reality). Lost loves and children become foreign to Cotard, and he continues his search for truth through his art.

Of course, I am describing the film on a very superficial level – I don’t think Charlie Kaufman would like my review very much, because although I’m sort of hinting what Synecdoche, New York may be about, I’m not really describing the experience. Kaufman is one of my favorite screenwriters - his previous efforts include Adaptation (2002), Being John Malkovich (1999), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - and the actors are so gifted.

This is one of those movies, like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), where my strong emotional reaction gets in the way of being objective about the movie. But how can I be, on a film this rich? Synecdoche, New York is the kind of film I wait for all year.

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