After finally getting around to watching “Synecdoche, New York” recently, it dawned on me what a fool Lindy West, writer for The Stranger, had made of herself when reviewing it. I accept that art is objective and that West, being a writer and critic, perhaps has more experience and knowledge than me, but the fact that her review resembled a 14-year-old girl’s blog leads me to believe otherwise.
Charlie Kauffman, the writer and director of “Synecdoche, New York”, also wrote the screenplays for “Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” All fantastic films, but in his directorial debut Kauffman executes an extremely ambitious piece of cinema.
Caden Cotard, played by Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, is a paranoid, neurotic theater director who attempts to turn his life into a theatrical production.
As the set is built and actors are hired, it becomes evident that this production will inevitably be a failure. Cotard’s script, a chronology of his own life, can only end when he does. As events occur from day to day they are added to his seemingly endless script. Worse yet, as the years fall away, thousands of actors are employed to authenticate a set that is identical to New York City. Ultimately the production takes on a life of its own, a simulacrum of New York City and its inhabitants.
Real life becomes art, art becomes real life and Cotard is no closer to understanding himself; Cotard’s production is still a perception of his own life. The irony is that Kauffman, a man portraying a man portraying a man, succeeds in presenting Cotard’s life.
Paranoid and seemingly forever on the precipice of death, Cotard does what any artist would do: attempt to turn his life into art. We all see our lives in one way or another as a grand storyline, some epic narrative. And, failing to live a life that imitates art or even imitates the grand narrative he had planned for himself, Cotard has one final attempt at creating something timeless that transcends life and death.
This is a theme that resonates within us all. We all strive for perfection and no matter how modest we may be, we all long to become the character we perceive ourselves to be. Whether a football player, writer or model, something inside all of us is still certain we are destined for greatness.
While it is depressing that our lives will more than likely fail to live up to our expectations, Kauffman recognizes this and, no doubt with a wry smile, accepts that he too has had the same anti-climactic epiphany. In “Adaptation” Kauffman suffers from anxiety issues, masturbates while fantasizing about waitresses and is often depressed by the futility of life– and he’s a successful screenplay writer and director!
And back to West. One thing West had to say about Kauffman was that “Dude has PAH-ROB-A-LEMS.” Yes, no doubt Charlie Kauffman, like many of us, has problems, but wasn’t that the point of “Synechdoche New York?” Don’t dismiss a film because it is brutally honest. Just because you write like a pubescent girl, doesn’t mean you have to watch films with the same spoilt glare.
This film is tremendously funny and, while it is easy to get bogged down by Cotard’s anxiety and depression, certain scenes lift you out of a hypnotic daze. At one point Cotard remarks that he finally knows how to make his production a success: “have six billion people throughout the world all play their own characters, telling their own stories.”
“Synechdoche, New York” descends into a hall of mirrors where it is easier to see our true selves. Or, to put it in Lindy West’s words, “GAAHHHHHH.” I’m assuming the reflection she saw mustn’t have been very nice.