Review: Synechdoche, New York

Pretty much the only consistent movie taste that has stayed with me through my bouts of adolescent self-discovery through adulthood has been a great love of the work of the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. His work is absolutely immense and awe-inspiring, and his latest film (which also happens to be a very succesful directorial debut), Synechdoche, New York is most definitely the best movie of the year and probably the best (though perhaps most frustrating) of all of his work.

The plot is almost not as important as the film's visceral experience, but basically this is what happens: an egomaniacal hypochondriac theater director (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) finds himself alone after his wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him with their child. He loses all sense of time, and the years pass by as he waits for her. Eventually he wins a grant of unlimited funds to stage the most meaningful play that he possibly can, and he uses it as an opportunity to interrogate himself, his own life, and the human drama and interactions he encounters on a daily basis.

The film is vaguely about disability and self-understanding in all of these weird ways. Hypochondria turns into depression and maybe even schizophrenia. He is obsessed with finding his family and with writing the play, but at the end of the day, he is in this constant self-referential loop without escape. Everything is about him him him, even when he interrogates his own practices for the good of others. He marries again and cannot even remember his daughter's name. We realize that he is pathetic because he is like us. He is the way that we are when faced with trauma and betrayal. We collapse into our own selves, our own worlds.

He writes the play, for which he never finds a title, in order to find and understand himself. It begins with scenes from his life and soon he casts someone to play him in the play. This person happens to be a man who has been following him for 20 years. He casts more people and the play becomes so meta that it is hard to follow. There are actors not only for him and his assistants as they occur as real characters in the play but also as the directors of the play. There are all of these layers. The set is complex and ginormous. It is a full recreation of his whole living spatial experience inside of a warehouse, and that warehouse has another inside of it in which the whole thing is recreated on a smaller scale and again into infinity.

There are hundreds of actors. They act out the 'reality' of lived experiences that have already happened. The director watches them all, but most importantly, himself in an effort to understand who he is from the outside. But all of the actors are real people, a dimension that the film explores in interesting ways. They produce characters by mediating their own selves. Their representation can never be reality, just the merging of themselves with the characters they are supposed to play. In one part, the director's love interest falls in love with one of the characters who is supposed to be him because the actor reminds her of the real person, leaving us to wonder, then why not the Real? Why only the Symbolic? Who is real? Who are we? Are we anything? Are we just playing ourselves in this ginormous play in a re-created representational universe?

The use of space is so interesting, and probably my favorite part. The warehouse theater begins as an enormous empty space and ends with an entire constructed world of fake architecture, imitation elevators, and illusions of place within it. It speaks volumes about the human practice of constructing space by building rather than by granting meaning. At one point, the director orders the builders to finish the fourth wall, enclosing the characters in their spaces in order to give them authenticity. It is all about space and the repetition of time through these scenes that re-enact real life through a dozen filters and distortions aplenty. The play never opens because real human tragedy is the only way to break out of the loop of re-enactment and practice, of replication and repetition.

I would watch this movie 200 times in a row and still not understand it, but that is the genius of Kaufman. He confronts our most taken for granted assumptions about the world and about ourselves, spitting them back in a paranoid schizophrenic frenzy of flashes and lights. I have always really loved his collaborations with Spike Jonze but Synechdoche is raw and dark in ways that movies that Human Nature or Being John Malkovitch and especially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could never be.


Blogger Abi said...

Hey are you really writing a dissertation on Hipster Runoff?

I just wrote an ethnography of a college radio station and spent a good portion theorizing about hipsters.

12:41 AM  
Blogger aimi said...

I think it would be a strong idea, though there is not enough for a whole dissertation just yet. Maybe in a few years. HRO is just begging for some textual analysis.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Abi said...

Very interesting...what sort of textual analysis? What field are you in?

5:31 AM  

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