Saturday, September 12, 2009


I saw Charlie Kaufman’s film “Synecdoche, New York” last night – a complex, image-rich movie about a playwright in a severe mid-life crisis, trying to find truth in his work and relationships. The term “synecdoche” is interesting: it is a type of metaphor in which either part of something is used to refer to the whole thing, or a general class of thing is used to refer to a part or a sub-class of the whole. One example of synecdoche is the usage of a single characteristic to distinguish a fictional character—e.g. calling a character “Bright Eyes” or “Brown Shoes” – usually done when the observer doesn’t know or care what the name of the other character is. Other examples might be “suit” for a businessman, or worse “empty suit” for an incompetent businessman, or “gray hair” for an older person. I remember once at work recently talking to a large financial customer about their mainframe applications and requirements and asking who in their company could tell me more about their current needs. “You mean the gray hairs?” responded the brash young New Yorker. Ah well.
Another example is Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
Anyhow, as I apply this to the film, the main character Caden Cotard (played by the gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a playwright who has had some level of success in regional theater in Schenectady, NY (get it? Schenectady/Synecdoche). He is suffering from a mid-life crisis in which everything seems to be falling apart including his own body and his relationships with his wife and daughter. By the way, Cotard’s Syndrome is a mental illness in which a person has the delusion that he is already dead. Although his wife takes their daughter and leaves him, Caden ends up winning a monetary award that lets him work on his masterpiece play. As the film progresses there are more and more dream-like sequences—he hires actors for his new play, but then seems to be hiring actors to play the roles of important people in his real life. Eventually he finds an actor to play his own role, and with greater insight than he himself seems to have.

The love of Caden’s life is Hazel, who lives in a house that is always smoke-filled and burning. Even when we see her purchase the house she thinks aloud with the realtor about whether she will end up dying in the fire—strolling contemplatively from room to room as flames flicker through a window or in a corner.

Caden’s four-year-old daughter Olive, who he loves dearly, remains four in his mind long after his wife and her lesbian lover have spirited her off to Germany and she has grown up to be a tattooed erotic dancer whose flower tattoos are dying as she does and who has, inexplicably, a German accent. In the end, each character including Caden himself is defined by a particular characteristic (here’s one of many cases where synecdoches seem to come in) but at the same time we see how limiting and artificial those definitions are, and that in reality each character has layers and depths that we can only begin to understand. A few words in shorthand from the director to tell the actors who they are or how to be seem more and more inadequate.

I think Caden in his mid-life crisis feels trapped by these limitations he has applied to himself and others around him. In the end of the movie when he’s much older as is Hazel, there is a beautiful, golden scene in which they are briefly able to move beyond these limitations and their love shines through. But of course life is short and there is a price to pay for choosing to live in a smoke-filled house afire, or loving someone who does. They only grasp what is truly important and real at the last possible moment.

Eventually, Caden takes on the role of his ex-wife’s cleaning lady Ellen, and the actress who was playing this role becomes the director, guiding his actions through a small earpiece he’s been provided. The last instruction he gets is simply, “Die.”

Let me make it clear that these observations only touch the surface of what is going on in this very complex film – it is definitely worth seeing and will generate some good conversation.


Jesse said...

Lynn -

This was extremely well-written, and it is clear to me that your literary knowledge out-does mine (which admittedly is extremely easy to do). In short, this has brought some insight to this movie. Ultimately I feel it deserves a second (if not third, fourth, or even 10 extra) viewing.

As you stated, it does simply skim the surface of the extremely complex story, but because it does jump between Cotard's head and reality (is any of it real, really?) it's very hard to follow.

Perhaps we can get Caitin to sit down with us an watch it, and attempt to have an intelligent conversation about it following. I would enjoy that very much.


Lynn said...


Thanks for the compliments! I consider you to be a pretty intelligent film aficionado, so they are particularly valuable to me.

It would be fun to get Caitlin's take on the movie for sure!

I also wonder if the movie is viewed much differently by people of my age as opposed to somebody younger - it would be interesting to contrast our interpretations.