Synecdoche, New York is one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen. It has a span of decades and attempts to depict, on a huge scale, themes of mortality, loss, the meaning of life and the relationship of art to life. It’s the directorial debut of my favourite screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and stars my favourite actor, Philip Seymor Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Capote; Charlie Wilson’s War).
The film begins mutedly. A sad, poetic meditation comes over the clock radio announcing the first day of fall and reflecting on the decline of all things. The main character, theatre director Caden, is entering the ‘fall’ of his life. Over breakfast each morning he reads a new obituary of someone famous dying.
The mode is mainly realist in these early scenes, as Kaufman skilfully documents the breakdown of Caden’s marriage and the way the small success of his production of Death of a Salesman is unfulfilling. There are beautifully handled, bleakly funny scenes of domestic drama and conflict – driving in the car, their daughter becomes distressed when Caden tells her she has blood running through her body. His wife Adele assures her she doesn’t have blood; Caden tells her it’s not good to tell her daughter she doesn’t have blood.
As Caden’s health deteriorates and he visits doctors in dark Kafkaesque corridors (another text mentioned early is Kafka’s The Trial) his wife leaves for Berlin with their daughter. His search for his daughter becomes a recurring subplot for the rest of the film, a surreal nightmare as he reads of her being tattooed, sees a poster of her as a stripper and final only meets her again as a dying middle-aged women who blames him for what happens.
If I’m getting ahead of the film it’s because from here the narrative fragments further and further; time and reality become unstable. Rather than a cause and effect narrative, we have echoes, recurrences and variations of themes, played out on a loose narrative.
The loose narrative is this: just as Caden’s life has unraveled, he receives a genius fellowship, a massive grant to do something important for his community. He buys a massive warehouse to stage his biggest production ever. Working with a burgeoning cast of actors, he begins rehearsals that are to go on for the rest of his life. He is attempting to recreate the experience of life itself on the stage, with hundreds of scenes in different buildings running simultaneously. The play just keeps on expanding, a new warehouse built over the top of the city to engulf the previous warehouse and blocks of the city, and then another.
Meanwhile, he becomes entangled in a love triangle that has a key part in the film, a triangle that evokes the spirit of Woody Allen, albeit played out in a surreal universe. Over the decades he switches between the two women, but the relationships are further tangled as actors are recruited to play their parts in the play.
Caden’s own part begins to be taken over, first by the man, Sammy, we’ve glimpsed throughout the film, a man who has dedicated years of his life to following Caden, observing everything he does and is now capable of assuming his role in the great play. The idea of Sammy, of an observer who cares about everything someone does, is one which has fascinated me in the past: if only there was someone watching and remembering, then what we do wouldn’t be forgotten and wouldn’t be wasted.
Life and art inevitably blur; what is being staged and what is being lived? I let go of any attempts to completely comprehend what I was watching and just let the scenes delight me in their variations on the themes Kaufman set up.
Just as the whole thing seems impossible to end, more time passes; Caden moves out of the director’s chair and a final apocalyptic scene ends things perfectly. The last years of his life, Caden has what perhaps we might sometimes long for: a director speaking to him through an earpiece, telling him exactly what do next, right down to the final command, ‘Die now.’