Charlie Kaufman has become one of the most popular screenwriters in a way that was not previously thought possible. People are fans of various directors. Some of these directors are known for writing their own material. Yet they were always discussed in the realm of film. Kaufman is discussed in the same breath as Alexander Pope and Jorge Luis Borges. Why? Perhaps because he uses fantasy to speak human truths to degrees that equal those writers. He constantly challenges us to ask what it means to be human.
Synecdoche, New York (the work means a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part) continues in this tradition. It is a fantasy. I am not sure if the film is a dream or not. I am not sure if the play that the film centers on is ever really perform. Likely it is not. But what does it matter?
The film follows Caden Cotard (named after the neurological condition in which a person believes they are dead or do not exist) a theater director who’s life is slowly falling apart. His wife, Adele, leaves him and takes his daughter to Berlin. He wins a MacArthur genius grant and decides to stage a brutally honest play. He replicates the city of New York inside a warehouse (and later constructs a warehouse within a warehouse) and stages a play over forty years. He casts people to play him and the figures in his life, and endlessly relives points in his life. Along the way, he tries to seek out his daughter
Yes, that is what the film is about. You can take the plot of any Charlie Kaufman movie and laugh at its complete absurdity. This is no different. Why actors would put up with Caden in this bizarre quest is never explained. Why one of his lovers, Hazel, chooses to live in a house that is constantly on fire is also never explained. The entire film is filled with these sort of questions that are never answered.
So what? The point of the film is not to be a documentary on a life. It is meant to be about a man reflecting on his life and trying to pay for his mistakes. He replays them over and over in his mind (or on his stage) to see what he missed the first time. Sometimes he scolds the actors for not doing what he would have done. When one dies, his immediately tries to get a replacement. In the end, he is so wrapped up into his own illusion that he follows the directions over a headpiece of the actor hired to play him.
This film acts as sort of the exact opposite of Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That film, as many recall, was about erasing painful memories and still uncovering the emotions they caused. This film is about the memories themselves. Should we be forced to relive what is painful, even as we enter the twilight of our lives? Absolutely. That is how we learn who we are and if we are doing the right thing.
The supporting characters are not sure if they ever learn this lesson. Cotard’s daughter, Olive, enters a terrible world where she is exploited by the people she trusts. His former wife’s art shrinks and withers to the point that no one can see it, as though she is afraid to show what is happening inside of her. Other characters are never quite sure if they are ready to let go of him even after his neurosis becomes overwhelming. But it all comes together exactly as it should. The creators, and especially the characters, would have it no other way.
When the movie was over, something had happened to me. I wasn’t afraid. Oh, I still possess the same phobias and neurosis. But I was no longer afraid of making mistakes. I may do something in my life that people discuss. I may do something people try to emulate. But they will never be able to truly emulate it. My life is my life. My actions will be unique. My life, ultimately, matters. It took viewing this film to reaffirm this basic truth. And that is the power of good cinema. When done correctly, it can influence and help in ways no one had ever dreamed. This film is done correctly. It is what has been missing forever.