When the movie was over I did not move. No one in the screening room moved. Only when Darren offered me a piece of gum did I bring myself to stand. I remained silent until we got outside. The film writer, Josh, asked me what I thought. I responded honestly: I told him I cried. Darren said I always cry. I said I know, I cried at the end of Manhattan.
“The end is built into the beginning.”
Synecdoche, New York marks screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) directorial debut. Now in my mind, the talent that distinguishes a talented writer from a brilliant one is not the act of creation, but the editorial process of killing pieces of the art. What Kaufman lacks in editorial restraint he more than makes up for with a morbid, haunting depth that transcends the categorically idiosyncratic films which he partnered with Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze on previously. Without the strong arm of an experienced director to make cuts, Kaufman meanders around his themes, perhaps carrying the film out an extra 20 minutes (the movie clocks in at just over two hours) and probably losing half the crowd in an ending more unwieldy than an M. C. Escher print.
Yet, for all of its flaws, Synecdoche, New York deeply moved me.
The plot is as inexplicable as the way it made me feel, but I concede. Once again, Kaufman’s pathetic doppleganger antihero is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director in an unhappy marriage in Schenectady, New York. Time is eroding quickly– he wakes to a radio interview about the month of September marking the beginning of the end, and then remarks the milk dated October has expired. Even worse, Caden himself is eroding. His pupils won’t dilate. His stool is bloody. His cheeks develop pustules. His salivary glands dry up. Caden, rightfully so, assumes death is neigh. When his wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) takes their small daughter with her to Berlin to become a famous painter of micro-cavases and never returns, his desperation and isolation is palpable. Time begins to deteriorate, as Caden almost falls for Hazel (Samantha Morton), then Claire (Michelle Williams), then wins a MacArthur genius grant. Determined to finally create something meaningful, he stages an untitled play for no audience with myriad actors based on the only real truth Caden knows: himself.
If this all seems meta, well, it is. The old adage that writers can only truly write about what they know smacks of egoism, but Kaufman acknowledges his own crippling solipsism by eventually universalizing his favorite conceit. Caden’s warehouse is home to a massive replica of his existence in New York, with hundreds of actors replicating his entire life. Naturally, he hires an actor to play himself, another to play his lover, and another to play the actor to play the actor. Unable to get out of his (Kaufman’s? Caden’s?) own head, he finally widens his lens: “I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”
As Caden ages, his obsession with death, time, and meaning catch up to him, and welcome clichés ensue: Like the one where you acknowledge that your life is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second. Or the one about wasting your time waiting for a letter, or an apology, or a meeting, to change everything, but even if it comes, it never will. How about the one where you admit that most of your life is spent being unborn or being dead. And the one where you grow old, and everyone you know dies, and so will you. Nothing will remain. Everything will change, but remain unmoved.
There is you. There is your life. There is a set. There is someone playing you, playing that actor, who you are in love with.
At this point in the film, I was unabashedly crying. The older woman next to me was sobbing. And this is where Synecdoche, New York really succeeds. It is not sweet and quirky like Eternal Sunshine, or as science-fictionally satisfying as Being John Malkovich. It is a film that expounds upon the debilitatingly aching sadness of mortality, about the complexity of love, the mania of art, and the isolation of time.
“I don’t know why I make it so complicated.”
“That’s what you do.”