Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Synecdoche, New York

Year 2, Day 25 - 1/25/10 - Movie #390

BEFORE: We're really blurring the line between entertainment/fiction and reality now - this one has a playwright building a life-size town as a giant performance piece. For the record, a synecdoche is a type of metaphor, used to describe a fictional character through one body part - where a small piece of something represents the whole. And it just happens to sound a lot like "Schenectady", a town in upstate NY. This film was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who wrote "Being John Malkovich" and mastered the art of metafiction in the film "Adaptation".

THE PLOT: A theater director struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse.

AFTER: I bet this film did really well at the Sundance Festival (which coincidentally is taking place this week) because it's so obtuse and dream-like. I've been to Sundance three times, where I saw similar films like "Memento", "The Butterfly Effect" and "Donnie Darko". This film doesn't make much narrative sense, but perhaps it's not supposed to. If you're looking for an easily understood film, please look somewhere else.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theater director whose life is in transition - while he's having success directing a revival of "Death of a Salesman", he's growing apart from his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) who wants to take a time-out in Germany with their daughter to work on her art, which is creating very tiny portraits of nude women. Cotard doesn't handle her absence well, and his life starts to skip forward, somewhat like Billy Pilgrim jumping randomly through time in "Slaughterhouse Five", but just in the forward direction.

And his health is getting worse, after hitting his head on the bathroom mirror earlier in the film, he experiences odd seizures, and loses the ability to cry and salivate. For the next few years, different relationships with actresses and assistants seem to take place, women and various daughters seem to come and go, and he doesn't seem to be aware of how quickly time is going by. It's kind of like when you bump into someone on the street who you haven't seen in years, and you have to ask them about every that's happened to them in the gap.

At some point, Cotard is award a MacArthur "genius" grant, and decides that he wants to create a theater project that is honest, gigantic and brutally real (note how he forgets to mention "entertaining") so he decides to build a giant, town-sized theater project in a Brooklyn warehouse (I think...) At this point, his life is such a mess and he's so depressed and lonely, I can almost understand the desire to create an idealized reality, but no, he just wants to re-create life, good and bad, as an enormous working theater project, with hundreds of actors playing themselves, after being taught how to stop acting and just be real (I think...)

But there are so many little things that don't make sense, it made me wonder if the whole thing was a dream, or some kind of afterlife - a shot of Cotard lying dead in front of the bathroom mirror would have been a welcome inclusion... I don't get why his girlfriend's house seemed to constantly be on fire - was this a metaphor? And if he found his daughter's diary that she wrote when she was 4 years old, how did he read about her teenage thoughts in it? And why do the notes from his ex-wife include her coughing in the voiceover - who puts their coughs into a written note?

Eventually, Cotard realizes what's missing in his enormous theater project - himself. So he hires a non-actor named Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself, and another to play his girlfriend, so he can watch and direct from the sidelines as the actor playing him tours the set, giving stage directions to the other actors. (my head hurts...) And eventually even the actor playing Cotard hires another actor to play himself - because that's what Cotard would do. (ouch, make it stop!)

I happen to know Tom Noonan - he's a friend of my boss, and he roomed in our rental house the last time we went to Sundance in 2004. He did a voice cameo in a film I produced, and he's a nice guy and a great actor. It's nice to see him not playing a villain or serial killer - and he does off-beat very well.

The project goes on for years, and never makes it out of the workshop stage, so it never plays in front of an audience (how could it?) and the actors involved find their real lives and fictional lives blurring together. Perhaps that's the point - life doesn't end, so neither does the project, and Cotard keeps changing the name of the play, representing his changing attitude toward life. But each "actor" has to come to terms with the fact that their character will eventually die, as do we all. William Shakespeare said it better, and much simpler: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." So a playwright must feel very frustrated, to look out at all the people in a city, and not be able to tell all of their stories.

There's a point where an extremely minor character has something of a monologue - about how life is so f'ed up, how our lives are a fraction of a cosmic second, since we spend so much time waiting to be born, and then so much time being dead with just a short lifespan in-between, and we waste most of that time waiting for a phone call that never comes, or a look from someone to make it all right, instead of grabbing life by the short-and-curlies and making our dreams happen. Our choices determine our fates, and there are no second chances. So we spend our time in angry regret, looking for something to make us feel connected and loved as we head toward our deaths. If that's the message of the film, then kudos are in order - but why be so oblique about it?

Also starring Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Emily Watson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 lighting cues (aggregate score - there are parts of this movie that stuck with me and warrant an "8" but other parts which confounded me and suggest a "2")

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