In the village of Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds there is a model village, which, in keeping with its high standards of authenticity, includes a model of itself… which in turn has its own model, eloquently creating an impression of a regression of models down to the molecular level and perhaps beyond. This is exactly the principle on which screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut operates, having celebrated theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) examine his own life by means of an epic ongoing theatrical piece, which, as it progresses must inevitably include an examination of the examination, leading to a further examination of the act of examining the first examination… you get the idea. At first this might sound like an overblown and pretentious rationale for a film, but Kaufman handles it with such aplomb and subtlety that the real subject—a life and its major and minor tragedies, and its accumulating aches and pains, shines through with a luminosity that is rendered all the greater by the use of this surrealistic device.
Everything is slightly off-kilter in the world of Synecdoche, New York, and well before the mammoth theatre production gets underway, there are numerous reality-bending quirks, such as strangely coloured excretory matter, a house that’s perpetually on fire and cartoons and adverts on the TV that feature Caden as a character. Currently staging a production of Death of a Salesman, Caden finds the cracks in his marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener) are begining to widen, and he gets involved in various flirtations with box office assistant Hazel (Samantha Morton), his leading actress Claire (Michelle Williams) and therapist Madeleine (Hope Davis). Eventually Adele, herself a celebrated painter, decamps to Berlin with daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and dubious companion Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), leaving Caden to look inwards in search of answers.
Meanwhile Caden is having a series of medical problems, involving neurological complications from a blow on the head, pustules, gum disease and seizures, all of which may be contributing to the increasing weirdness of his mental state. When he gets awarded a MacArthur genius grant, enabling him to do what he wants in the sphere of theatrical art, Caden thinks big, taking over a huge New York warehouse and populating it with a crowd of actors, with the intention of really getting to grips with what life is all about… and death. The unresolved problems of Caden’s marriage, together with his current chequered love life, continue to plague him, and at this point an important figure emerges from the shadows—Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), a doppelgänger who comes to play the part of Caden in the production.
Now that Caden’s own life is in the frame, sets are built to resemble his living quarters and other doppelgängers have to be enlisted, chief amongst them being Tammy (Emily Watson), who plays the part of Hazel, now Caden’s full time assistant. As the production is perpetually in development and to a degree improvisatory, the doppelgängers start to assert autonomy beyond their character briefs, changing the course of both drama and real life to startling effect. It certainly gives a whole new meaning to ideas of life imitating art and vice versa. The crisscross situation between Caden, Hazel, Sammy and Tammy is beautiful in the way it both deconstructs the past and invents a new future.
But all this is only the beginning and presently things get really complicated. A great deal of time is passing and Caden is turning into an old man; his hairline is receding, he needs to walk with a stick and the spectre of death is becoming all-pervasive. Moreover, the problems of the past continue to exert a powerful haunting influence. Another important figure emerges—actress Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest) who plays cleaning lady Ellen and eventually takes the whole production further and further into the rabbit hole. Everything grows on an impossible scale, so that the whole of New York to the nth power comes into being within the warehouse, and Caden’s reification of his dream world is at last complete.
Synecdoche, New York is a weird film par excellence. Comparisons to the work of David Lynch are unavoidable, and in its quantum mechanical ruminations on observation it echoes INLAND EMPIRE, in that the act of holding up a mirror to reality (theatre or film) cause the two to first blur, then overlap, then become interchangeable and finally to fuse and propagate a succession of increasingly uncanny hybrids. But then in terms of weirdness Charlie Kaufman is definitely his own man, as he’s proved with his screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all of which make unique play with the different levels of reality, fantasy and fiction. Often when a proven screenwriter attains sufficient critical mass to get to direct, the results are disappointing (Dennis Potter, for example) and the commanding sense of the auteur is somehow absent. This is certainly not the case with Kaufman, whose directing technique is a perfect vehicle for his writing, and the overall production values of the movie, from cinematography through production design to the performances of the cast, are superbly controlled.
Like Woody Allen, who has created his own New York through a succession of movies so that it seems like a unique place, Charlie Kaufman has done something similar… if far more surreally. As impressions of what’s inside and outside the warehouse merge, the skyline becomes schematic and airships float by, one gets that same authentic sense of a waking dream that Lynch has so successfully realised in his later works. The whole is cemented together by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s excellent central performance, all the time exhibiting a Beckettian existential malaise, out of whack with his own selfhood, a prisoner of neurosis, but a doggedly dedicated artist. Similarly the ensemble of female performances are a true delight, with each character throwing its own angled spotlight onto Caden’s condition, as does Tom Noonan’s Sammy, the only other significant male role.
But Synecdoche, New York won't be everyone’s cup to tea. As a film it requires considerable work from its audience in order to decipher exactly what is going on. In fact it’s near-impossible to do so in a single viewing, since hindsight is necessary to fully grasp the nuances of the early and middle action. So it’s a movie to see twice or more—one ideally suited to DVD in fact. Also it’s just the kind of so-called ‘arty-farty’ movie that many people love to hate, and a quick look at the IMDB message boards supports this, with words such as ‘crap’, ‘codswallop’ and ‘nonsense’ abounding. Oh what joy! Personally speaking, I loved it, and I have no hesitation in declaring it to be one of the most important films of the moment, a bone fide masterpiece of reality-bending cinema.
The two disc Special Edition has the movie on disc 1 and the extras on disc 2. Presented in 2.35 : 1 ratio, the transfer looks absolutely fine, rendering the subtleties of Fred Elmes’ cinematography, with its frequent low-key lighting, very well. The warehouse scenes have a particularly good modern-day Metropolis feel and the compositing work comes over as seamless. There are a few fixed subtitles over one conversation, which is partially in German. The audio, with a choice of stereo or 5:1, is similarly problem-free.
Infectious Diseases in Cattle: Bloggers’ Roundtable (36:37)
What better extra to accompany an intellectual, esoteric and perhaps difficult to grasp movie than a group of internet film critics and bloggers (salt of the earth, such people) sitting around discussing it. Their input runs the gamut from deep critical analysis to personal reactions and inner thoughts on why they think it’s so special. One had to go on a drinking binge immediately after the viewing; another was depressed for two weeks. All were highly impressed by its artistry and interestingly, as Americans, they ruminated on why there was a certain local resistance to this home-grown art movie, whereas if it had been European and in a foreign language it might have been better received. Overall an informative and absorbing discussion and a good yardstick by which to measure one’s own reactions to the film.
The Story of Caden Cottard (12:00)
An interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman where he describes the complexities of the role and playing the character, with observations about life and art intertwining and the heartbreak and sadness that lies beneath Caden’s massive ambition. He goes onto to praise Charlie Kaufman’s imaginative vision and also his skills as a director, saying he’s very much a natural and a true auteur. Then Hoffman talks about Caden and his women, and the seven key female characters that he plays against, and how those actors made up an all-star team. He gives some good insights into working collaborations and comes over himself as a generous actor, doubtless an important reason behind his success.
Script Factory Interview with Charlie Kaufman at the 2008 London Film Festival (27:39)
An in-depth interview with the writer-director, who is known for his reluctance to be interviewed, so indeed is something of a rarity. Part of the problem, it emerges, is that he has been stitched-up by journalists in the past, who have presented him in distorted fashion for the sake of a story. He comes over as very self-effacing, telling about his slow start in the business—he was thirty when he first broke into sitcom writing—which led eventually to his first big success: the screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Here his trademark flipping of the real and the fictional is very much in evidence, and he tells an amusing story about how Spike Jonze once directed John Malkovich to the effect that Malkovich wouldn’t say a line that way, and so Malkovich changed his reading—priceless! The interview is full of other good little anecdotes, including what it was like to work with Jim Carrey and George Clooney, and so is a must-have for the dedicated Charlie Kaufman fan.
Charlie Kaufman Animations (4:40)
These are the actual cartoons that appear on Caden’s TV in the film, showing him descending by parachute and being eaten by a big fish, and having a weird conversation with a jackal. There are a similarly strange-talking cow and sheep and a cute little virus, whose life cycle is explained in kidspeak. As one of many layers in the drama they have a surreal effectiveness, with their childlike quality mixed with dark undertones.
In and Around Synecdoche, New York (18:53)
A making-of featurette, including interviews with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Charlie Kaufman, Producer Anthony Bregman and several key crew members. It puts over well the practical challenges in realising the ever-expanding vision of New Yorks in warehouses within warehouses and the adroit production design and visual effects work needed to make it convincing. On the script front there were issues such as not knowing which version of which street outside which warehouse a direction referred to, and a chart had to be drawn, showing them all nesting inside one another. Then there is the makeup, a real Benjamin Button-style enterprise as Caden, and to some extent Hazel, have to age up to fifty years in the course of the drama. For Caden this required seven different looks, with increasingly baggy cheeks, eyelids, chins and necks being added by means of latex components that came together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Overall, for such a recent movie, this is a very well thought-out and comprehensive set of extras, with each item feeling nicely rounded.