Synecdoche , New York: A Horror Chamber Piece

Synecdoche, New York (2008)When I saw this film in an upstate New York movie theatre – near Schenectady, in fact - there was a small audience, seven or eight people total. But two women sitting across the aisle from me insisted on talking through it, particularly during sex scenes (of which there are several). My quiet “sshing” had no effect, so I finally loudly asked them to please stop talking. “No” was the childish response. It’s moments like this when I understand how sweet-tempered people like myself can become suddenly aroused by rage and want to…oh, slash someone’s ears off with a straight razor. This wasn’t the multiplex, but the local arthouse - the last bastion of yahoo-free behavior, or so I have fervently wished. I found myself deeply affected by the film, and wondered if the experience might have been even more intense and memorable if it had not been marred by the rude behavior of two adult strangers who also happened to be there.

It turns out this experience was a perfect microcosmic reflection of the film’s central theme: that choices we make and events that conspire against us are often one and the same. There may or may not be anything we can do to alter their outcome, and how we choose to respond can make all the difference, and we will always look back on certain moments with anger or pain or regret, and in our desperate final hours we will remember these old hurts as potently as we remember our happiest moments.

If you have seen this film already, you may well understand why I am prompted to make such a meta-mountain out of my minor movie-going molehill. And if you haven’t, let me say that this is one of those rare films you will not be able to get out of your head, and may in fact fill you with occasional (or maybe frequent) glimmers of dread at the oddest moments.

Buried in the buzz surrounding the release of this stunning directorial debut by award-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was the news that it was supposed to have been a horror film, written for Spike Jonze to direct. Kaufman says (in an interview with Drew McWeeny from Ain’t It Cool News): “We talked about ideas and we wanted to do something that sort of wasn’t attached to the genre notion of horror, and so were talking about things that are scary in the real world, and in our lives, and anxieties and the sort of notion of being in a kind of a dream.”

Kaufman later took over as both writer and director because Jonze was committed to another project. A non-traditional horror film was the plan. But it turned into something else.

That something else is also a horror film. But not a visceral horror film full of gore and screeching violins, nor a subtle psychological terror film of the “less is more” variety. It doesn’t so much tell a horror story as create a horrified state of mind. Despite being full of unusual, implausible and highly symbolic events, this film prods us to acknowledge our mortality and smallness in a scary universe. In Kaufman’s words: “The movie follows this character for 40 years, and it’s about people’s losses and death and fear of death and intimacy and relationships. Romance and regret and struggle and ego and jealousy and confusion and loneliness and sex and loss.”

Kaufman’s Everyman is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, perfect as a man whose body betrays him with daily incremental cruelty), a theatre director living in upstate New York (the Schenectady invoked in the title) whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. Wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is a selfish, melancholy artist who paints miniatures. Their five-year old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) is alarmed by the bright green color of her feces one morning. After reassuring her, Caden almost immediately begins experiencing alarming physical symptoms (boils and pimples) that kick in after he bumps his head on the medicine cabinet and bleeds all over the place. His ailments turn out to be flawed autonomic response; he cannot produce tears or saliva naturally. Like Jeff Goldblum in THE FLY, he seems to accept that these grotesque changes are his own doing, but still wants to be pitied. His doctor is eerily uncaring, in that way we all have no doubt experienced. The deterioration of the body, it is implied from the Cotard family’s obsessions, sets in practically from infancy. This is MISHIMA for lifestyle neurotics. But the courageous decision to opt out at forty is replaced with the inability to accept that death is coming to all of us.

Adele takes Olive to Berlin for an art exhibit, after asking Caden to stay home from their planned month abroad. Her paintings are a hit in Europe. Meanwhile, Caden is pursued by cute box office worker Hazel (Samantha Morton), and wins a genius grant to mount a theatrical production of his choosing. He rents a cavernous space in Manhattan, casts dozens of actors, and slowly embarks upon an unknown journey into thoughtful, meandering artistic expression. He essentially recreates his own life amid the multiple scaffold-supported sets, and coaches actors to discover their own personal reality in the endless rehearsals. Schenectady, it seems, is too small to contain Caden’s actual existence and so a Greater, More Ambitious New York must be called into service.

Years seem to pass. We begin to understand Caden’s family has been away for quite some time. He becomes impotent, physically and emotionally. Hazel moves on and into a house that is perpetually aflame: an actual and metaphorical set-piece that is the first clue we are slouching towards surreality. Caden remarries: an actress (Michelle Williams) from an earlier production of Death of a Salesman in which Willy and Linda were played by young performers. Caden explains that this was to get the audience to think about how the actors themselves would one day face the same problems and pain their characters did. This casting choice made him a genius worthy of being awarded a small fortune, in the eyes of those holding the grant purse-strings.

As Caden’s theatrical project seems to flounder within its own grandiose inscrutability, he tries various gimmicks to inject it with life. Casting replacements are made: Emily Watson plays a younger version of Hazel. Tom Noonan joins the cast to play Caden himself. Dianne Wiest plays Adele’s cleaning woman (yes, in Berlin). We’re not quite sure where we are at times, and that’s all right, because Caden is also lost amid his own temporal and spatial landmarks. And then there are the freakish dreamscape images that stalk intermittently past the realistic scenes, which Caden takes in his stride, if he is even aware of them. He seeks out his long-lost daughter (flashes of olive green like the windbreaker of her kindergarten days remind us she is always on Caden’s mind), and their ultimate reunion is heartbreaking in its cold and misguided delusion. He is also, in the end, seemingly reunited with a woman who may be his mother.

Kaufman seems adamant that viewers not be hit over the head with blatant symbolism or metaphorical messaging. A burning house may just be a burning house. The sense of helplessness and smothering inevitability Caden displays conjures up our worst fears as they’ve been expressed in more traditional horror works, or in our worst nightmares: being buried alive, for example, or being pursued and finding our legs paralyzed and unable to run. Because there is a great deal of humor in the film as well, there may be a tendency for different types of filmgoers to have different experiences. (I saw DOWN BY LAW in the same theatre on two different occasions; the first time the audience was quiet and thoughtful; the second time they laughed constantly.)

But even amid the complexity of his vision, there are moments of searing simplicity and emotional speechlessness that even the most hardened loner among us cannot fail to take to heart. This is the stuff of chest-tightening fear: disease, decay, disappointment, doubt, depression, delusion, dread, death. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is a filmic memento mori that dares us to imagine our own mortality, not as a noble and unique expression of identity, but as one fragment of colored glass in humanity’s kaleidoscope. Kaufman shows us Caden’s choices and regrets within a context of artistic creativity and invites us to consider our own trajectories and tragedies.

What if our life’s story was writ large on the silver screen for unsympathetic strangers to see? What if we saw who we really are in images twenty feet high, with Dolby sound? Would we be charmed? Bewildered? Horrified? Cinema of this caliber materializes our dreams, spooling unbidden in the dark as we watch, paralyzed in our chairs. We can leave, or forget, but we cannot escape. For many of us, nothing is more terrifying than that moment at which we will one day cease to be. This fear drives us forward until we come to peace with it, or scream at it with our last breath. It catalyzes artistic creation and feeds destructive behavior. A work of cinema might be a more compelling legacy than most, because it feels alive and vital in ways books or paintings cannot. It is a fragile time capsule of dreams. So are we, in a way.

Kaufman is a psychopomp possessed of astonishing gifts. He offers up this dizzying cache of dreams, and possible outcomes, to guide us. What we do with them from here on out is up to us, in the time we have left.

Synecdoche, New York

Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) confronts the subtle horror of an empty life.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008). Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Sadie Goldstein, Tom Noonan, Peter Friedman, Charles Techman, Josh Pais, Daniel London, Robert Seay, Michaelle Williams, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis.

About the Author

Peg Aloi

Peg Aloi is a freelance critic, mostly for the Boston Phoenix, and she teaches film studies. She's a reluctant academic, a passionate cinephile, and probably slightly more bad-ass than you. She is currently co-writing two books: The Glass Cauldron: The History of Witchcraft on Television, and The Celluloid Bough: Cinema in the Wake of the Occult Revival. Her film blog is The Celluloid Bough.

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