synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part is used for a whole, an individual for a class, a material for a thing, or the reverse of any of these (Ex.: bread for food, the army for a soldier, or copper for a penny) — Webster’s Online Dictionary
Despite all the bad press, Charlie Kaufman has created something incredible: the rare film that is both widely distributed and seriously heady. Even the title is a ten-dollar word; most of the people in front of me in line couldn’t pronounce it. Written and directed by Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York has a nervous, jagged quality that from the very start offers a rhythmic variation on the alienation effect. That is, its quirky sense of timing doesn’t really allow for the viewer to identify with any of the characters. We are, instead, observers watching a man who is not really living so much as observing his own life.
Unlike most movies, Synecdoche, New York has no back-beat. Instead, it jumps from place to place and moment to moment in a slightly surreal run-on sentence that compresses time, places, people, and events. A year can elapse between one shot and the next without the formal devices that ordinarily prepare us for such a large temporal displacement. In fact, there aren’t even really scenes per se, just a string of shots that, despite the elaborate set design and art direction, manage to feel like they’re just barely being held together with duct tape. This is an appropriate idiom to describe Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man who is unraveling before our eyes. Some critics have seen these idiosyncrasies as evidence of shoddy construction; I found them original and disarming. It would be hard to imagine the graceful arc of a John Ford film adequately expressing the inner life of someone estranged from his own sense of reality.
But Synecdoche, New York is not without its problems, the greatest of which is that it introduces a kind of endlessness that then consumes it. The protagonist, inexplicably awarded a MacArthur Grant for directing Death of a Salesman, creates an eternal play that recreates a universe inside a universe, an absolute mimesis that becomes less instead of more realistic. This, of course, accounts for the title; art requires synecdoche in order to communicate at all, otherwise it would merely recreate the world without ever describing it. Cotard falls into this trap and perhaps, in trying to describe it, Kaufman does as well.
Other artists have wrestled with the endlessness problem, most notably Martin Kippenberger, Ken Jacobs, and Franz Kafka. Endlessness, by definition, is a difficult thing to contain. Usually, it can only be alluded to and even then it threatens to break a work open. Jacobs’ epic Star Spangled to Death begins to dissolve its own bonds by the end, but this makes it more, not less, expansive. As Kaufman’s movie swells, however, it only becomes more claustrophobic. In the end, there is literally a revolution happening outside the window, but Cotard never emerges from the cocoon he has built for himself. Neither does the film.
Just as powerful as the film is the whirlwind of negative press it has generated that threatens to obscure it entirely. Rex Reed, writing in The New York Observer has loudly declared Synecdoche, New York the worst movie ever made, but if this is the worst movie Rex Reed has ever been forced to endure then he has led a charmed life indeed. Despite spewing forth such phrases as “I have hated every incomprehensible bucket of pretentious, idiot swill ever written by this cinematic drawbridge troll,” and, just in case you didn’t catch his drift, “His directorial feature debut reminds me of the spiteful, neurotic brat kicked out of school for failing recess who gets even by throwing himself in front of a speeding school bus,” Reed actually, if unintentionally, illuminates some of the finer points of the film.
If you can stomach it, you’ll discover at the end of his review that Reed did not in fact watch the entire movie before penning one of the most withering pieces of criticism yet put to paper, a vile notice that does not stop at disemboweling the work itself but goes straight for the jugular of the man who made it. Would it be too much of an understatement to say that this seems irresponsible?
One week later, The New York Observer, perhaps hoping to atone for having published the worst movie review ever written, hit it out of the park again. Andrew Sarris begins his admittedly more even-handed review by describing the title as “a curious play on words between Schenectady, N.Y., and synecdoche, a word never spoken aloud in formal or conversational speech.” Should I be ashamed to admit that I have found recourse to the word synecdoche in many conversations, several of them about the film itself? And, although I have no real reason not to trust Andrew Sarris, I would venture that he has probably dropped an s-bomb once or twice during the course of his own eloquent speech.
The best review of the film belongs to Christopher Orr and appears in The New Republic. Other writers might note the fact that, before committing his thoughts to paper, Orr actually watched the whole film — twice.