It is with great hesitation that I proclaim this film a ‘cinematic masterpiece’ so early in my movie-reviewing career (even the word ‘career’ may be a tad premature)… For one, because the weightiness with which I intend to arm this declaration is yet to be earned; and two, because I haven’t yet acquired the craft nor level of restraint necessary to both soberly critique and do justice to this all-time favourite. But alas, this is our job as wet-eared cinephiles, to liberally shoehorn semicolons into our pieces and provide the people with what they’ve shown no lack for; so march on I shall!
But first let’s clarify a few things: there are only a dozen-or-so movies I’d accredit with the ‘cinematic masterpiece’ classification. A film’s residency in my cinematic canon means that it has passed both my critically subjective and objective examination, that is to say has been praised by both the pubescent fan-boy and snooty, chin-stroking critic in me.
So while I’m not alone in the temple of Synecdoche, New York worship, our people are few, our halls echoey and our doors regularly pounded down. So without further ado, let’s dig into the hodgepodge of stodgy wonderment that is Synecdoche, New York…
Caden and Adele’s marriage has fallen into the irretrievable depths of tedium. Caden (the late Phillip Seymour-Hoffman) is a neurotic, self-absorbed theatre director, whose Death of a Salesman production will soon earn him a McArthur Grant (often colloquially tagged as a ‘genius grant’, as he often casually points out). Adele (Catherine Keener) is also an artist, one who paints microscopic portraits which progressively grow tinier throughout the film.
However, regardless of Caden’s artistic triumphs, Adele’s heart remains unaroused: “this whole romantic-love-thing is just a projection.” For Caden, it seems love is only truly felt when out of reach, when relegated to memory. This skepticism, to put it lightly, towards the ‘whole romantic-love-thing’ is evident all throughout Kaufman’s oeuvre (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but never has it seemed so bleak and rung as true as it does here.
When Adele opts to take her daughter to her Berlin exhibition (without Caden) we never see her again.
With his grant money, Caden sets out to create an all-encompassing theatre production, which rebuilds a set of New York in a warehouse. The actors play out characters, both present and peripheral, in Caden’s life. Yet over time, while his project expands in scope, it becomes less focused, just as a balloon swells with emptiness; so much so that after forty years of constant rehearsal, his production is never realised and his entire cast is dead.
Much like his own production, the story feels like a Marquez or Allende novel: whimsical, ambitious, heart-achey, hilarious and all poignantly shapeless. And that’s the point. Watching this film is like assembling a jigsaw without an image. So hot tip for the audience… you’re not trying to keep afloat in this gravy-bowl of a narrative, you’re meant to submit to it, drown in it. Here Charlie Kaufman is saying, consciously or not: ‘this is what dying feels like’.
Time passes hastily for some, while not at all for others. Family members vanish quietly and remotely, like Caden’s father: “there was so little left of him, they had to fill the coffin with cotton balls to keep him from rattling around.”
Towards the end of the film, after the character playing Caden kills himself (something Caden failed to do), the woman who auditions to replace him summarises Caden as: “a man already dead. He lives in a half-world between stasis and anti-stasis, time is concentrated, chronology confused, yet up until recently, he’s strived valiantly to make sense of his situation, but now he’s turned to stone”.
In Synecdoche, New York, Jon Brion, if not trumps, matches the feat of his Punch Drunk Love score. More than any other composer, I find his scores (including this one) to be endlessly revisitable as stand-alone albums. Here his music isn’t showy, it just fits. It carries the last 20 minutes of the film, which feels like you’re being swept up and raised heavenward in a cyclone of melancholy confusion.