Revisiting Synecdoche New York, a bewildering masterpiece that should come out of shadows

kaufmanBy Atul Mishra

“What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter.”

Life, death, love, creativity, identity, frustration, forgiveness and regret, are a few epistemologies that are battled everyday in the ennui of human existence. These all are explored at a gigantic scale in Synecdoche, New York, a 2008 American postmodern drama film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was Kaufman’s directorial debut. The Oscar-winning screenwriter Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) nails the very essence of existence of every human being.

The plot follows an ailing theatre director (Hoffman) as he works on an increasingly elaborate stage production whose extreme commitment to realism begins to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. Life is too bleak for theater director Caden Cotard (Hoffman). His wife and daughter have left him, his therapist is more interested in plugging her new book than helping him with his problems, and a strange disease is causing his body to shut down. Caden leaves his home in Schenectady, New York, and heads to New York City, where he gathers a cast of actors and tells them to live their lives within the constructs of a mock-up of the city.

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Caden builds a replica of New York in a colossal warehouse, where his players perform their scenes behind closed doors. This leads on to plays within plays and blurred lines between fiction and reality, and to push it further out there, Kaufman plays with time, speeding up its passage as the decades roll away and Hoffman becomes more decrepit and lost. The narrative leapfrogs ahead in sudden fast-forward leaps. Caden’s kid is four – no, wait, she’s 11, living in Berlin with her mother and dissolute lover – no, hang on, she’s in her 30s, tattooed, messed up, working in some porn-booth. Before you know it, she’s on her deathbed, angrily accusing a decrepit Caden of abuse.

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photo credit:

It is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now. The key to understanding Synecdoche, NY is realizing that protagonist Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is dead.  He has killed himself before the movie even starts. The first hint we get that Caden is dead comes immediately at the film’s open.  Over black, a child (presumably Caden’s daughter Olive) sings a simple rhyme written by Kaufman himself.  The lyrics are innocent enough at first:

There’s a place I long to be

A certain town that’s dear to me

Home to Mohawks and G.E.

It’s called Schenectady

I was born there and I’ll die there

My first home I hope to buy there

Have a kid or at least try there

Sweet Schenectady.

You get the sense that Kaufman feared he might never make another movie, and so crammed in every idea he’d ever wanted to explore. It’s at once epic and intimate, brilliant and scabrous. To quote Roger Ebert here and his appreciation of the film, “Here is how life is supposed to work,” Ebert wrote. “We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die.”

The plot of the movie is not the point.  Obviously, it’s the themes of mortality, love, and inaction that are important here.  And while the film is deeply and wholly depressing, it is not without its message.  Perhaps Caden wasted his life and things didn’t work out for him.  But that doesn’t have to be us. If you to go out, grab life by the balls, and make your own fate, this is a must watch.

If Charlie Kaufman never does anything again, this will stand as his cracked monument that shall eternally remain standing among the reels showing the hard hitting real life. And this film, not known to even many film buffs, should really be given its due. It’s Kaufman’s magnum opus that leaves you mesmerized and is a lifelong experience in itself.