Sunday April 21, 2019

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

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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.

photo credit: screenrobot.com
photo credit: screenrobot.com

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.

photo credit: screenrobot.com
photo credit: screenrobot.com

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.

Next Story

New York City’s Mandatory Measles Vaccination Order Stands Still

The health department's lawyers argued that quarantining was ineffective because people carrying the virus can be contagious before symptoms appear.

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measles
Materials are seen left at demonstration by people opposed to childhood vaccination after officials in Rockland County, a New York City suburb, banned children not vaccinated against measles from public spaces. VOA

Brooklyn judge on Thursday ruled against a group of parents who challenged New York City’s recently imposed mandatory measles vaccination order, rejecting their arguments that the city’s public health authority exceeded its authority.

In a six-page decision rendered hours after a hearing on the matter, Judge Lawrence Knipel denied the parents’ petition seeking to lift the vaccination order, imposed last week to stem the worst measles outbreak to hit the city since 1991.

The judge sided with municipal health officials who defended the order as a rare but necessary step to contain a surge in the highly contagious disease that has infected at least 329 people so far, most of them children from Orthodox Jewish communities in the borough of Brooklyn.

Another 222 cases have been diagnosed elsewhere in New York state, mostly in a predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Rockland County, northwest of Manhattan.

The New York outbreaks are part of a larger resurgence of measles across the country, with at least 555 cases confirmed in 20 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health experts say the virus, which can cause severe complications and even death, has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to get them vaccinated. Most profess philosophical or religious reasons, or cite concerns — debunked by medical science — that the three-way measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine may cause autism.

The judge rejected the parents’ contention that the vaccination order was excessive or coercive, noting it does not call for forcibly administering the vaccine to those who refuse it.

He also dismissed assertions in the petition disputing the “clear and present danger” of the outbreak. “Vaccination is known to extinguish the fire of contagion,” the judge said.

FILE PHOTO: A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg in New York City, April 11, 2019.
A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg in New York City, April 11, 2019. VOA

Secret identities

The vaccination order, which was extended this week, requires residents of certain affected Brooklyn neighborhoods to obtain the MMR vaccine unless they can otherwise demonstrate immunity to measles, or face a fine.

The court challenge was brought in Brooklyn’s Supreme Court by five people identified only as parents living in the affected neighborhoods. Their identities were kept confidential to protect their children’s’ privacy, their lawyers said.

In court on Thursday, they told Knipel the city had overstepped its authority and that quarantining the infected would be a preferable approach.

Robert Krakow, an attorney for the parents, estimated that just 0.0006 percent of the population of Brooklyn and Queens had measles. “That’s not an epidemic,” he said. “It’s not Ebola. It’s not smallpox.”

The health department’s lawyers argued that quarantining was ineffective because people carrying the virus can be contagious before symptoms appear.

vaccination
The vaccination order, which was extended this week, requires residents of certain affected Brooklyn neighborhoods to obtain the MMR vaccine unless they can otherwise demonstrate immunity to measles, or face a fine. Pixabay

The judge cited 39 cases diagnosed in Michigan that have been traced to an individual traveling from the Williamsburg community at the epicenter of Brooklyn’s outbreak.

Also Read: Short-Circuit Likely The Cause of Notre Dame Fire, Claims Police Investigators

The surge in measles there originated with an unvaccinated child who became infected on a visit to Israel, where the highly contagious virus is also running rampant.

The number of measles cases worldwide nearly quadrupled in the first quarter of 2019 to 112,163 compared with the same period last year, the World Health Organization said this week. (VOA)