The Alt-Movies Series is a new program which debuted this winter season at Opera House Art. Every month a different alternative or independent film is screened, and this past week “Synecdoche, New York” was shown.
“Synecdoche, New York” is the directorial début of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich). It reminded me of what a surrealist painting might look like if became a film. It was dark, dramatic, yet comic-filled with hidden means and illusions.
At times, the story feels disorienting, yet intentionally so, as if, the entire goal was to tease the audience. The title helps to explain a little. Synecdoche is when a part of something is substituted for the whole, or a situation in which the representation of something comes before the thing it represents. In the movie, a replication of New York City is created by the protagonist in an old rundown warehouse. He creates an alternative world, which becomes a reflection and mirror of his own life, and it breaks down the distinction between art and reality.
The film begins in Schenectady, NY where theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) are living with their four year old daughter. They appear to have a somewhat strained, but normal life. He is a theater director with a touch for making the classics new and interesting. Yet their marriage is failing. The couple proceed through comic therapy with a psychologist-guru (Hope Davis). Cotard begins a flirtation with his secretary Hazel (Samantha Morton), but he is introspective and self absorbed and nothing progresses. Then Adele takes their daughter and moves to Berlin where she becomes famous for painting very small portraits that people view through magnifying glasses.
The feel of the movie changes, and any sense of complete realism disappears. Caden grows obsessive about his health and is convinced he is dying. The film is filled with innuendoes and double meanings. Caden has clearly lost touch with reality. Unexpectedly, he receives a MacAurther genius grant which provides him with the means to pursue his artistic dreams.
Caden is alone with his art. He is determined to create something magnificent and profound, a world of brutal honesty. In an old warehouse in Manhattan’s theatre district, Caden builds an alternative world. He cast actors and actress to playing different people from his own life. He begins to build massive sets and stages of the places he has lived and worked. He is trying to make sense of loss and sorrow and in the process he creates a world that mirrors the one outside. He confuses his art and reality until the difference is barely discernable.
To look for total realism with in this film, you will be disappointed. Yet there are some interesting truths about life and art touched on in the film. “Synecdoche, New York” might not always make sense, but then neither does life. In the end, it’s about the struggle to leave behind a legacy, to make your mark in this world and create something unique and profound. Caden wants to proove he is special and accomplished. Instead, it leads to emptiness and sadness because he is convinced that his art will enhance life. Until the end, he continues to believe his greatest delusion-that his play is the only way to make his life real and meaningful.