If you watch just one Philip Seymour Hoffman film this week, make it Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.
Google Synecdoche, New York and a hodgepodge of headlines declaring it the best, worst, most important and most insignificant movie of all time flood the screen. The New York Observer went so far as to say it’s so awful “it sinks to the ultimate bottom of the landfill, and the smell threatens to linger from here to infinity”; Roger Ebert hailed it “a film with the richness of a great fiction”; Entertainment Weekly gave it a measly single star; while Hermione Hoby, of The Guardian, gallantly announced that “the ultimate postmodern novel is a film.” A provocative piece of cinema then, I hear you say. It most certainly is.
Charlie Kaufman is a genius, and so was Philip Seymour Hoffman. When two artists share such profound ambition, the result is invariably a work as astonishing as Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman is a genius, and so was Philip Seymour Hoffman. When two artists share such profound ambition, insight, sensitivity, commitment – the list goes on – and are able to express all this with Shakespearean eloquence, the result is invariably a work as strange and astonishing as Synecdoche, New York. Consider the only other film that lays claim to being the best American feature of the last decade, the impeccable character study There Will Be Blood. The coming together of Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson at that moment was a freak planetary alignment that spawned a once-in-a-generation masterpiece. And a year later, off the back of a remarkable run of form, including Capote and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Hoffman linked up with Kaufman and the universe clicked firmly into place once more.
For his directorial debut, Kaufman launched no major departure from the kinds of meta-works that made him the academic darling of the mainstream. Having penned the groundbreaking Being John Malkovich for Spike Jonze, with whom he collaborated on Adaptation – a weird tale of a reclusive author who writes himself into his own plot – before bending time and expectations with the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a little experimentation was a given. Synecdoche, New York takes said experimentation to a new level, somewhere high above the Manhattan skyline.
We join Hoffman’s Caden Cotard, a disillusioned theatre director crippled by middle-age and hypochondria, as he struggles against the throes of a failing marriage. Drowning in a bog of artistic repetition, he’s handed a lifeline in the form of a ‘genius grant’, which allows him infinite means to produce a defining piece of work of his choosing. Somewhat invigorated, he embarks on a mission to recreate life as it is, down to the last twitching brow; to obtain truth in art, as it were.
Synecdoche, New York creates the sensation of looking at your own reflection in a mirror, in a mirror: confusing but curiously captivating
Caden purchases a warehouse and commissions an almost exact representation of a slice of New York to be constructed beneath its roof. He employs actors to play real people, hum-drumming away at their everyday business. Even his own life finds its place amidst the glorious façade. As the years pass and rehearsals unravel into their own bizarre brand of hyper-reality, exhaustion takes hold and Caden appoints an extra to play the role of director, while he settles into a cleaner’s routine – a little respite for his weary mind. Such spiralling complications create the sensation of looking at your own reflection in a mirror, in a mirror: confusing but curiously captivating.
As time frazzles and the narrative takes on a convulsive quality – lurching from year to year with unforgiving velocity – and graceful obscurities rush to the fore, Kaufman leads us into extremely provocative territory. Ponder, for a moment, Hazel (Samantha Morton) and her purchase of a burning house: “I like it, I do,” she says. “But I’m really concerned about dying in the fire.” It’s a beautifully bold comment on the decisions we all make about how to live our lives.
Synecdoche, New York is a film that plunges head first into some of the great questions of modern times, posed by the likes of DeLillo, Wolf (Christa), Borges, Wenders, Fellini, Wallace and so on. It’s about historiography and how we map out our past; it’s about reflexivity and how we perceive ourselves and one another – our purpose and ambitions; it’s about the impossibility of honest and accurate representation; it’s about the search for authenticity in experience and our fruitless quest for autonomy; it’s about what we do between those most definitive, structuring bookends: birth and death.
While infused with bitter sadness, Synecdoche, New York oozes heart and soul. It’s a tragedy of enlightening potential
What’s perhaps most remarkable is that, while infused with bitter sadness, the film oozes heart and soul. Too often, works which are concerned with grand ideas of form and philosophy fall short when it comes to tapping into the humanity that we so rely on to carry us through. Postmodernism is renowned for lacking the ability to engage readers and audiences emotionally, but Kaufman and Hoffman have no such trouble. It’s a film about love, life, work, art and death, and it pumps zealous energy into the grey edges of a very challenging discipline. It’s at once devastating and extraordinarily liberating. It’s a tragedy of enlightening potential – almost, ironically, a religious experience.
If you watch any film in celebration of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman this week, this month, this year, let it be Synecdoche, New York.
All images: Sony Pictures Classics