Synecdoche, New York

26 03 2009

Critics are divided; it’s either brilliant or garbage. So you knew I would like it.

In one of the movie’s many illuminating throwaway moments, main character Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) directs one of his actors to “walk like yourself.” Naturally, once told to he can’t do it. That’s how Caden spends his whole life; trying to walk like himself. 

In typical fashion, writer/director Charlie Kaufmann creates a surreal storyscape that looks metaphorical, but isn’t really. Like an abstract painting, it means what it is. The movie is unreal, yet truthful, accurate, and moving. If you’ve ever asked yourself, Who am I? and found that question leading to other questions (Why am I me? What is outside my consciousness? Why am I not someone else? What if I am?) This movie is that experience. 

It’s also sad. Really really sad. The most unbearable moment (it involves dying flowers) just flipped on my invincible reality-denying apparatus. I don’t know what it says about me that in the end I found the movie uplifting. American Beauty had the same effect.

I won’t say anything else, except I have to comment on the title. It’s a running gag in the film that Cotard can’t think of a good title for his theater piece. He keeps trying for something meaningful, resonant, ironic, poetic, but all his ideas are either too arch or too flat. Naturally, Synecdoche, New York is the perfect title that never occurs to him. I didn’t realize until the characters started talking that the name of the town in New York is actually Schenectady. Synecdoche is one of 100 literary terms Miss Porter had us put on flash cards in AP English, and it’s one of the half-dozen that actually stuck with me, probably because it’s so aggressively artsy. For the non-terminal-nerds, it means a figure of speech where a part stands for the whole (i.e. “all hands on deck.”) Just like Cotard’s warehouse set stands for Schenectady…until it also stands for New York, Berlin, the past, the future, self, non-self, truth, fiction, disintegration, and oneness with everything. Bloody brillliant!

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