Sunday, July 05, 2009

Synecdoche, Synecdoche

I just saw a video of the film Synedoche, New York, written and directed by Charles Kaufman (who wrote Being John Malkovich, which I didn't much like, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I did kind of like.) This is an unusual film in form and content, which covers in dreamlike fashion some forty years in the life of Caden Cotard, a theater director in Schenectady with a messy life, who wins a MacArthur Grant and goes to New York City to create a massive theatre work as his ultimate expression.

There are layers, time jumps, reality and fantasy intermixed, visual and word puns (like the title), probable references to various mental disorders and possible elements of Jungian psychology, in this movie about life, purpose, love and especially death. The story begins with Cotard at about 40, in more or less the present, and leaves him at about 90 in an apocalyptic future. Throughout the often brutal, tragic and absurd events, Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) keeps getting new and often ridiculous ideas about his increasingly sprawling play, which involves hundreds of actors in residence for decades, but never a finished play for an audience. His dying words are something like, "I think I know how to do this play. I have an idea."

The DVD includes a discussion among a group of young film bloggers, all of whom have astute comments. They talked about the personal impact of this film, how it required something from them, and how they feel this is missing from movies. It reminded me of movies and their impact on me in the 1970s (though some of the movies I saw then and was affected by so strongly were made years before.) They also all found the movie initially depressing.

I can see why, but even though I am older than Kaufman, his view of the point of view of someone my age or older seems right. Though the presence of death, the brevity of life, the telescoping of time, the ongoing stubborn and probably futile search for a summary expression, are not just implied but hammered on, I felt the ending was fairly positive. Cotard finds an illusory but fulfilling final moment of love, and his last thought is a further idea on his never-ended project. I can see why younger people find this depressing. But I don't exactly, and it turns out that Kaufman (in an interview on the DVD) agrees with me: the all-encompassing work is never finished. Trying to create it is just life.

Perhaps it also is a product of age that I found so much of the movie, while painful, was also funny. Maybe this movie for the young is a tragedy. For the old, a comedy.

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