The Mindmelt in Synecdoche (New York)

First published (in 2008) by EyeforFilm

An ailing middle-aged theatrical director contemplates his anxieties, regrets and impending death. That’s Synecdoche, New York in a sentence – or to reduce it to a word, the film is all about melancholy. Rest assured, though, there is a whole lot more than this to the directorial debut of writer Charlie Kaufman, whose feverish brain was previously behind such high-concept titles as Being John Malkovich (1999), Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002), Adaptation. (2002) and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004).

Like the rhetorical figure on which its title puns, Synecdoche, New York locates a whole universe in the smallest of details, while collapsing the totality of a lived past and imagined future into a single staged representation. As anti-hero Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) works through his existential crisis in a theatre of the mind, Kaufman weaves for us a fractal narrative full of being and nothingness, Sturm und Drang, where the only thing inevitable (and therefore predictable) is how it will all end. It is the kind of infuriating headtrip of a film that needs to be seen several times for its many faceted nuances to be fully appreciated – and even then, there are enough loose ends left to keep the viewer’s synapses tangled and knotted long afterwards.

So how exactly does a film become a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma? How does straight story become twisted tale? Here are five easy steps for bending the viewer’s brain. Unavoidably, some spoilers apply.

1. Crumble Chronology

One tried and tested method of complicating a simple narrative is to chop and change the natural sequence of events. Take, for example, 21 Grams (2003), a heart-transplant melodrama that could have been lifted straight from a soapy telenovela, but for the way that director Alejandro Gonález Iñárritu plays fast and loose with the chronology of his densely interwoven narrative strands. Simply telling a story back to front, as in Memento (2000), Irreversible (2002) or 5×2 (2004), can bring a new moral perspective to an age-old tale, and recently The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008) offered a magical-realist variant on the time-jumbling theme.

If anything, the chronology of Synecdoche, New York is even more confusing than these. So reduced, multiplied and extrapolated is Kaufman’s timeline that it becomes all but impossible to distinguish the real, the imagined and the fabricated, or to be sure whether, by the end, events have spanned several decades, a few weeks or, like the film itself (or for that matter your average play), just over two hours.

2. Go PoMo

A movie is often just a(nother) movie – but a meta-movie, a work that chronicles the mechanics of its own conception and construction, is a veritable hall of mirrors in which the viewer can become totally lost. Blame Federico Fellini, whose (1963) is a deliriously narcissistic dramatisation of his own creative impulses, processes and distractions as a filmmaker. In other words, it is a film that eats itself, and a foretaste of the sort of postmodern reflexivity found in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), The Player (1992), Living In Oblivion (1995), New Nightmare (1994), Adaptation (2002) – written by Kaufman – and The Five Obstructions (2003).

Synecdoche, New York also plays this game. Caden, a neurotic fiftysomething director of “over-complicated” productions, is clearly an alter ego of Kaufman himself, and although the magnum opus on which he is currently working is a play rather than a film, it is, like Synecdoche, New York, “about everything” – including, naturally, itself.

3. Split The Personalities

Few things induce disorientation in a viewer as effectively as the portrayal of a single, complex character through more than one performer. Spain’s granddaddy of cinematic surrealism Luis Buñuel set the schizophrenic ball rolling in That Obscure Object Of Desire (1977), where he cast two different actresses as the film’s desirable object – and since then the device has been seen in brainteasers as varied as David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life In The Universe (2003), Alexandre Aja’s Switchblade Romance (2003), Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004) and Bruce A Evans’ Mr. Brooks (2007). Special mention should go to Todd Solondz’s Palindromes (2004), Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) and Johnnie To’s Mad Detective (2007), all of which refuse to stop at just two performers for the representation of an individual in their stories.

Synecdoche, New York elaborates this technique further by having Caden cast his own stalker (Tom Noonan) to play himself, and then a second actor (Stanley Krajewski) to play the stalker-turned-actor, and then a third, this time a woman (Dianne Wiest), to take over his own role as director of the production so that Caden can concentrate on a bit part (playing someone other than himself). Take into account the chaotic way in which these different characters interact with each other, and all this role-swapping manages to be even more baffling than it sounds.

4. Bend a Gender

Not only does Caden agree to have a woman take over his own rôle as director of the increasingly unwieldy play, but he himself tries on the part for which she was originally cast, as Ellen Bascomb, the (possibly imaginary) cleaning lady of his estranged wife Adele (Catherine Keener). In search of both Adele’s and his own dirty secrets, Caden devotes himself to cleaning the toilet in his wife’s empty apartment. After his first impersonation of the maid, Caden is informed by his actress/lover Claire Keen (Michelle Williams) that he smells as though he is wearing lipstick, or perhaps as though he is menstruating.

Caden’s discovery of his feminine side may be less jaw-dropping than the twist in The Crying Game (1992), and less physically paradoxical than the spontaneous sex changes in Orlando (1992) or Tiresia (2003) – but it nonetheless serves further to unsettle our sense of this character’s already fragmented identity.

5. Cross Owl Creek Bridge

In 1890, when he published the short story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, Ambrose Bierce could little have known that he was laying down the template for one of the most popular story types among reality-warping filmmakers. By filtering ‘events’ through the hallucinatory perspective of a character who is hovering in the twilight zone between life and death, films are guaranteed a haunting afterlife in the viewer’s mind, as was proven first by [massive spoiler alert] Herk Harvey’s cult classic Carnival Of Souls (1962), and thereafter by a host of otherwise unrelated films, from Point Blank (1967) to Brazil (1985), The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), A Pure Formality (1994), The Sixth Sense (1999), Mulholland Dr. (2001), Donnie Darko (2001), The I Inside (2003), Stay (2005), Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), Yella (2007) and The Escapist (2008).

“I think I’m dying,” declares obituary-obsessed Caden, and even his surname evokes Cotard’s syndrome, a neuropsychiatric disorder whose patients believe that they are dead or do not exist. Unquestionably Synecdoche, New York also flirts with crossing Owl Creek Bridge, but Kaufman broadens the inherent ambiguities of this trope into something that goes way beyond a mere plot twist. Caden’s otherworldy experiences may be the last-gasp fantasy of a man in his death throes – or they may just dramatise the sort of fear, delusion and hope that every human undergoes in lives that, however different, all end the same way. Ultimately it is unclear whether Caden’s actual death is already happening, imminent, or decades away, but what remains certain is that from the outset he is, like all of us, already on his way to the other side.

1-5. The Whole Kaboodle

Following just one or two of these steps is usually enough to discombobulate viewers and unsettle their mental grasp of the story on screen. A much smaller selection of films, however, takes this effect even further, combining most or all of these narrative tricks into an impenetrable chaos of muddled chronologies, split personalities, tail-chasing resonances, confused sexualities and parallel universes. These films trap viewers’ minds in a perplexing multi-dimensional labyrinth of conflicting signifiers and symbologies from which it is impossible to escape completely, even after every last convolution has been revealed and the final credits have rolled.

Films like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (2006) and Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006) endlessly shift their own paradigms and defer their own resolution, keeping any kind of coherent, self-contained reality tantalisingly beyond the viewer’s reach.

The same is true of Synecdoche, New York, which is as inventively bewildering as anything you are ever likely to see. Kaufman’s greatest trick, however, is to build from such head-scratching materials a film that is also genuinely moving, and that speaks directly to the most essential mysteries of the human condition: our mortality, our love and our loss. It is not just a conundrum for its own sake, but a puzzle with a purpose, making it a whole lot more than the mere sum of its twists.

© Anton Bitel