All the World’s a Stage

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

Baffling, surreal, and haunting, Synecdoche, New York presents a world within a world, a stage within a stage, doubled, tripled, extended, bounded and unbounded by dream logic and existential dread. It is a film that needs to be seen more than once. More than twice. I know because I watched it yesterday for the first time . . .

and it’s still banging around in my head.

Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind Being John Malkovich; Adaptation; and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directs for the first time from his own script. And it’s a Vianesque doozy.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theater director in Schenectady, New York. Cotard is married to Adele Lack (played by Catherine Keener), an artist of miniatures. They have a daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), age 4 when the movie opens. The film traverses roughly 40 to 50 years, with much of the passage of time being lost on Cotard. Lost in a real sense. Lost in a metaphorical sense. Lost. At one point early in the film, he thinks his wife has been gone for a month, after she leaves him to go to Berlin with their daughter, and is reminded that it’s been a year. When he takes off suddenly to find his daughter (he’s married now to Claire, an actress, played by Michelle Williams), he still thinks she’s 4. Once in Germany, he discovers she’s 10.

Time passing. Fate. Choices. Tentacles. Choices leading into and out of the web of life. Wrong choices leading to missed opportunities and dead ends. An early metaphor for this is the burning house. The house on fire that Hazel chooses to buy and live in. Hazel the love of Caden Cotard’s life, the box-office girl turned Girl Friday (played by Samantha Morton). She buys a house that literally is on fire, a slow, slow fire that consumes it over a period of many years and later becomes the scene of Cotard’s best and worst day.

Dream logic. Jung. Freud. Boris Vian. Olive is tatooed at age 10, and many years after that the flower tatoos wither, die, fall off.

Perhaps the central metaphor and motif of the film is the stage, life as a play, actors on the stage. We direct, are directed. We create, are created. At the beginning of the film, Cotard is producing his own version of Death of a Salesman, with young actors in the key roles. This foreshadows events in the rest of the film, the existential dread of aging, dying, losing loved ones, forgetting about the passage of time. Perhaps because of his choice to shift the age of the actors, and not long after his wife has left him, Cotard receives the news that he has won a MacArthur Genius Grant. This provides seemingly unlimited funds (again, dream logic) to produce his masterpiece of life over the course of many, many years. He moves his once small theater troop into a huge warehouse in New York’s theater district, hires thousands of actors and technicians, and they work ceaselessly on the creation of a new Theater of Life. They double and triple everything. A warehouse within a warehouse. Actors hired to play actors. Actors hired to play Cotard, Claire, Hazel. Dopplegangers, shadows, twins galore. And who is the audience for this? Who is the only audience for this massive construction/reconstruction? It appears that we are. Alone.

Synecdoche, New York received mixed reviews. Some critics loved it, loved Kaufman’s audacity, surrealism, tragic sense of life, use of Kafka, Freud, and the clever sprinkling of assonance throughout. Others felt it was tremendously self-indulgent. Upon first viewing, I’d say this film will live for decades and be much discussed. I’m also guessing that it will be seen as a masterpiece of cinema over time.

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One of the truly great things about DVDs is the chance to peak behind the scenes at process. Synecdoche, New York provides a great deal to enhance the movie experience in that regard. It also tries something different. Five film critics/bloggers have an intense and lively discussion about the film. It’s one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. Don’t forget to watch it. Not before you see the film, of course. After. Always after.

I’ll blog more about the movie after my second viewing . . . .


All the World’s a Stage
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