So Synecdoche, New York. I can understand why there is a range of opinion about this film. It is extraordinarily well acted and directed, but, in the end, I was kind of a little bit “meh”. Which is perhaps not terribly cutting or insightful. I think aspects of the film worked well, but to me it seemed like rather a conglomeration of ideas and concepts, some of which were extremely clever and some of which were a bit predictable.
A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which the one of the following (or its reverse) is expressed:
- A part stands for a whole
- An individual stands for a class
- A material stands for a thing
It also derives from the Greek meaning “simultaneous understanding.”
Clearly, the film was about things standing in for each other. Caden’s play obviously is the most extreme example, where people quite literally stand in for or represent others. But throughout the film there is the idea of one person or another standing in for each other. Claire stands in for Hazel, Caden stands in for the cleaner, Maria stands in for Caden in Olive’s life, Derek stands in for Caden for Hazel, art replaces relationships, Sammy stands in for Caden both in the play and real life, Tammy stands in for Caden in both real life and the play,the play stands in for real life and finally Ellen stands in for Caden. And there is a real sense in which these stand ins only represent part of the whole. Caden cannot even finish his play because it is never a whole, it is merely a figure standing in for the whole.
There are Kafka-esque moments in the film, made explicit by reference to the fact that Hazel was herself reading Kafka at the beginning of the film. The disappearance of Caden’s wife and daughter and his inability to reach them engages directly with those same notions of confusion and misunderstanding apparent in The Trial. The question of what have I done to deserve this, leaves Caden confused and disoriented.
The conception of the play utilises fascinating ideas and the Baudrillardian notions of simulacra – after a while there is the question of where the real is as representation of representation spirals through. Is Claire really complaining or is it her role. She leaves because she becomes lost in the representation, which Caden demands should be more and more real.
Then, there are parts of the film which are just random. Olive’s death bed scene is just bizarre, and contextless. What is with the swollen feet cut into by the sandals of the therapist? Really, what is with the burning house in which Hazel lives – I have read some reviewers try to make it a brilliant moment, but I don’t get it. The scene in the plane of Madeleine the therapist speaking the words of her book as Caden reads it is clever, but ultimately without any real meaning.
In contrast, Caden’s hypochondria, obsession with death and stress induced ailment are rather unoriginal – especially with this notion that he lives on past everyone else. Similarly the idea of the world falling into ruin while Caden focused on his own unreality is not really entering new lands of creativity.
I also got it really early in the film. Caden is a self-obsessed narcissist who fails to live because he is so busy obsessing about himself. Put away the sledgehammer.
Together it makes a mish mash of ideas and approaches and parts which are clever, but ultimately it seems to be signifying nothing – a representation without a referent. Perhaps this is what Kaufman intended. And the acting was, almost universally, amazing. But it brings us to Goethe’s third question of reviewing – was it worth doing. Of this I am not convinced. Give me Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind any time.