On The Subject of Death in Synecdoche, NY


Yesterday, I dismissed Synecdoche, NY  as a good movie because its main subject was death. Not that it is a bad subject, but the way Kaufman treated the subject I found uninvolving and hypocritical. If you really want to look at death in the face, you risk your life, not merely your artistic reputation. Regardless, I believe that at the seed, the story had very cool ideas of the structural kind. Synecdoche, NY, apart from being about death, is also about writing, and structuring stories. The main character, playwright, Caden Cotard, is literally creating a movie of his own life, forcing closed the loop of artistic creation.The work is about himself looking at himself, the joke being that his view is skewed. He is unable to create a joyous work because he thinks he is dying. What is the remedy for this? There is none. He is cursed to keep creating infinitely in this loop of sadness, melancholy, and confusion.That is my complaint about the film. Why end it this way? Merely to feel? Why feel that? Wouldn’t a greater artist show his audience how to escape dread, and attempt to attain a communal joy? That same joy which supposedly is the center of the experience of the theater.

But there are parallel forces working against each other. Where the story failed me, I admired the makeup and art direction. Hoffman is a physical actor and watching him limp across the screen , shake uncontrollably as he goes into convulsions, and  seeing him age through various stages, brought an interesting visual angle that the narrative seemed to work against. I have recently watched a 35mm print of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”, and I could detect some Detective Quinnlan in Hoffman’s step as he gradually loses his motor abilities.

The image that will remain in the mind of many cinephiles for years to come: the series of miniature paintings Adele makes that must be viewed with magnifying glasses. They are miniature portraits of her daughter, her friends, and even her cleaning lady. She is a true artist, the opposite of Caden. A woman of the people, with whom others share skin. A talented colorist, and impressionist. Her work has a sensorial pleasure. There is more sex on her, than on any of the other love interests (Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams) who are like surrogate mothers to Caden. Why love a spiritually destitute man like Caden unless one feels extreme guilt and obligation?

Caden’s inability to change the person he is at his core is the most frustrating part of this otherwise very original movie. He has a vision but he lacks the control necessary to make a shape. He surrounds himself with people, but he doesn’t see their souls. Why should he elicit our sympathies? And who exactly are these insane people who persist in supporting him?

Contrary to what I wrote in my previous review, there are quite a few references to drugs in the story. I pointed out the pattern of abuse that comes up in the second and third act, with the recurring deaths, and the release sex (a positive note amidst the darkness:  the oversensuous Emily Watson). Hazel’s house is always on fire (smokin’), and Caden’s daughter, Olive, mentions ‘the kind of pipe you smoke out of ‘ to Caden when he is explaining ‘plumbing’ to her (‘plumbing’ the depths of his soul?).  So I suspect that Caden’s inertia and death-wish is closely linked to substance abuse. His amount of introspection is almost an exaggeration. He is just too folded.

The first act is a miracle. I say this sincerely, you feel the flows, the layers building, intertwining. The perspectives shift, not only between the characters, but the levels of reality: there is the play Caden is re-inventing (‘Death of a Salesman’), there is the theater–that borrowed space– there is the family home, there is Adele’s studio in the basement (beneath the ‘pipes’), there is the shrink’s office, and there is those doctors and dentists offices in some seedy basements with neon-lit waiting rooms. And of course there is the madhouse on fire, the mysterious metaphor. Which I think has to stand for drugs. Not just because of recent events…but because cinema has a way of always capturing destinies. It doesn’t lie.

That’s why you must watch Hoffman’s directorial debut ‘Jack Goes Boating’, turning what was originally a play, into a real movie, one where characters come alive!


Categories: Notes

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