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'Synecdoche, New York': Complicated film about life's basics.
  • 'Synecdoche, New York': Complicated film about life's basics.

Masterpieces — those desperate bids for secular immortality — are a lie. Despite our Ozymandian fantasies, nothing lasts forever. Books and their paper turn to dust. Statuary cracks and wears. Paintings eventually require restoration. And film: Well, we don't capture images on nitrate anymore, a volatile substance responsible for the loss of literally thousands of early pictures, but even the new ones have a shelf-life. Art needs constant attention. It's a parasite of our appreciation. Someday we won't be around.

Things fall apart. More often than that, they break. And not just material things. Couples “break up.” When we cry, we “break down.” We can also “break up” into laughter. Entropy governs our daily narratives.

This is so true that I feel foolish, but that's what “Synecdoche, New York,” a complicated movie about the most basic things, does to you.

Some people make road movies because they come easy, with a ready-made beginning, middle and end. Charlie Kaufman makes movies about death. A character notes: “The end is built into the beginning.”

Day-to-day life couldn't be more daunting for Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). His struggling playwright endures a rebellious body, riddled with innumerable symptoms and no disease. After he endures years under her impenetrable weariness and neglect, his first wife leaves him and takes their daughter. His physical condition worsens. He pursues a doomed affair with a woman who worships him. His life becomes a parody of miserablism.

Then, he wins a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Determined to stage the production of his life, he rents out a cavernous warehouse and builds an exact replica of the world, complete with its own cavernous warehouse and so on. He fills the warehouse with actors who play living people, prodding them to scriptless life with scraps of paper carrying written emotional instructions like “You were raped yesterday.” His meticulous representation defies scale. He hires a man to play himself, and a man to play that man. The warehouse develops into a nesting box of identity and performance.

He burns through another marriage, still haunted by the last, before returning to that earlier affair, still doomed. His production degenerates. The film runs out.

As with most of Kaufman's screenplays, the backbone of the story might seem hokey if played out by actors any less capable of looking plain. Kaufman has nothing profound to say about love. His views on human relationships verge on the traditional. But his creations are only an extension of his obsession with death, and he's nothing if not ambivalent about the creative process. Among the many ideas to be taken away from this film is that art is a tragic compulsion, one more hopeless pursuit against mortality and one that just further separates us from each other. Even his jokes get sadder with time.

Kaufman asks a lot of himself and his audience. Like Cotard's remarkable production, the film's something to live in and explore, not dismantle. It's remarkably self-contained but fragile in construction, almost endangered by criticism, and might just fall away at the slightest touch. Nonetheless, people will want to interpret it to death, hurry it along, pick it clean. (Criticism is the twin sister of creation, every bit as obsessed and compelled by death.) “Synecdoche, New York” fails in a thousand ways and succeeds in twice as many, but art needn't always succeed to be worth experiencing.


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