Mimo Reviews: 'Synecdoche, New York' (2008)
The very first film review/analysis I ever wrote, uncovered for your reading pleasure.
First off, I'd like to welcome you all to my very first film review! I've been wanting to do these for a long time now, and I'm excited to finally put my movie buffing to good use. I enjoy viewing—and over-analyzing—films in my spare time, and I often draw inspiration from a variety of critics when gathering my thoughts on any piece of cinema in question.
In terms of what I choose to review, I follow a compiled list of films that I've seen and/or heard about that are of interest to me. However, I do also take requests, so if anyone has any suggestions for me, they automatically become top priority for subsequent reviews. If a suggested film is already in my list, then I'll most certainly bump it up.
NOTE: Although there will inevitably be spoilers in all my reviews, I won't ever give away the actual endings, regardless of how predictable they might be, or how well-known the film is.
My hope is that you will enjoy reading these reviews as much as I enjoy writing them! Speaking of which, let's get to it already.
I was inspired by the Nostalgia Critic's editorial, "Is Tree of Life full of shit?" to watch this film, for I had admittedly never seen or even heard of it before. When he spoke of its artistic value, I just knew I had to check it out for myself. And what did I think of it? Well, possibly a lot more than most people are going to want to grasp seeing it the first time around. Some of you are also probably wondering what "synecdoche" even means, as this phrase is pretty uncommon. First things first, let's take a look at where the idea for this film came from.
Synecdoche was initially going to be a horror film; directors Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze (who later left the project to work on Where the Wild Things Are instead) wanted to tell a story about what they consider real life scares as opposed to relying on the usual characteristics of Hollywood horror films. It eventually became the postmodern drama that it is now, which allows audiences to interpret the film's motifs according to how they feel said motifs can apply to the real world. And yeah, life suddenly looks pretty terrifying when we realize what cinema is saying about it—and how closely related we are to the connection between fact and fiction.
So, what does 'Synecdoche' mean?
It can be the part of a concept that represents the whole, or the other way around. This is important to understand in the context of this film, for not only do movie titles usually encompass what the films are about, but because this one in particular also represents a story within a story, as you shall soon find out.
Well, then what's the story (within a story)?
The plot revolves around an ailing theatre director named Caiden Cotard, who deals with not only with his alarming physical and mental health conditions, but also his unsuccessful career and detachment from his family. The latter is definitely evident in the very beginning of the film, as he just looks unsatisfied with life and has perplexing interactions with his family. It's almost always as if he's talking to himself in their presence as well, like when he's reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, absentmindedly reciting top stories despite the conversations his family tries to have with him. Even if he actually is, at least, content living with them, the huge disconnect between what goes on in his mind and his outward actions has grave implications for what follows in the story.
There's another intricate family dynamic that I noticed early on as well: neither parent really knows how to communicate with their daughter. The wife, named Adele, doesn't seem the in least bit concerned that her little girl, named Olive, might had a gastrointestinal health problem judging from the abnormal colour of her faces. Additionally, both parents speak to her in adult terms, as if she's expected to understand high vocabulary at a young age when she still has many basic things to learn.
His increasing alienation and eccentric behaviourisms eventually lead to Adele's dissatisfaction in the marriage, to the point where she isn't even invested in his life beyond their home. A prime example of this is her ignorance of his theatre projects and reluctance to go see his productions when he asks her to. She even blatantly tells their marriage counsellor that she often dreams of straying from him, and right in front of him at that.
Her more-than-questionable parenting aside, I've also taken note of her overall carelessness as an adult. This isn't to say that Caiden shouldn't have to uphold these same responsibilities as well, but every time I see Adele seemingly doing chores on screen, the house never gets clean and there's always decaying food lying around. She also shamelessly gets stoned in one scene with a friend on the couch, even when Caiden is present. It's gotten to the point where she clearly doesn't care for his opinion of her, and this example shows her growing disinterest in wanting to "clean the air," so to speak, by patching things up with her husband instead of avoiding the problem altogether.
Though it doesn't really help that Caiden is getting attention from some of the women he works with, namely Hazel and Claire (Michelle Williams), with whom he starts separate relationships later on in the film. Speaking of work, his job plays a major role in the story. Sure, he's unhappy with it (at least, in the beginning—he becomes more invested in it later), and his lost-in-translation directing seems more like a theme enhancer, so some might think that these are just an aside in comparison to his rocky marriage. What's actually going on is his job and his relationship to Adele coincide with one another, and I'll explain this further in the next section where we discuss the film's themes.
But for now, let's just talk about the importance of his job as independent from Adele. One other crucial element of this film I have yet to discuss is time. When Adele decides to move to Berlin just with Olive as a result of her "romance doesn't last" philosophy (even though she tells Caiden it's just for business), this is where Caiden begins blurring the line between his reality and actual reality.
In actual reality, he's broken up about the whole situation and afraid to die alone. In his reality, he wants to better his life by taking cues from the same marriage counsellor that he and Adele previously consulted (through writings from her life improvement books) as well as cleaning their home. When he suddenly receives the financial means to invest in his career, he decides to put the money towards a production into which he can completely immerse himself. His play encompasses the hard truth about life and people's relations with one another, but there is one major component to this cycle that I won't mention in this review as it contains spoilers for the ending.
What I will say, though, is that his play becomes his reality, and how he progresses through life depends on how he directs the play, who he recruits, what roles he takes on, and whom he gives directing rights to (something I will get to in the next section). Everything that happens around him is a literal interpretation, but it's how he sees and experiences things that gives specific meaning to these otherwise completely ordinary events.
This film experiments with the traditional three-act narrative structure by introducing us to this world of thoughts and emotions unbound by time and facts. It's common for postmodern dramas to challenge notions of definite ways of seeing the world. Instead of a typical, linear narrative that only deals with one issue, Synecdoche provides us with a multitude of inter-related stories and themes that don't necessarily have a clear conclusion nor any particular reason for their occurrence in the first place.
The one major aspect I must note is that there is a lot of back-and-forth motion in this film. As I've mentioned previously, time is an important factor, and there are many scenes in which we cut to Caiden as an old man and back to his initial appearance respectively. This is to show his aging in the real world versus the stoppage of time in his own universe. Caiden himself is constantly unaware of how much time passes in the film, until "reality hits him."
For example, when he finds out Adele became a famous artist a year after her departure and pretends to not recognize him whenever he calls, he gets a seizure. He also becomes obsessed with searching for Olive upon finding out about her tattoo, which puts a strain on his relationship with Claire and their daughter Ariel. He even cries when he finds the gift he sent her in a dumpster. He can never maintain a steady relationship neither with Hazel nor Claire because he always ends up remembering his losses in the real world.
It's true that as we get older, time seems to fly by faster. We see that here too, as Caiden always thinks that something's happened recently, when really it's old news. Whenever he returns to his younger self, we know that it's him reminiscing on what was or what could've been. It all has to do with the difficulties of accepting (a) reality, the things we don't want or could never imagine happening. He will always see Olive as his little girl, even when she's (sometimes) an adult. Her adult form as a stripper is an illusion to him, as he can never bring himself to accept this new (and real) image of her.
He will always believe he and Hazel can work things out, even when she's moved on or finds her own life to be a mess, because he needs her to see him the same way regardless of what he goes through, and to support him in figuring out his life and regaining his confidence. But every time he calls her, her voicemail never seems to change...
In an attempt to deal with his personal struggles and ultimately discover himself, he, along with his theatre cast and crew create a mock city in a warehouse that continuously expands as he recruits more actors to become his doppelgängers. The idea is that he constructs ordinary lives for his actors to live out, and that each actor is a fragment of him. With so many different experiences to be had, the outcomes vary. This is Caiden's way of trying to do over or fix his mistakes to achieve happiness by having control over every aspect of his actors' lives. But, as viewers will realize, he can't control everything. This is especially true when he completely blocks out the real city beyond his play...
There will be times during the film where he passes over his directing position to others, in order to explore other peoples' roles so that he can understand what it's like being other people, especially a woman. He seems to want to get in touch with his feminine side, which explains why he gets into several affairs throughout the film. He needs someone to alleviate his loneliness, and who he feels comfortable sharing his emotions with, as Adele is someone who's difficult to maintain that sort of connection with.
Speaking of Adele, I mentioned earlier that she is directly linked to Caiden's job. Here's how: Adele is a painter who works on a microscopic scale, while Caiden is a theatre director working on an impossibly enormous scale.
To me, Adele's paintings are a symbol of reality, because every individual entity is always seen as minor (potentially to the point of being insignificant) when compared to the grand scheme of things. Caiden essentially got himself into a never-ending cycle of building an environment within an environment in hopes of impressing her, as he feels that his work will always be inferior to hers.
The more he immerses himself in his work, the smaller Adele's paintings become every time he visits her gallery until they're practically nonexistent. They are an indicator of him losing touch with reality. His work suddenly bears more significance because he's exploring a grey area of possibilities far beyond the certainties of reality as we normally understand it.
Do I like this film? Would I recommend it?
As you've likely noticed, I haven't once commented on the strengths and weaknesses of this film, but rather just explained it and gave my interpretation of its events and symbolism. Well, to be honest, this is a film I can't give a rating to. I, as a critic, appreciate films like this for making us think and question our lives, as well as the world around us. This isn't a film that gives you all the answers, but rather leaves it up to you to ponder the its life-mirroring themes according to what you deem important.
However, I anticipate that the average filmgoer who might be curious to see this film won't like it, and it's not because they won't understand it (in their own ways, at least). It's because, due to the mundane acting, they won't find it engaging, but I strongly believe that this was done intentionally.
The whole film almost feels like improv, and none of the characters are "acting" in the usual, scripted and dramatic sense, but rather how we might act in our everyday lives. This can turn people away from viewing the movie, but if anything, it might get people to realize how boring we actually are from an omnipresent view.
This is also one of those films that needs to be seen twice, especially for those people who are going to question the absurdity of its scenes. I can almost guarantee that people who view it again with a different mindset can at least appreciate its artistic value. The way to do this, according to the Nostalgia Critic, is instead of asking, "why IS this happening?" ask, "why WOULD this happen?" in order to better relate to and sympathize with the characters and their problems.
For instance, he says, Hazel insists on buying a house on fire in the beginning of the film, so we might ask, "why WOULD she buy it, when she knows she's getting herself into a bad situation?" It can help us think back to times in our lives when we had to make difficult decisions, and in order to learn from or improve our situations, we had to see through the dire consequences of our decisions. Even if it's the worst possible scenario, we are at least left with some sort of moral or cautionary message.
There are things in particular that stood out to me, though. The opening credits, for one, feature a child singing. To many, this might just be an atmospheric feature, but to me, it's a symbol of how perfect and blissful everything seems to be in our own worlds when we believe we have control over everything.
To be honest, I came to this conclusion after viewing the film, as it felt fitting given the perfection Caiden strives for in creating so many imperfections. One character that I found interesting was Caiden's initial doppelgänger, named Sammy, who'd been following him for two decades in hopes of being hired (to those who decide to watch the movie: Pay very close attention to the beginning when Caiden picks up his mail).
He wanted Caiden to find himself, and was studying him to see how far he'll go until he completely loses himself. It's an interesting concept, as we in real life often weigh the positives and negatives of our options before we act, or while we're in the process of taking action, to predict what will happen to us following the outcome. We might also examine our progress to see how much we've changed overtime, and reflect based on whether it's really going anywhere.
My Verdict: If you decide to give this film a try, I implore you to have patience with it. I know that mainstream movies are the norm, and we are paying to be entertained and not lectured. But the themes presented in this film could get us developing ideas about understanding the world that stick with us for a lifetime.