Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York ★★★★★

Synecdoche New York is a colossal undertaking.

Which is comedic in its own right considering the title means "A part of the whole". Perhaps that speaks to the enormity of life?

Synecdoche is not just a gigantic work for the filmmaker and writer Charlie Kaufman but for the film-goer and the critic.

At its bare bones is the story of an artist told through the rapid increase of years, seeing his life, loves, experiences and regrets in both dream logic and realism. A character who's obsession with his own mortality drives him in and out of relationships and eventually leads to him building a monument to his own mortality. An enormous, growing theatrical play/simulation of his life that presents his own experience outside of itself, even as the real world crumbles around him. An attempt to both transcend and reflect his world while escaping it and ending it. That's the focus of this movie and in a way the focus of all art. It is our attempt, our struggle to see the world from a different perspective and to cope with the world we live in and to be remembered and to transcend.

To call this movie "heavy" or "dense" is to put it lightly. This film makes the heart of a neutron star look like a marshmallow. When you add on the fact that Kaufman insists on telling the narrative through surrealism things get thicker than Showa-era Godzilla thighs.

There's a scene in Synecdoche, New York where the main character played by the late Philip Seymor Hoffman is talking to his daughter. She was taken away from him at a young age and raised in another country. So when the father and daughter finally speak to each other for the first time in years they have to use translators.

This scene is the entire point of Synecdoche New York distilled into one moment. Two characters, with completely different perspectives on the same topic (their relationship, identity) trying to understand each other. Their perspectives are crafted by their own individual experiences. And these characters are unable to connect. The barrier between them is represented as language but it's a much larger wall. They require a translation to speak but they cannot ever really understand each other. The daughter's history and how she has lived and what she was told about her father has created an image of her life that defines not only herself, but everything she knows. Just as the father's experiences and how he has lived his life has crafted an image of himself and his actions. The only way for them to truly come to an understanding is for both to abandon these experiences. And for either to abandon these experiences is to abandon memory. Identity. Life. In a sense it would be like dying.

And so two people who need each other, cannot connect, because of the ultimate hurdle: death.

This heart-breaking moment represents the struggle of our lives. The struggle of art. The struggle of writing. The struggle of relationships and love and family. The need, the desire, to reach out and make contact and the crippling inability to touch. It's about how you can be right next to someone you care about with all your heart and still be decades away from ever reaching them.

This is a part of the whole of Synecdoche New York. But at the same time, it is the whole of it.

Writer and director Charlie Kaufman by his own admission wants people to come to their own conclusion about the film. He doesn't want to give them the keys to the kingdom, he wants them to find their own way in. And this is of course, if you even need an explanation or a meaning for this movie. As I've discussed before with movies like Eraserhead, sometimes the abstract speaks more to us and our experiences than the defined, precisely because so much of what we experience struggles to be defined. Sometimes the desire to define art, shrinks it, devalues it, makes it smaller. Kaufman's attitude as a filmmaker is a reflection of the above scene. The desire to connect and the difficulty inherent in making that connection. Not just with others, but with the world around you.

In Synecdoche New York, Charlie Kaufman struggles with our relationships with representations and with the world. Which he embodies into three distinct but overlapping forces: memory, time and death.

Magritte's Treachery of Images is a famous painting of a pipe that says "This is not a Pipe". Of course the painting is correct. It's not a pipe. It's a picture of a pipe. A representation of a thing is not a thing. BUT. Our mind is built by memories. Memories are not events. They are representations of events in our mind. There's a reason why eye-witness accounts are seldom reliable. If a representation of a thing is not a thing and our whole perspective, our awareness is built on representation? Is the world as we perceive it, simply a simulacrum? A mirror image of our reality crafted in our mind?

Time is another force that exists almost completely as a representation in our mind. The only evidence that any of our experiences are connected or linear is memory. Our perception defines our experience of time and space, which defines reality. And memories are not real and are often wildly misleading. So as our perception alters, so does our experience of time.

Death is another force that exists almost completely in memory and depiction. A force that greatly affects our personal relationships and our relationship with ourselves. We struggle with death so much because we know nothing about it. We can't ever understand it. We see it as antagonistic but we've never truly experienced it and those who have experienced it completely aren't in a position to talk about it. So what we fear and what we try to escape is this image of death. An image we create. We define our lives based on that image. We fear the idea of it.

Many of us spend our lives in conflict with forces we don't truly understand.
Love. Death. Memory. Time.
We face these things by attempting to leave our mark on the world and on others.
Marriage. Family. Art. Legacy. Violence.
The only forms of immortality we know.
Passing on something before we leave.
Hoping it stays even when we are gone.
So that we are remembered.
But are those memories real?
Are the memories that define our life true? Or are they just a gigantic, overly complex and self-indulgent personal stage play? Viewed through the prism of our own bias?

Is our life the pipe or the painting of the pipe?

Synecdoche New York is a model replica of life existing in a perfect microcosm of cinema. It has been described as surreal, it has been described as incomprehensible. It has been described as pretentious. All of these descriptions are both accurate and not.

Like I said about Evangelion, many people find different meaning within this work, precisely because it means so much to many different people.

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