Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York ★★★½

Despite my formal and structural reservations, of which there are many but not necessarily relevant to this review, I think buried beneath all these stupid Kaufmanisms is a really great film that pains me to see so many people reduce to “a movie about getting old” or some other ineffective existentialist bullshit. Be that as a positive or negative reading.

Based off letterboxd reviews it fucking terrifies me that the prime mode of engagement with this film resembles a complacent solace in relatability. Caden is one of the most singularly destructive characters in cinema - he embodies various complexes of self-victimization, an inability for empathy and compassion, self-obsession, misogyny, obsessive manipulation and a whole host of other frightening things. While not to the same egregious extent, these trappings are easy to find oneself a victim of. As Kaufman holds the microscope to each of Caden’s unforgivable acts, he provides valuable insight into the dangers of attaching oneself to societal ideals of success and fulfilment. Instead of the far more constructive route of engaging with those around you to find your own sensibility and discover your goals and aspirations on your own terms, rather than living in fear of a death overshadowed by your own inability to leave some vague mark on the world. However, as result of Caden's fear, all he does is pollute and alienate; it's tragic.

All interactions with others are merely a catalyst for his art. Never to just enjoy another’s presence, but to distract himself from his problems and condense some vague narrative inspiration for his play. Caden frequently takes advantage of female loneliness to distract himself from his pain by way of sexual gratification and validation, yet also to align himself with the conditioned “wife and kids” life which is told to reap happiness. Predation wherein he manipulates their admiration for him as an artist, and the grief of their respective situations, for his own emotional relief. Caden places himself in a position wherein creativity necessitates an unwilling catalyst, this results in these interpersonal moments being ones of objectification wherein those in his life are reduced to mere devices for his control. All in the desperate attempt to use art as a solution to manifest the fulfilment he fails to draw from his personal life.

The compulsion of uncreative and insecure people to use art as a means to an end leads to work motivated by an attachment to vague concepts which align with mainstream styles, interests, and iconography, rather than a preservation of singular insight. See Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream in their depiction of addiction, wherein the latter extorts its characters to portray a stereotypical, blanket representation of these themes, which relies on formalist extremity to mask its lack of insight. Just like how the maximalism of Caden’s play serves the same end as a mask for this very same insecurity. This sadly is something I feel Kaufman’s latest film suffers from, but yall ain't ready for that one yet… anyways, due to Caden’s inability to treat anyone in his personal life with respect, he uses others in service of his art, and holds no personal understanding of human interaction or relationships. His art is then derivative, solipsist and near nihilistic, and once his wife gives it the criticism it deserves, he internalizes this as a lack of intelligence on her part. This only serves to alienate her further and perpetuate the cycle. Dehumanization of the very people he tries to humanize in his art. 

Only does Caden finally begin to grow once he considers thought outside himself when he plays the role of Ellen Bascomb. As he sheds his persona for hers, he for the first time truly engages in, and cares for, another person’s experience, struggle, and context outside of the exploitable machinations he translates to stage. As Millicent shares Ellen’s past dreams and desires, Caden begins to feel seen; he relates to her, and feels compassion so strong he cries without the aid of the fake teardrops shown earlier in the film. Caden confronts his inherent privilege through his attempt to view life through the eyes of the gender he demeaned and exploited throughout the film. He pushes aside his self-centred attitudes and desire for artistry to finally learn from, and experience, another human being. This provides him the fulfilment he had always desired. For a moment, he is able to view death, not as an abject of fear but a welcome and logical end.

As Caden approaches this death, something frequently spoken throughout the film is repeated, “everyone is everyone”. Ending the film with such a grossly naive interpretation of the human experience, to me, felt like aggrandizement of the putative worldview I thought Kaufman was attempting to critique. As an aside, I would recommend Charles Mills’ piece on non-Cartesian sums in his book Blackness Visible as a far better articulation on the dangers of these blanket terms. To continue, this moment in the film took me a short while to come to terms with, yet I now realize it as almost a babies first step in the reconciliation that one's struggles are not singular. Caden previously took every death, tragedy, criticism, or slight act of neglect as evidence of a world turned against him, his complex of self-victimization rendered him unable to empathize with others or relate to another’s pain. As such, to now open himself to the concept that he is, in reality, not the smartest man in the room, and that interaction with others may provide him solace and understanding. Then, as he converses with more people, he will grow to realize this mantra of “everyone is everyone” to be a falsehood, yet essential to his early growth.

If he didn’t die tho rip bozo 💀

Lore liked these reviews