Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York ★★★★★

Synecdoche, New York is my first Charlie Kaufman movie and I've got a mixture of excitement and anxiety towards watching his other ones. I feel this is a legitimately great movie that's so ambitious in what it tries to do (cleverly playing into itself) that it's hard not to respect it just for its ideas and execution.

Watching this reminded me of something I briefly learned, of the map-territory relation – essentially that "the map is not the territory" and that "the word is not the thing". In other words, an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself; those who confuse maps with territories confuse models of reality with reality itself.

Caden Cotard, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is a theater director who starts to create something he can call his masterpiece – in this case a reflection of reality. He starts reconstructing a model of New York City and hires actors to play people he knows so they can act and exist as they would in real life. It gets a lot more complex in a lot less time, but this is sufficient enough to understand much of the subtext.

So this meshes quite well with the the map-territory relation and highlights a similar problem. Cotard creates his work in (what I interpret to be) an attempt to better understand himself and those around him, but we can quickly see how this turns into an impossible task. In Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno Concluded there is a fictional map that has a one-to-one scale of what it depicts. Hilariously, a character notes how impractical it is:

"We now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."

I think the easiest interpretation for me is reading Synecdoche as an example of futility in obsession. Cotard is obsessed with recreating reality, but in doing so he completely shuts himself off to the same people he simulates. It is no longer possible to connect with them if he's too busy in his endeavors, and his obsession with his work drives away those same people. They leave and change and live and die, and he's still trying to catch up to who they were previously. His play is a great map, certainly, but it's useless.

I've heard Charlie Kaufman described as a metamodernist and I think I love it. I've been reading more recently, especially writers like John Cheever and Thomas Pynchon, and I think Kaufman fits well with them. Synecdoche is surreal and challenging and funny and uncompromising, and I really enjoyed the hell out of it. Even if it was a little up its own ass at times.

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