Art As Reality

    Synecdoche, NY

    {grate 3.5}

    Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener & Samantha Morton
    Directed by Charlie Kaufman
    Rated R

    Each script penned by Kafka-esque screenwright Charlie Kaufman seems to be the expansive appendix of its predecessor — most famously, “Adaptation” borrowed the making of his own “Being John Malkovich” to re-tell Susan Orlean’s novel The Blood Orchid — an evolution of one art project into another, constantly deconstructing philosophical and theoretical corollaries.

    This time around, it’s classical theater (the acoustic ancestor of Hollywood cinema) that focuses Kaufman’s directorial debut, the awe-inspiring “Synecdoche, NY.” Highly ambitious and erudite, the film splices electric ideas — such as a pipe bomb in a po-mo pastiche — with the life story of one dying soul, who hopes to leave a lasting legacy of the genius nestled somewhere within him.

    Theatrical director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) arrives at midlife crisis, trapped in a life lacking ephemeral luster and sapped of spontaneity by a pervasive Schenectady suburbia. On top of all that, he’s wedded to a struggling artist (Catherine Keener) who suffers from repressed Anne-Sexton fantasies of murdering him — which doesn’t much help his marriage. Making matters worse, his therapist is more concerned with promoting her New York Times bestseller than actually providing mental remedy.

    But there is one sign of hope: the coquettish and buxom box-office ginger Hazel (Samantha Morton), who flirts unabashedly with Cotard. Yet just when things start to look up, in that extramarital affair sort of way — they jackknife asunder.
    When diagnosed with an unknown condition that systematically paralyzes his organs, Cotard cuts loose from his wife and daughter. Shortly after, he receives a MacArthur Genius grant — seemingly undeservedly — that allows him to carry out a bizarre and elaborate dream of orchestrating a massive magnum opus, set in an enormous New York City warehouse that could double as an urban aviary.

    Meanwhile, his affair falls apart, and for the next 30-odd years we watch Cotard alchemize his own dwindling life (and the myriad lives of others) into art, until the line between the two becomes blurred beyond recognition.

    Kaufman has a penchant for tabling our assumptions of reality, and “Synecdoche” certainly peels the wallpaper around us with a razor quill. Ambling along the sidewalk outside the theater warehouse, Cotard mentions his affection for the production title “Simulacrum.” Although brief and seemingly unecessary, the philosophical allusion is one of the director’s many keyholes into his greater vision.

    Drawing on the postmodern ideas of Jean Baudrillard, Cotard attempts to mimic reality so insistantly that his theatrical replica of New York eventually replaces the city itself — a contemporary fetish our generation perpetuates with MMORPGs, reality TV and practically every other form of media. As Cotard boxes himself within a staged imitation of life, he eventually finds himself in a storyboard of actors who know what he’ll do before he even does it — a reality more realistic than the outside world.

    After hearing Forest Whitaker’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards two years ago, it seemed that maybe there was something more to acting than merely mimicking emotive expressions. As a film filled with well-loved celebrities portraying unadorned Juilliard versions of themselves, one of “Synecdoche”’s most endearing profundities is its tribute to an actor’s divine ability to reflect a universal humanity.

    Employing a tone not unlike that of magical realism, Kaufman’s work exudes a mature style and aesthetic creativity lacking in modern American cinema’s infatuation with blockbusters and placating comedies. Although many audiences will prefer his surrealist escapades and kitsch tales of love lost (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), there’s something to be said for a film that novelly confronts one of humanity’s timeless tragedies, in which we’re all passing strangers with a desire to leave our mark on the world.

    Yet, as Kaufman proves with Emersonian slant, perhaps there is something to embrace besides ourselves — or the selves we assume to be our own.

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