The light is dying, and Kaufman is raging. In “Synecdoche,” mortality is a cold terror waiting with open jaws at the end of a series of soul-crushing humiliations in which layers of the self are brutally stripped away, leaving a naked and flayed sensory organ then capable of truly apprehending only the supreme emptiness of existence. Popcorn with extra butter. The remarkable thing about the film is that despite the desolation of its core, it is still fascinating to watch.
Here is the story. You pursue an ideal and hold on to something which approximates it. Then you lose that thing and pursue an imitation of the thing that approximated the original ideal. Then you lose that, and pursue a poor copy of the imitation of an approximation of an ideal. To dramatize this, the film uses the device of a cinematic “synecdoche”: a part substitutes for the whole, a stage serves to represent a city, and the imitation of life becomes life. Life imitates art which imitates life.
Imitation itself becomes more real than the real. Metaphors (a burning house) become literal. If all this sounds maddeningly postmodern, well, it is. Kaufman has made a film which has been built to be analyzed, interpreted, deconstructed. But as a piece of cinema, a story which has meaning for audiences more than critics, it is a mixed success. Most reviews seem to say it lacks human feeling. I disagree. I’d say it has plenty of feeling, it’s just that the feeling is all coming from and relating to one individual – the whole film takes place inside one characters head, inside a subjectivity that never relents. The world it portrays is completely solipsistic.
Though the film is about a theater director, it could just as easily be about a filmmaker. “Synecdoche” reminded me more of Fellini’s 8 1/2 than any other movie I could think of to compare it to. It explores the psyche, the inner world, of a figure whose emptiness and confusion is a mockery of the certainty a “director” is supposed to provide. It explores relationships with women, obsessions with women, the ongoing quest for frustrated maternal love, the anxiety of castration and so on. But this is a far bleaker film than Fellini ever dreamed of. Philip Seymour Hoffman is hauntingly convincing as a man whose physical and psychic health are crumbling.
Like a recent novel by Philip Roth, Everyman, Synecdoche takes care to illustrate the house of horrors awaiting all of us with age. The body breaks down, it dies, it is inevitable and terrible, and the catalog of frailties can grow to eclipse all else in the life of a man who has nothing other than himself to think about. I came away from Synecdoche strangely happy, as I did after reading Everyman, and I think there’s more than grim meditations on men dying at work in both of these narratives. In exploring the ways these men are dying, the audience is forced to think about the way they live, and the value of decisions, particularly those that lead away from connection with others and towards increasing inwardness that suffocates. Like Synecdoche’s director says in the film, he wants to (I’m paraphrasing) “immerse the audience in the mikvah, the communal bath, the blood and semen and bodily fluids we’re all sloshing around in.”
To what end, Kaufman? To the end we all are headed to, apparently, which is why it matters how you live, how you love, how you let things or don’t let things (a divorce, a heartbreak, an illness) destroy you.