Movies to watch: 5. Synecdoche, New York

Rarely if ever have I seen a film that displays so much beauty because it shows the truth — the one with a capital T. Whoever reads this needs to agree with me that Truth is always beautiful, that it has a profound impact, and that a work of art which reveals Truth adds something significant to the world, something enriching. Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut has nothing to do with conventional beauty, and the truth it imparts is quite simple: nothing more or less than the human condition, life between birth and death, its dreams, ambitions, failings, longings, constantly vacillating between grandeur and decrepit misery. In typical Kaufman fashion, this is cloaked — veiled, rather — with complex symbolism and amazingly clever imagery, resembling a House of Mirrors.

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York is puzzling right away, with its name that one doesn’t know how to pronounce. I had to look it up at Wikipedia, and broadly speaking, it means the substitution of a part for the whole, or vice versa. It is also a clever play with phonetic sounds, because much of the film takes place in the city of Schenectady, New York. We follow the life of theater director Caden Cotard (brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the relationships he has with a number of significant people — his estranged wife (an excellent Catherine Keener), his daughter, and two other women he is in love with, among many other people who are part of his life.

Some critics use adjectives such as surreal, confusing, and hallucinatory to characterize this film. I found it actually extremely realistic, in the sense that one’s own life rarely has the linear progression of an Agatha-Christie novel or a typical Hollywood movie. On the contrary, it is full of time-warps, dreams of grandeur, disappointments, frustration, and surprises, with rare moments of pleasure and happiness. The people who are part of Caden’s life seem to be externalized parts of himself, and they get further reflected by the fact that he has them played by actors, including himself. This self-referential repetition is more chaotic and less mechanical (hence, more beautiful) than an image of fractals; at one point, Caden changes roles with the cleaning lady who takes his place as the director of the gigantic play he is staging.

The film is deeply moving because of its humanity and honesty. And if that isn’t enough, it’s chock-full with superb performances, while the intelligent script makes it almost necessary to see this work of art more than once.


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