The Best Film of 2008? Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

October 2, 2009

Synecdoche, New York, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, was greeted with Best Film of the Year from critics and catcalls from moviegoers. It is a film that only someone like Psychiatric Times’ Editor in Chief, Dr Ron Pies, could fully understand (ie, a psychiatrist who knows about arcane neuroscience and literature). The problems start with the title. Most people have no idea what “synecdoche” means or how to pronounce it. Looking it up is not much help. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a figure [of speech] by which a comprehensive term is used for a less comprehensive or vice versa, as whole for part or part for whole, genus for species or species for genus, etc.” The commentary adds to the confusion: “Formerly sometimes used loosely or vaguely, and not infrequently misexplained.” No matter. Most critics did not explain it anyway, emphasizing instead its pronunciation-si-NECK-doh-kee-which sort of rhymes with Schenectady (sken-ECK-tuh-dee), where the film “seems” to be set. They outdid each other, too, in their praise of the film, while being surprisingly candid about their inability to explain it. Roger Ebert called it “Joycean,” with the richness of literature. He enthused, “It’s about you. Whoever you are,” even though he conceded that he had not fully understood it. As for the ambiguity of the title, he advised readers to “get over it.”

Synecdoche, New York, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, was greeted with Best Film of the Year from critics and catcalls from moviegoers. It is a film that only someone like Psychiatric Times’ Editor in Chief, Dr Ron Pies, could fully understand (ie, a psychiatrist who knows about arcane neuroscience and literature). The problems start with the title. Most people have no idea what “synecdoche” means or how to pronounce it. Looking it up is not much help. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a figure [of speech] by which a comprehensive term is used for a less comprehensive or vice versa, as whole for part or part for whole, genus for species or species for genus, etc.” The commentary adds to the confusion: “Formerly sometimes used loosely or vaguely, and not infrequently misexplained.” No matter. Most critics did not explain it anyway, emphasizing instead its pronunciation-si-NECK-doh-kee-which sort of rhymes with Schenectady (sken-ECK-tuh-dee), where the film “seems” to be set. They outdid each other, too, in their praise of the film, while being surprisingly candid about their inability to explain it. Roger Ebert called it “Joycean,” with the richness of literature. He enthused, “It’s about you. Whoever you are,” even though he conceded that he had not fully understood it. As for the ambiguity of the title, he advised readers to “get over it.”

But audiences baffled by the title or confused by the film’s convoluted timeline and the bewildering duplication of characters may indeed wonder what Kaufman intended to communicate. And unlike Roger Ebert, lots of people cannot enjoy a film they do not understand, particularly when it is supposed to be about them. When I went to see the movie a second time, the theater was almost empty. Apparently the thumbs-down-I-don’t-get-it crowd had, by word of mouth, defeated critical opinion.

Too bad. The critical praise is at least partly deserved. Synecdoche is an uncompromisingly ambitious and intellectually challenging film, even if not a masterpiece. Kaufman set out to create a work like Fellini’s 8Z\x, or Bergman’s Persona, films that captivate audiences without compromising the director’s vision. Susan Sontag described Bergman’s achievement in Persona as setting the movie not in the real world but in “the mental universe.” The same might be said of 8Z\x which grew out of Fellini’s Jungian analysis. Unfortunately, where the effort to evoke the mysteries of the human condition succeeded in Bergman’s and Fellini’s films, it can feel like intentional obscurantism in Kaufman’s. Unlike his predecessors who were interested in the mind, Kaufman is preoccupied with the brain and with the findings of neuroscience.

Synecdoche is not, in fact, set in Schenectady but in Kaufman’s 21st century scientific version of the mental universe, where we witness the consciousness of the protagonist Caden Cotard (portrayed brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can apparently meet any challenge), Kaufman’s alter ego, as it experiences the world. Our task-and it is a task-is like trying to understand what is going on in Stephen Dedalus’s mind as he walks along the Sandymount Strand, reflecting on family, nation, Catholicism, death, Hamlet, and the ineluctable modality of the visible and the audible. Caden Cotard’s consciousness is, unsurprisingly, far less interesting than Stephen Dedalus’ mind.

Kaufman has a reputation in Hollywood for quirky, touching, and sometimes hilarious screenplays that are part theater of the absurd and part neuroscience fiction. Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) are the best examples. If Bergman and Fellini were Jungians, Kaufman is apparently a devotee of Oliver Sacks.

In Malkovich, Kaufman explored what it would be like to inhabit the mind of another person; it was a cinematic, tongue-in-cheek approximation of the philosophical hypothetical about human identity: who would you be if your brain could be transplanted into another person’s body? In Sunshine, he took on the relation between the self and memory. Who would you be if your unhappy memories could be erased? These neuroscience/philosophy-of-mind puzzlers were central to the conception of Kaufman’s screenplays, and yet under the direction of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry (who also worked on the scripts), audiences could identify with the characters. The narrative, though absurd, was accessible. The films were critical and commercial successes. Kaufman, with his collaborators Gondry and Pierre Bismuth, earned the Oscar for best original screenplay for Sunshine.

In Synecdoche Kaufman took complete creative control as writer, director, and co-producer. In a significant break from the earlier films, he downplayed (or blackened) the humor, making depression’s unrelenting darkness visible on the screen, not only in the person of Cotard but also in the bleak cinematography and the empty facades and derelict locations of the set. After a few moments of Kaufman’s dark humor, what we see is thoroughly depressing and depressed. Cotard is waiting to die and so, he announces, are we all. Perhaps Cotard thinks he is dead already.

Although the scene is set in Cotard’s consciousness-and we cannot distinguish among his experiences, his fantasies, his delusions, and what is actually happening-it seemed possible on my second viewing to piece together a kind of narrative. Cotard is a stage director married to an artist (Catherine Keener) who paints miniatures so tiny they can only be seen with a jeweler’s loupe. The couple has a 5-year-old daughter who, as the film begins, is passing green stools. The marriage is on the rocks-Cotard’s wife apparently prefers a lesbian lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and tells their family therapist that she wishes her husband were dead. This wish has many resonances in the complicated narrative that follows. But in the moment, the family therapist (Hope Davis), a self-promoting egomaniac, congratulates the wife on getting her thought out and seems oblivious to its psychological import or its impact on Cotard.

We are seeing the mental universe through Cotard’s consciousness-and what do we make of him? We might initially wonder whether he is brilliant or crazy. Your response will depend at first on what you think of his casting decision in his regional theater production of Death of a Salesman. For this classic tale of mid-life despair, he chooses young actors to play Willy Loman and his wife, to emphasize that the Everyman tragedy of a wasted life begins much earlier than Arthur Miller imagined. Perhaps Cotard is brilliant and crazy-they are not mutually exclusive.

In any event, Cotard’s wife is unimpressed with the production and takes off for Germany with their young daughter and her lover. Already depressed and suffering from bizarre physical symptoms, Cotard now feels abandoned. But because we are witnesses to his consciousness, we cannot tell whether his maladies are real or imagined. Does he suffer from sycosis, a disfiguring skin disease causing the eruption of sores that look like figs, or from psychosis, or, as he remarks, does he have both? In some scenes we see the sores on his face and watch as he urinates blood. When things can’t get worse, his wife calls from Germany to crow that she has been declared a genius. She tells him she is never coming back to him, and he will never see his daughter again. Then the trajectory of his life is relaunched by unexpected good news: out of the blue comes validation . . . a MacArthur genius award, and he resolves to write and direct a work of ultimate genius. Unfortunately, his ambitious project turns into a Sisyphean ordeal that destroys him.

The rest of the film seems to be Cotard’s meditation on years of work to mount the production. The timeline comes from a frustrated actor who asks, “When are we going to get an audience in here? We have been doing this for 17 years.” During this time, Cotard has apparently remarried, again unhappily. He has an affair with Hazel (Samantha Morton) the ticket seller, who lives in a house that is permanently on fire. He learns that his ex-wife’s lesbian lover has made a creative career of tattooing his daughter, who now dances in the nude before men for money.

In the miasma of Cotard’s consciousness, the emotional tones are endless humiliation punctuated by his reactions to the deaths of his father, his mother, and his daughter, who, on her deathbed, speaks only German and insists that her father-if he wants reconciliation before she dies-must confess that he broke up their family because he wanted to have anal sex with his homosexual lover. Cotard confesses, and his daughter having extracted this completely false and humiliating account nonetheless refuses the reconciliation! An aged Cotard finally finds a friendly woman’s shoulder to lean on-that is all he wants-and he fades away as the screen literally turns white.

Is Caden Cotard a Hollywood version of Willy Loman? Maybe. But Cotard will no doubt mean different things to different people, who will find their own meaning in Synecdoche.

For those who want to pursue Kaufman’s meaning, however, he has left obvious markers (that someone like Ron Pies would recognize). Jules Cotard was a 19th-century French neurologist who gave his name to a syndrome in which a very depressed patient believes that his organs are rotting and eventually insists that he is dead. What could it mean, the modern neuroscientist might ask, to insist that you are dead when you are obviously alive? The neuroscientific meaning has to do with what is going on in your brain, where delusions are now located and explained. This suggests Kaufman is not exploring the psyche of an artist in the same mental universe that Joyce explores in Stephen Dedalus, where internal conflicts are knowable to the layperson if never resolved by a recondite science. Kaufman seems to be depicting the phenomenological manifestations of a disordered brain. At least in naming his main character Cotard and having him display all the symptoms of the syndrome, Kaufman gives the neuroscientifically trained psychiatrist an unmistakable if arcane clue to his intentions.

But that is not all. Kaufman briefly refers to another psychiatric syndrome, equally important. In one of many humiliations, Cotard goes to an apartment house where his ex-wife lives; he is supposed to do the house cleaning. When he looks for the number of her flat we see a handwritten sign with the name “Capgras” on it. Joseph Capgras was a French psychiatrist who described a syndrome that bears his name. A patient with Capgras syndrome believes that all of the people around him or her have somehow been replaced by doppelgngers or impostors who are pretending to be his family and friends. This delusion of doubles may lead the patient to acts of desperation and despair. Neuroscientists believe that Cotard and Capgras syndromes are related-that both involve a disconnect between what one sees and what one feels as the brain processes visual information. When you look in the mirror or at other people, and the accompanying feeling seems wrong, your mental universe becomes bewilderingly unreal-an experience neuropsychiatric textbooks call derealization.

Capgras syndrome is portrayed clearly in the film, as Cotard, mounting his great production, keeps enlisting actor-doubles to play the parts of the actors and everyone else involved in the play, including himself and Hazel. Eventually it becomes difficult for the audience to keep track of all the doubling, and we have no idea why Cotard insists on it. What is one to make of the actor who is playing Cotard writing his own lines and committing suicide? The scene is awesome in its enactment of the complex phenomenology of consciousness experiencing its world. As Cotard, the director of the play within the film, looks down at the obvious-even ridiculous-simulacrum of the body of the man who played the part of Caden Cotard, he is moved to tears.

Can the audience comprehend the brilliance of what Kaufman offers us, the mystery of how consciousness sorts out a multilayered complexity? Can we weep along with Cotard? Not likely. But if Kaufman has created a film that causes his audience to experience the disconnect between what we see and what we feel, to send us off into the night bewildered by his questions about consciousness and the brain, that is no small achievement.

There is more to say about this brilliant and flawed film. It could become a cult film for neuropsychiatrists. It seems to me, though, it would have been better if Kaufman had collaborated with Jonze or Gondry. Then more moviegoers could have been in on the pleasure of thinking through the film’s artistic and intellectual challenges. Instead, most of them left the theater feeling depressed and confused-for many of them it was the worst film of 2008.