14 May 2009

Synecdoche, New York

According to Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms, synecdoche is a device whereby a part of something is used to signify the whole, or (more rarely) the whole is used to signify a part. I tired my brain out thinking about the connection between this special figurative device and Charlie Kaufman's new film, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

As in some of Rene Magritte's paintings, Synecdoche deals with the issue of a play within a play. Caden, the main character, finds himself a victim of weird diseases, giving him rashes and strange symptoms. They make him obsessed of death, to the extent that he wishes to create a great work of art dealing specially with this issue. He is also in a failed relationship with his wife Adele, a famous artist of her own right. One day she chooses to walk out on him with their daughter Olive, moving to Berlin. Caden has no choice but to dedicate his whole time and energy on this new opus. His new 'theatre' houses the whole of his neighbourhood in New York, as he aims to portray his own life in its crudest reality.

However, his attempt to replay his own life down to its minutiae has setbacks. He hires an actor to play his role, only to find that the actor falls in love with exactly the same woman he fancies. Taking his role to heart, the actor commits suicide, causing Caden to find another person to play his part. Then, the whole thing becomes more complicated, as Caden appears in his own film dictating how his actor should act. This makes one wonder whether there should be another Caden out there dictating this Caden (surely some audience would have thought Charlie Kaufman himself would be that Ur-Caden).

However, this role of making a lot of decisions tires Caden out, as towards the end he chooses to be a cleaner instead. In turn, he lets a cleaner take his part and he himself waits for her order. Perhaps this is nothing less than an existential crisis that he suffers from, losing faith in life as it were and prefering to live like a crab in a deep sea like Eliot's Mr Prufrock. Perhaps this is where synecdoche comes in, as the life of Caden somehow is part of our life, the fate of humanity whereby we have no real desire to dictate our life. One key reason is that we know that even though we make decisions, fate will get the upperhand and have its way with our life, the same way that Caden's life just spirals out of control especially the moment when he thinks he has the firm grip.

Imitation is a key motif in Synecdoche. Caden tries to imitate the whole of his life on the grandest scale possible, the same way as Borges's mad cartographer does, only to realise the futility of his ambitious project. Adele, on the other hand, is a miniature painter, trying to create the smallest piece of artwork. They work on the opposite directions of this synecdochic representation. However, we see neither of them is really happy. Caden is a bitter old man yearning for his secretary Hazel, a symbol of desire as she lives in a house on fire. If Hazel is desire, Adele is lack (as Lack is her maiden name). Both of these women figure as the impossible for Caden and somehow become the drive for him to create the great opus.

I'm sure those literature students will have fun interpreting this film, as there're a great number of allusions and references here. But of course this can make the whole film really difficult and challenging. But if you enjoy his earlier films such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind, all of which were written by him, I'm sure you'll like this one, too.

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