DVD of the Week – Review of Synecdoche, New York (2008)
by RISHI AGRAWAL
I am not going to be so pretentious as to pretend that I fully understand Synecdoche, New York. Nominally, the film is about a playwright in upstate New York, whose wife leaves him, taking their young daughter to Germany. After receiving a Macarthur Genius Grant, he then begins work on an autobiographical play, which spirals out of control. Eventually, after decades, the play contains hundreds of actors and fills a warehouse. As the play becomes increasingly strange, it encompasses his life and eventually becomes one of the main subjects of the play. The director not only has to hire an actor to play himself, but has to hire an actor to play that actor.
Although Roger Ebert in his review dismisses the idea that the title is meaningful, I find it presents an interesting window into the film. The term synecdoche is a literary term used when a part of something is used to represent the whole or the whole of something is used to represent a part. It is also used when a generic term is used to represent something specific or a specific term is used to represent something generic. The film illuminates that no matter how hard we try, we can only represent portions of our life and use those small parts to try to explain our entire lives, but, at the same time, our entire lives are too complex to explain and only serve to create smaller revelations. And the film might be presenting the life of a specific man, perhaps the writer-director Charlie Kaufman thinly disguised as a playwright, but it’s really about all of us. At the same time, it takes hundreds of people to explain one man.
You would think a film that raises such highbrow concepts would be dull, but the film is entertaining and very funny at parts. As is common for films written by Charlie Kaufman, the film starts out as fairly normal and then gradually gets stranger. In fact, the film is even relatively plausible until a woman buys a house that is on fire and remains that way through the entire film. This style is effective, because as opposed to a film that is strange from the start, the weird turns in the movie still catch us by surprise. The film tries hard to keep the audience from orienting itself, including strange camera work that has zero establishing shots. Everything feels cramped and insular.
But, at the same time, the film is not so difficult that we aren’t presented inroads. At one point, a character delivers a speech that goes a long way towards explaining the concept of the film: that we are all the lead actors in our own plays. But this isn’t the whole story, nor is it meant to be.
Before I get complaints that this film is terrible, I will say that this is a difficult film. It is also self-indulgent, pretentious and intentionally alienating. If you are simply looking to be entertained, then this is definitely not the film for you. But, if you are looking to be challenged, frustrated, and hopefully intellectually stimulated, then this film is a must-see. And, if you hate the film, I have to say that I firmly believe that hate is instructive. You’ll learn a lot about yourself by examining why you hate the film.
By the way, the cast is excellent. You should check out who is in it. You might see some names you like.
I honestly have no idea what the special features on this DVD are about. It is available in both a regular release and Blu-Ray. I will summarize what is on the disc and you can draw your own conclusions: “The Story of Caden Cotard” (Caden Cotard is the name of the main character in the film), “Infectious Diseases in Cattle: Bloggers’ Round Table,” “NFTS/Script Factory Masterclass with Charlie Kaufman” and “Screen Animations.”
Other new releases this week: Battle in Seattle, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Cadillac Records, Ghajini, Happy-Go-Lucky, Let the Right One In, Milk, Rachel Getting Married, Role Models, Transporter 3