October 27, 2008

"Synecdoche, New York"

I reviewed the hugely ambitious new movie by Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), who is kind of Woody Allen, Tom Stoppard, and Jorge Luis Borges rolled into one, in the latest American Conservative. They've given it another one of their clever titles: "All the Stage Is a World." I don't usually post on iSteve.com my bottom-line opinion of the movies I review (for that, you can buy the magazine), but in this case it might be important:

Kaufman intended that the densely-packed “Synecdoche“ could only be fully appreciated after multiple viewings, but the first screening can be grueling. My wife loved it, but several people walked out. ...

My advice is to lower your expectations, then go see it.

What's it about? A lot of stuff ... In brief:

Caden Cotard [an unhealthy Schenectady regional theatre director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman] wins one of those obnoxious MacArthur Genius Grants. He decides to unleash his creative powers on a vast theatre project that will tell “the brutal truth” about, well, everything. In his bid for artistic immortality, he rents a cavernous warehouse in New York City, employs countless carpenters to build mockups of New York streets inside it, and hires a cast of thousands to live out their lives under his artistic direction. (Apparently, MacArthur grants have gone up several orders of magnitude in value.) Rehearsals go on for decades without reaching Opening Night. As the cast ages, they hire younger actors to play themselves playing their roles.

A “synecdoche,” which rhymes with Caden’s hometown of Schenectady, is a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole (“threads” for clothes) or the whole for a part (“the law” for cops). Kaufman genially explains that if his movie is a hit, “then people will be able to pronounce it and everyone will be able to know the word ‘synecdoche’-- which is a good word to know.”

In “Synecdoche,” Kaufman indulges and satirizes both his aspirations and his failure to keep in mind the artistic value of abstraction and reduction. The film recalls Borges’s one-paragraph parable On Exactitude in Science:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City ... In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, … delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars…

Manolah Dargis also cited this Borges story in her NYT review, so the "Synechoche"-Exactitude analogy is pretty obvious.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

"Caden Cotard" sounds like a feminine hygeine product for the developmentally disabled.

Schenectady can claim a real filmmaker, John Sayles. I believe he still lives there.

Never mind Charlie Kaufman; what would Bill Kauffman have done with this story? For one thing, he would never have taken it down the river. And the economics might work in downscale, upstate Schenectady.

By the way, "synecdoche" does not rhyme with "Schenectady". That would be both alliteration (the stressed syllables start with the same consonant) and assonance (the vowels mirror each other). If everything after the Ns were identical, it still wouldn't be a rhyme, but an identity.

The old Tin Pan Alley lyricist Leo Robin (best known for "Thanks for the Memory"), like all his peers, preferred pure rhyme. His advice to young songwriters: "Don't make an assonance of yourself!"

Anonymous said...

That's Manohla, Steve. What kind of name is that, anyway?

Anonymous said...

"A “synecdoche,” which rhymes with Caden’s hometown of Schenectady, is a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole (“threads” for clothes) or the whole for a part (“the law” for cops). "

And all this time, I thought one was metonymy but could never remember which. You mean I didn't have to keep this straight! Damn HS English teachers.

So does this mean those painful reality shows are on the outs. And aging actresses who can't cope with no longer being 21 and beautiful will be played by aging actresses who maybe are aging gracefully who demonstrate all the pitfalls of not acting one's age in an hour rather than in a 24 hr format that leaves the observer to learn the lesson in real-time which means too late. Or is the whole thing just over my head?