Charlie Kaufman has described this film as the world’s first horror film. Because monster closets and serial killers aren’t scary, not really. They’re the kind of safe scare that you can enjoy in your armchair, because you’re more likely to get hit by a bus or struck by lightning than be the victim of a sadistic monster. So you can watch them, feel the thrill of fear, but that’s not true fear, not something you deal with on a day to day basis, having it gnaw at you slowly, chipping away at your will until there’s nothing but this brittle core that only barely keeps you going. Yeah, horror films don’t really touch on that one. Synecdoche, New York touches on it. It touches on that and a million other things.
It’s a film about life and death, and finding glory in life and acceptance in death. And the other way around, and pretty much anything else you can think of. The film itself is as fool-hardy and ambitious as its protagonist’s attempt to turn life into a theater production. It’s filled with ambiguous metaphor and powerful, nonchalant scenes that seem throwaway, but serve as a Rosetta Stone for understanding how it’s all going to work. Nothing makes sense, and the whole thing slips into a surreal subspace without you ever noticing, until you’re submerged in it, and you can only wonder.
It’s written and directed by Kaufman, he who brought you Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and it’s no coincidence that they share a word. He’s obsessed with personhood and meaning, and, of all the things to get obsessed about, I think that’s a pretty important, justified one. He deals with grief and loss, and love and friendship, and fuck, there’s just not enough words, ok? The whole thing is too big, you can’t keep it all in focus, and when you deal with any of the little things on their own, they become petty and as small as they are. It’s only when you’re allowed to pull back that you can understand how they work in concert with the rest to form a whole thing.
Caden obsessively scrubbing his absent wife’s studio clean of decades old paint with a toothbrush. Alone and upset, sitting on a large pink wooden box with the picture of a nose, NOSE emblazoned underneath, in case there’s any confusion. Making love in a house on fire. The sterile, but somehow grimy doctor’s offices, where the lighting is simultaneously too harsh and failing to illuminate properly. A fake funeral where the minister breaks into poem, when it’s not really a poem. The death of a daughter.
I’m deliberately stopping myself from explaining much about the film itself. Because I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t watched it, and I don’t want to influence those who have. It’s a deeply personal thing, this film, and I’d much rather convey a mood and feel rather than anything solid, because Synecdoche, New York isn’t a solid thing. It’s fluid, and the meanings warp and rearrange themselves depending on who you are, and what experiences you’re bringing forward. Different parts will resonate with different people. Different parts will resonate with you differently, depending on who you are at the point you watch it, and the point you watch it again. Emphasis will travel, visiting new scenes, new words, and making them the crux of the meaning. And that’s a glorious thing.
You will watch it more than once, if you watch it once the whole way through. Like all great work it’s proved divisive, and some can’t stand the thing. I can’t help but think they’re the ones who don’t like the particular mirror it holds up, the truths that it slips against, draping a laconic meaning over things that we don’t particularly like to think about. I’ve seen it three times so far, and I think I’m going to watch it again, tonight, because a lot has happened in the few months since I last saw it. It’s as much a frame as it is a mirror, and it allows me to view myself in reference to the film itself. I’m sure, in a decade or so, it will still be an important film to watch, if only because it’s a film about everything and anything. Some parts I don’t understand, some parts I do. Some parts I’m sure I’ll come to understand, and a few might remain out of reach forever.
Now it is waiting and nobody cares. And when you’re wait is over this room will still exist and it will continue to hold shoes and dress and boxes and maybe someday another waiting person. And maybe not. The room doesn’t care either.