Cotard delusion is a rare form of mental illness in which the patient holds
the belief that he is dead, or does not exist, or is decaying. You can
probably begin to guess that a film in which the main character is an
introspective director named Caden Cotard is not going to be a vehicle for
lowbrow laughs with Larry the Cable Guy. (Or, as the Germans call him, Der
Rosenkabelier.) The fact that the film is named after an obscure literary
trope will reassure you in that belief.1
You know for sure that you're in surreal territory when you hear
that the film was written by Hollywood's resident eccentric intellectual,
Charlie Kaufman. The icing on the cake is that Kaufman also directed the film
in his first effort at the helm. His presence in the director's chair assures
that there is nobody to constrain his vision, or to dilute his communication
with the audience. (Or lack thereof.)
The lead character, Caden Cotard, is directing regional theater in
Schenectady, New York (population 60,000) and is in the midst of several
mid-life crises. His wife is disappointed with him, does not respect him, and
is on her way toward becoming a major figure in the art world, which will
cause her to take their daughter off to Germany for good. Caden also feels
that he must have some serious health problems, and his fears seem to be
justified by his various seizures and pustules, which lead him to be obsessed
with decay and death. (Aka Cotard delusion. He should have seen that coming.)
Just when he seems to have reached the nadir of his existence, he is
awarded a vast sum of money as one of those "genius grants" from the MacArthur
Foundation. This is a turning point in a film which had previously been
somewhat grounded in reality. First of all, there is no conceivable reason for
the MacArthur people to recognize his work as genius. From what we have seen,
he belongs right where he is - in Schenectady. Second of all, the MacArthur
grants ($500,000 or so) could not possibly finance what we see him doing with
the money - taking many decades to create a full-scale replica of part of New
So, how are we supposed to interpret all of this? Is this another movie
where the protagonist is dead or dying and is looking back on his life through
a deathbed dream? No, I don't think so. I think we are supposed to accept this
alternate version of reality.
At any rate, Caden decides to use his infinite wealth to create, in a
typical artist's masturbatory fashion, a replica of his own life. As
time goes on, the project becomes larger and more ambitious, and more
confusing. He hires an actor to play himself. When that actor commits suicide,
Caden has to hire another actor to play the first actor, and another actor to
play himself. The actor who plays Caden has an affair with Caden's unrequited
love. The actress who plays the unrequited love has an affair with the real
And so forth.
Synecdoche, N.Y. is an odd film to be sure, and one that seems to have been
sent to us from an earlier era when dramatists liked to grapple with the big
ideas, often using non-traditional and non-linear structures to express those
ideas. Pirandello shattered the fourth wall in Six Characters in Search of an
Author. You're probably familiar with the work of Samuel Beckett, who is most
famous for Waiting for Godot; and you may know of Eugene Ionesco, whose name
is closely associated with the term Theater of the Absurd. If Charlie Kaufman
had been born in Europe in 1908 rather than in New York in 1958, his name
would be on the same list.
You think I'm exaggerating? Not so. August Strindberg, one of the pioneers
of experimental drama, introduced A Dream Play with this preface in 1901: "The
characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge.
But one consciousness rules them all: the dreamer's; for him there are no
secrets, no inconsistencies, no scruples and no laws. He does not judge or
acquit, he merely relates; and because a dream is usually painful rather than
pleasant, a tone of melancholy and compassion for all living creatures
permeates the rambling narrative."
I could take that paragraph and apply it directly to Synecdoche, New York,
without changing a freakin' comma.
I admired Synecdoche, New York. I found it engaging not only on an
intellectual level, but also on a visceral one. For a film with such a
convoluted structure and such high-falutin' ambitions, it surprises by
managing to lead with the heart, not with the head. I came out of the film
thinking about the nature of existence, feeling compassion for the characters,
and knowing that I had better watch a comedy before bedtime to prevent 24
hours of depression. I mean that in a good way, in the sense that the film
delivers the emotional punch it is meant to deliver, despite a lot of
philosophical ruminating, and a lot of confusion. Somehow or another it will
manage to get inside your head, and maybe into your tear ducts.
Many people had a problem with the time compression of the film, but I
applaud whet Kaufman did there. Temporal disorientation is always with us. The
sane as well as the insane lose track of time, especially when it comes to the
current status of people we have not seen for many years. I have some first
cousins on my father's side whom I have not seen since my grandfather's
funeral in January of 1971. At that time I was 21, and they were in early
primary school. When I went back to Rochester for my 40th high school reunion,
I was shocked to discover than one of them was a grandmother. In my mind they
were no longer 8 years old, but I was imagining them in their early twenties.
Kaufman simply takes this sort of disorientation to the next level. Caden
Cotard just can't get a handle on time. He thinks his wife has been gone for a
week when it is a year. He thinks his daughter is four when she is eleven. He
thinks he's just about ready to open his big play when he's been in rehearsal
for seventeen years. All of that time slips by and he keeps missing the
opportunity to get comfortable with the woman who really loves him. When he
finally does become her lover, it is too late. She dies the next day.
Kaufman's script manages to take our sense of fleeting time and use it as a
Of course, it would not be a Charlie Kaufman script if she had passed away
in some ordinary fashion. She died of smoke inhalation, because she had been
living for decades in a house on fire.
Is all this marketable?
For Kaufman's work in general: yes. His past writing efforts have not
produced any blockbusters, but they have resulted in accessible, commercial
films for a select but fairly sizable audience - an audience similar to, but
larger than, Woody Allen's market. Eternal Sunshine, one of my favorite films,
grossed 34 million dollars, which is more than any of Woody's films have
grossed in the past two decades.
In the specific case of this film, no. Kaufman has gone too far from the
beaten path this time. Of course, Kaufman is not the only filmmaker who has
trod such a surreal path around the fourth wall. Peter Greenaway's The Baby of
Macon is on the same route, with its multiple layers of reality and its
play-within-a play-within-a-film structure. But Greenaway's films are not
expected to turn a profit. He is an intellectual creating art films for other
intellectuals, using funds provided by government endowments which are
specifically earmarked for prestigious egghead endeavors. Kaufman, on the
other hand, is a former sitcom writer who is attempting to create commercial
films. Synecdoche proved to be so inaccessible as to be insufficiently
appealing even to Kaufman's usual following, and it could not approach the
popularity of Kaufman's most popular writing projects:
||Max # theaters
Synecdoche, New York
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Being John Malkovich
It's a shame that there's not a larger market for more challenging,
experimental, and ambitious drama, but the simple fact is that there is not.
If Kaufman wants to continue getting financing for commercial projects, he'll
have to make them less opaque.
I hope he does.
There's just nobody else in the film industry similar to him. People love
him or hate him; they can find him maddening, depressing, brilliant, confused
or confusing. But nobody calls him a copycat. Like Greenaway, he's a true
original, and we need these guys.
1 Synecdoche, pronounced sin-ECK-dih-kee, is a
figure of speech in which a more comprehensive term is used for a less
comprehensive, or vice versa. Most frequently it is used to describe
the substitution of part for the whole. Examples: (1) "I took my wheels out
for a spin," rather than "took my car." (2) "You must do this in the name of
the crown," rather than "of the king" or "of the kingdom."
Anna Biller, the writer, director and star of Viva, set out to make a bad
movie, a send-up of the bad exploitation movies made in the first wave of the
sexual revolution in the late 60s and early 70s. She did everything possible
to re-create what the cheesy films were like in that era: the fashions, the
sets, the script, the dialogue, the awkward blocking, the lame philosophy, the
hairstyles, the bad acting, the bad music, you name it. Biller managed to
cover just about every possible cliché from the era: the swingin' bachelors,
the psychedelic cartoons, the nudie musicals, the casual drug use, the
flamboyant gay characters, the gratuitous lesbian scenes, the bored
housewives. All the characters walk around with a martini in one hand and a
cigarette in the other. When they aren't spouting trite jargon about sexual
liberation, they're exchanging 70's catch phrases from TV commercials.
To give you the flavor of the film, I captured a very brief non-nude scene
with some hilarious dialogue and acting styles.
Very small download, well worth the look.
Ms. Biller did an excellent job on her movie. I laughed out loud a few
times, and smiled in recognition many times. There's really only one thing
wrong with the film. It's way too long. And I mean WAY too long. This sort of
spoof gets old and repetitious very quickly, but this movie goes on for two
hours, so it really started to irritate me in the last half hour, even though
I liked it. At 80 minutes this could have been a beautifully paced spoof, but
at 120 minutes it really drags and repeats itself. (I was especially bored
with an "exaggerated laughter" gag which was repeated many times.)
Since the film is making fun of skin flicks, there is plenty of skin: