“These men were high priests who gave their lives to serve the only god they knew and worshipped – art. Their reward was to produce great works that, at the time I knew them, went largely unappreciated and unnoticed. The price they paid to produce such art was inordinately high; they sacrificed any chance at ordinary happiness and love. No doubt, their anguish was part of what fueled their art. But the depths of their passion, pain, and poverty terrified me.”
–Elliot Tiber, Taking Woodstock
This is the story Charlie Kaufman wants to tell in Synecdoche, New York: an artist living the artist’s life. Needless to say, it’s a tough movie to sit through. Some people may have an anthropological interest in such a story; I don’t.
I’ve seen it twice – absolutely loathed it the first time. When the egghead crowd started gushing over it, I felt compelled to watch it again. My impression the second time was that it’s a movie of moments. It captures what Elliot Tiber describes above: instances of staggering beauty, situated between long stretches of miserable nothingness that make you wonder if it’s all worth it.
Here’s what I love about Synecdoche, New York (warning: some spoilers); the rest I’ll leave to the masochists.
1) Early on, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) puts on a production of Death of a Salesman, in which Willy and Linda Loman are played by actors in their 20s.
2) When Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) tells Caden that she’s leaving him, she says: “Everyone is disappointing – the more you know someone.”
3) Caden inexplicably appears in one of his daughter Olive’s cartoons.
4) Caden’s would-be girlfriend, Hazel (Samantha Morton), lives in a house that’s always on fire.
5) On the phone from Berlin, Adele blurts out: “I’m famous!”
6) When Caden goes to Berlin to visit Olive, Adele’s friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shows up speaking in a ridiculous German accent.
7) Caden’s therapist, Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), tells him a hilarious story about a 5-year-old literary genius “and his ultimate degradation at the hands of a black ex-convict named Eric Washington Jackson Jones Johnson. Jefferson.”
8 ) On her deathbed, one of Olive’s tattoos wilts.
9) Madeleine pays Caden a surprise visit on an airplane.
10) After Sammy (Tom Noonan) joins the cast of Caden’s epic production, Sammy and Caden are hanging out on Caden’s balcony, and a zeppelin passes overhead.
11) In the epic production, Emily Watson plays Samantha Morton’s character – two actresses frequently mistaken for one another in real life.
12) Emily Watson gets naked – which, happily enough, causes Caden to stop crying.
13) Sammy’s suicide speech.
14) Everything that happens in the last 10 minutes of the movie after Caden puts in the earpiece.
15) The minister’s speech, which I think is worth reprinting here in its entirety: “Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.”