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Synechdoche, New York

21 Nov

Synecdoche, New York — directed by Charlie Kaufman. Drama. 3 hours and 23 minutes Color 2008.

★★★★★

The Story: A theatre director’s wife leaves him, and the rest of his life is lived out unmoored.

~

The director has begun his career by presenting to the world his King Lear, And why not? The boulders of that play are about us and upon us since the day Shakespeare wrote it, and any playwright must operate with it in the shadows like a gift one day to be honored. Kaufman has honored it early with a masterwork. It has been taken to be such by others, and you might number yourself among them if you take the journey into Synecdoche.

The work “New York” localizes it in a way I do not understand, except as a synonym for a terminus or graveyard. But I don’t dally with such terms, so forget I ever said it.

Other minor matters bothered me, but not at the time. I learn that the main character has married again, but I had no sense of that from the film, and when I learned it from the extra features, I thought it must be with the Samantha Morton character. I was wrong.

The other thing I did not grasp was that there was an Armory within an Armory, and that some scenes were played in the one and some in the other.

But none of this mattered to me at the time. None of it impeded my pleasure and interest.

The word “dream” is used, incorrectly it seems to me, in relation to this piece, for what I see is always grounded in realistic psychological everyday experience. The film’s story is the working out of the life of an individual who comes undone when his wife leaves him inexplicably. From then on everything you see is everything he does internally until the day he dies, which he also does, many years later. It is just like you and me.

Not to speak anything more about this momentous story, lest I defuse its excitements and turns, the wife is played beautifully by Catharine Keener who is always riveting, always fun, and we wait for her return all the way through the film.

I cannot stifle my cries of appreciation for the work of Emily Watson, who is just marvelous as an imported actress, as are Michelle Williams as a greedy, starstruck actor, Hope Davis as a bigtime human-potentialist, and Tommy Noonan as the director’s double. Samantha Morton plays her early scenes externally, but once she ages, she is great.

The leading role, and he is on camera always, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays the role scene-to-scene. For there is no other way to play it. It is a story in which the arc of the character cannot be given by the actor, but only by the treatment of the material by the director — and Kaufman does not supply an arc. Unlike in King Lear, madness does not wake the Hoffman character up.  So, no arc; unless you can say Hoffman goes deeper to sleep.

Instead, the arc lies with the audience’s eventual acceptance that the external emotion and the internal emotion are all on the same visual level. Which is right: we experience, or at least I experience that they are all one thing, one collection, one synecdoche, life as a defeated bouquet.

The moral of the story? The human spirit is insufficient air for an artist’s ambition that work can be his salvation and reality.

Do see it. Hoffman is just gorgeous in it. It is his most personal performance of all.

 
 
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