Within the first minute of this film, I knew I was going to love it. Why? Because the first words uttered are lines from my favorite Rilke poem: “Autumn Day.” It’s a poem about change, time, decay, and loneliness, and so is Synecdoche. The words of the poem (uttered over the radio by a suitably dour NPR-esque voice) also turn out to paint pretty literal pictures of what goes on in the film. Here is how the poem ends:
Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore. Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time, will stay up, read, write long letters, and wander the avenues, up and down, restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.
Not to spoil anything, but this last image is pretty much mirrored in the closing shots of the film, which is perfectly fitting for a film that revels in circularity, frames-within-frames, and reflexive loop-de-loop.
Like Charlie Kaufman’s other films (especially Adaptation and Being John Malkovich), Synecdoche is a surrealist collage about the blurry blendings of art and life, memory and dreams, imaginings and harsh realities.
This time Kaufman is totally unrestrained, directing it himself and not having to fight the visions of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, however similar they might have been. The result is much more grandiose, startling, and messy (in a good way). Kaufman directs like he writes: with absurdist visuals and hold-on-to-your-hat pacing (unapologetically confusing timelines, cutting to an image or 2 second clip here and there that represents an entire year or event in some major character’s life, for e.g.). He is a brainy visionary, to be sure, but he also knows how to reign himself in and keep things focused. Synedoche, perhaps moreso than any of his other creations, has a cohesion to it, even while it never stays on any one course for very long.
There are a lot of themes and ideas going on in Synecdoche, and I could easily write 500 words about each of them. The thing that most grabbed me about this film, however, was the way that it dealt with the passage of time. Personally, I'm a big fan of the passage of time, but there are undeniably melancholy things about it too, which Kaufman capitalizes on. Kaufman treats the passage of time with the same tender ambivalence that he treats most of his subjects. Time and decay are existential givens. S*** happens (very viscerally in this film). From the first moments of Synecdoche, the characters are in states of decay. Bodily functions are failing, skin is flaking, hair receding. Scene changes can hide weeks, months, even years of time passing, with no nod from the narrative whatsoever. It's as if Kaufman is saying, "yeah, a year passed... who cares?," which is about the most honest sentiment a screenwriter could express. Time isn't always full of exciting beats and plot turns. In any given life, there may only be two hours worth of noteworthy scenes.
So goes the conflating, circle of life-meets-art that is this film. In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman's playwright character feels like his significance in life will come by putting on a massive play about his life. Or, rather, he wants to create a play that will reveal the significance and meaning of the world by dramatizing it in all of its seeming insignificance and meaninglessness. Essentially, Kaufman seems to suggest, this is what art is all about: finding a way to distill meaning from one’s life and world and achieve renown because of it.
In Synecdoche, the dual processes of life and art, existence and performance become indistinguishable. These days, though, such a concept isn’t all that hard to conceive. In the end, is our life more about being or performing? One need only watch The Hills to see how perplexing that question has become.
Synecdoche is about a lot of other things, too: fate, free will, fatherhood, love, theater, Artaud, cruelty, death, dreaming, and the housing crisis. It’s also about life—contemporary life—and the ridiculousness of our unfailing searches for macro significance at the expense of our micro happiness.