"Synecdoche, New York" is the best film of the decade. It intends no less than to evoke the strategies we use to live our lives. After beginning my first viewing in confusion, I began to glimpse its purpose and by the end was eager to see it again, then once again, and I am not furnished. Charlie Kaufman understands how I live my life, and I suppose his own, and I suspect most of us. Faced with the bewildering demands of time, space, emotion, morality, lust, greed, hope, dreams, dreads and faiths, we build compartments in our minds. It is a way of seeming sane.
The mind is a concern in all his screenplays, but in "Synecdoche" (2008), his first film as a director, he makes it his subject, and what huge ambition that demonstrates. He's like a novelist who wants to get it all into the first book in case he never publishes another. Those who felt the film was disorganized or incoherent might benefit from seeing it again. It isn't about a narrative, although it pretends to be. It's about a method, the method by which we organize our lives and define our realities.
Very few people live their lives on one stage, in one persona, wearing one costume. We play different characters. We know this and accept it. In childhood we begin as always the same person but quickly we develop strategies for our families, our friends, our schools. In adolescence these strategies are not well controlled. Sexually, teenagers behave one way with some dates and a different way with others. We find those whose have a persona that matches one of our own, and that defines how we interact with that person. If you aren't an aggressor and are sober, there are girls (or boys) you do it with and others you don't, and you don't want those people to discover what goes on away from them.
But already "Synecdoche" has me thinking in terms of the film's insight. That is its power. Let me stand back and consider it as a movie. It's about a theater director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who begins with a successful regional production, is given a MacArthur genius grant, and moves with a troupe of actors into a New York warehouse. Here they develop a play that grows and grows, and he devises a set representing their various rooms and lives. The film begins as apparently realistic, but as the set expands it shades off into -- complexity? fantasy? chaos?
In the earlier scenes, he was married to Adele (Catherine Keener). She leaves, and he marries Claire (Michelle Williams), who to some degree is intended to literally replace the first wife, as many second spouses are. Why do some people marry those who resemble their exes? They're casting for the same role. Caden has hired an actor named Daniel London (Tom Noonan) to star in the play, as a character somewhat like himself. Many writers and directors create fiction from themselves, and are often advised to.
What happens in the film isn't supposed to happen in life. The membrane between fact and fiction becomes permeable, and the separate lives intermingle. Caden hardly seems to know whose life he's living; his characters develop minds of their own. How many authors have you heard say their dialogue involves "just writing down what the characters would say?"
Living within different personas is something many people do. How can a governor think to have a mistress in Argentina? An investment counselor think to steal all the money entrusted to him? A famous athlete be revealed as a sybarite? A family man be discovered to have two families? I suspect such people, and to some degree many of us, find no more difficulty in occupying those different scenarios that we might find eating meat some days and on others calling ourselves vegetarian.
"Synecdoche" is accomplished in all the technical areas, including its astonishing set. The acting requires great talent to create characters who are always in their own reality, however much it shifts. Philip Seymour Hoffman's character experiences a deterioration of body, as we all do, finds it more difficult to see outside himself, as we all do, and becomes less sure of who "himself' is, as sooner or later we all do. He shows us this process with a precise evolution.
Kaufman has made the most perceptive film I can recall about how we live in the world. This is his debut as a director, but his most important contribution is the screenplay. Make no mistake: He sweated blood over this screenplay. Somebody had to know what was happening on all those levels, and that had to be the writer. Of course he directed it. Who else could have comprehended it?