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Synecdoche, New York

Entry updated 25 October 2021. Tagged: Film.

Film (2008). Likely Story/Projective Testing Service/Russia/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Cast includes Hope Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest and Michelle Williams. 124 minutes. Colour.

A theatre director in Schenectady, who finds his life accelerating (see Time Distortion) as his health and personal life disintegrate, uses a MacArthur Fellowship award to fund a vast theatrical version of his life in a warehouse space in New York. Rehearsals continue for decades; the mise en abîme proliferates and characters become confounded with their actors; finally the production collapses without ever opening to audiences, as the outside world disintegrates into anarchy.

Originally intended to be Kaufman's third collaboration with director Spike Jonze following Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (2002), the film became Kaufman's directorial debut following Jonze's decision to direct Where the Wild Things Are (2009). The initial conception was for a horror film about the natural processes of ageing and disappointment, and much survives of that impetus in the eventual film; but its ambitions are enlarged to encompass Kaufman's wider preoccupations with Identity and creation, using the processes of Theatre as the apparatus of a recursive Godgame. To a still greater degree than in his earlier films, the sf elements are positioned within an essentially surrealist frame of narrative logic (the Morton character's house, for example, is permanently and inexplicably ablaze). Nevertheless, the film sets out very directly – more so than any other film yet made – to encapsulate the lived subjective experience of futurity (the film opens with the 2005 announcement of Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize, and the script dates the final scenes to 2055), which it presents as an essentially melancholic and accelerating process beyond the individual's control and comprehension. The protagonist's name, Cotard, is a direct reference to the medical condition known as the Cotard Delusion, whose victims are convinced they are dead (see Anomalisa; Zombies). It divided critics. [NL]


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