THE EYEBALL, The Rumpus DVD Column: Synecdoche, New York

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These movies pass through our lives, take up two hours of our time, and go along their merry way. Recently I enjoyed Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, Orson Welles’s masterful Touch of Evil, and a collection of Pixar shorts. I watched E.T. with my son and was surprised at how dark that movie was. And at the very moment when the scary astronaut guys apply the defib paddles to E.T.’s lumpy animatronic chest, Miles vomited on the floor. I’m still trying to figure out whether he had the stomach flu or was making his first foray into film criticism.
While watching these films, one question kept intruding into my thoughts: Should I blog about this? I thought about blogging about Sturges’s romantic comedy and my fledgling theory about how all romantic comedies are about the conflict between honesty and intimacy. I considered commenting on how Pixar, from the very beginning, has wed ancient storytelling skills with technological advances. And I had a whole riff in my head about how the most unconvincing Mexican in all of cinema was played by Charlton Heston. But none of these films lingered in my consciousness for days after like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.

I watched Synecdoche in the theater on my birthday last November, catching a 10 PM showing. Stumbling into midnight after that movie was one of those rare, disorienting experiences in which the world outside the movie seems to have been subtly changed, like the time I went to Costco right after watching David Lynch’s Lost Highway and felt like I’d landed on the fucking moon. Or my first Kaufman encounter, walking into a Kenneth Cole after seeing Being John Malkovich and being physically unable to remove the grin on my face for at least half an hour.

I knew Synecdoche was the kind of movie one has a lasting relationship with. So I’m happy to say my second date with the film was better than the first. I bought the DVD, watched the film, the awkward on-stage interview with Kaufman (awkward because the interviewer asked lame questions), the interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a blogger’s roundtable discussion filmed in someone’s book-lined apartment.

One of the bloggers in the featurette–can’t remember who–made an interesting point that upon repeat viewings of this film, he/she tends to focus on one scene. For me, the scene I mulled over the most was the one in which Caden Cotard (Hoffman) and his adult daughter Olive (Robin Weigert) attempt to resolve their estrangement at her deathbed. Olive has been living in Germany, where she became famous as a 10-year-old with a full body tattoo, an attribute she later used to her advantage as an exotic dancer. She demands that they speak to each other through headset translators, with her speaking in German while Caden responds in English. She reveals that her much-older lover Maria and her mother Adele told her that Caden left her so that he could have anal sex with his lover Eric. The charge is patently ridiculous, but it’s the explanation that Olive holds on to. She demands that Caden ask for her forgiveness. Caden, at first denying the accusation, changes his mind and asks her to forgive something he never even did. Olive then refuses, and the refusal causes both of them to weep bitterly. Olive dies, and a petal of one of her tattoo roses withers and falls off her arm.

What the fuck is going on here? Consider another film in which Hoffman made an appearance, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, which came out in 1999, the same year as Being John Malkovich. In Magnolia Hoffman plays a more or less well-adjusted character, a hospice nurse tasked with caring for an old man played by Jason Robards, in his final role. Tom Cruise, in his best role (which some might say isn’t saying much) plays Robard’s character’s estranged son. At the deathbed there are tears, there are recriminations, there are open wounds. We pass through that scene knowing what is being felt and how we’re supposed to feel. We’re being instructed on how to feel as we’re feeling it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, feeling much better now, thank you.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, feeling much better now, thank you.

But in the Synecdoche death bed scene, our emotional frame of reference is shifting under our feet. At one moment we snicker at the accusation that Hoffman was off having anal sex with his fictitous lover Eric, at another moment we yearn that these characters will re-establish their love, but then brutally we are denied. This father and daughter are beyond reconciliation. Even though Olive wants to forgive, she doesn’t have the capacity to do so, perhaps due to the fact Caden wasn’t around to teach her how.

Is that it? Maybe? I am still confused by the scene. And I’m sure that the next time I watch it, Synecdoche will yield another puzzle.

The movie has lost money in the box office and is likely considered a failure by the people at Sony Pictures Classics whose job it is to count beans. A creative writing student of mine who is a movie producer once said that the only reason good movies get made is that there are still people in Hollywood who have both money and good taste. I can only hope that Kaufman has the backing he needs to keep giving us these generous, hard-won gifts that we’ll be watching  a hundred years from now.


Ryan Boudinot is the author of the short story collection The Littlest Hitler (2006) and the novel Misconception. He was a DVD Editor at Amazon.com from 2003 to 2007. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in Seattle and teaches creative writing at Goddard College's Port Townsend MFA program. More from this author →