Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 19, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:50 pm

Out of a need to fulfill my obligations to New York Film Critics Online, whose membership is made up mostly of professionals like Rex Reed paid to sit through Hollywood garbage 2 or 3 times a week, I am making an effort to see a few mainstream movies between now and December 11th, the date of our annual awards meeting.

As it turns out, what I consider mainstream is pretty exotic by society’s norms. With that in mind, my first dip into commercial Hollywood film was Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” a word-play on Schenectady, a dreary city in upstate New York where the main character Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is director of a local theater. Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which one thing relates to another symbolically. In Kaufman’s film, synecdoches take the form of visual puns, typically involving images of decay or peril. As Cotard is entering middle age (just like Kaufman who recently turned 50), he is preoccupied with failing health and the brutal fact of his eventual death.

In one unpleasant scene among countless others, he examines his bloody turds inside the toilet bowl–a synecdoche for his looming mortality. Kaufman, who is evidently going through some kind of deeply painful midlife crisis, made this movie as a kind of self-directed psychotherapy. He would have been better off taking prozac in this critic’s opinion since the main reaction I had to the movie was akin to listening to an aging relative’s complaints about their hemorrhoids or rheumatism.

Kaufman’s solipsistic approach to art and the human condition is best expressed in a comic exchange (yes, this is a comedy) between Cotard and two young actors that he has cast in the role of Willy and Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman”. When the subject of the discrepancy between their youth and the age of the characters they are playing comes up, Cotard tells them that they too will one day be as old as Willy and Linda and face sickness and death. Thus, an Arthur Miller play written as an indictment of the capitalist system that crushed one of its true believers underfoot is turned into an existentialist treatise on Death. Since his earliest professional credits involved writing comedy for SNL type shows like Fox TV’s “The Edge” and “The Dana Carvey Show” on ABC, it is not surprising that he would reflect their apolitically “hip” approach.

Driven almost obsessively to supply clever visual gags, Kaufman cannot help but subvert his intentions to force his audience to look at the painful realities of old age and death. In one typical scene, he is attending the funeral of his father, who has died of cancer. As a 3 foot long coffin is being hoisted into the grave, someone asks Cotard why it is so small. He replies that the cancer ate most of his father away and that was all that remained. The audience at the screening remained silent during this exchange, except for a small group of young people sitting to my left who giggled hysterically at this and other painfully unfunny moments as if they came to the theater loaded on weed. I surmised that they were SNL fans.

I am not sure whether other critics have made a point of this, but it was clear to me that Hoffman was reprising the character he played in “The Savages“, another dark comedy about the harsh realities of aging and death. In that movie, he played a theater professor in Buffalo who was as much of an underachiever as Caden Cotard. With his sister, another underachiever, they were forced to deal with putting their cranky, senile father into a nursing home. Unlike “Synecdoche, New York”, “The Savages” was mainly about taking the hard existential facts of life seriously while the jokes helped us endure a dramatic ordeal. In Kaufman’s movie, the priorities are just the opposite. He is going for laughs and using aging and death as the set-up.

I sat through “Synecdoche, New York” partly out of an effort to try to understand the sensibility of a highly regarded young director (he is 50, but I am 63) who has the reputation of pushing the envelope. I also found myself, despite my negative reaction to the manic visual punning and overall morbidity of the subject matter, somewhat entertained by the dream-like character of many of the scenes, especially those that occurred toward the end of the film, when Cotard is directing a mammoth play about his life and death funded by a McArthur foundation grant. (The sister in “The Savages” is always writing off to such foundations to get funding for her amateurish plays.)

The staging for this play within a movie involves Kafkaesque touches in which the lines between reality and art are shifting, like a penthouse terrace that overlooks the stage at one moment and a real city street in another. These dreamlike moments are of course Kaufman’s stock-in-trade, done to much greater effect in ” Being John Malkovich”, a movie that he wrote but did not direct and that at least understands that it-like the Seinfeld television show-was about nothing.


  1. Oh well, at least you didn’t start to say crap like ” he should do films that are rooted in the social bla bla bla”. And a much better review, albeit negative, than Rex Reeds stupidity.

    Comment by anti-marxist — November 19, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  2. Thank you, anti-marxist, for proving that reactionaries are not simple-minded knee-jerk imbeciles.

    Comment by Bo — November 20, 2008 @ 8:59 am

  3. Okay I haven’t seen this movie so maybe your absolutely right, but for crying out loud I don’t if you could right a more uptight movie review if you tried.

    Louis, I love your writings, but your movie reviews are more and more starting to sound like an aging marxst painfully out of touch. I don’t mean to sound insulting because I have great respect for you, but I wonder if your dig at kaufmanns age was more a case of expressing your own troubles with ageing.

    So let me get this straight if you laugh at the irony of death your a crass, vulgar SNL fan. I think your missing why those kids in the audience were laughing, it probably wasn’t because there inherently mean spirited it was probably to do with the way the scene was presented in the film. Death can often be the subject of ironic laughter and I think denying that is very prudish.

    I realize you lost a family member recently and maybe jokes like that strike you as crass, but I lost my father when I was 16 to cancer and I wouldn’t have a problem laughing at a scene like that if it was presented in the right way.

    An Louis, what is it with you an SNL. I realize it’s been a long time since it was even remotely funny, but why the irrational hatred towards anyone who was in any way associated with the show. Charlie Kaufmann was once a comedy writer, so that disqualifies him from ever being considered a serious filmmaker.

    Also Louis, you realize that this film has been released in only 120 theaters and that so far it’s only made a little over a Million dollars. Also seeing as how the film hasn’t been heavily advertised on television makes me think the average SNL fan hasn’t even heard of this movie. If you ask me those kids in the theater should be considered pretty intelligent just for knowing a film like this exists.

    You know even though there very different movies I can’t help but think of your review of knocked up. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece, but I thought it was funny film and unlike most gross out comedies had real characters you could care about. You review of the film seemed to have that grumpy “these kids today” attitude. I realize it’s probably a generational thing, but seems to like your completely closed off to the idea that good comedy can be vulgar. It seems to me like the only type of comedy you would like is an old styled comedy of manners like The Philadelphia Story.

    I realize that knocked up and Synechdoche aren’t the same, where one is a mainstream comedy and the other is more and arthouse flick, but your criticism of both strikes me as similar.

    I don’t understand how you can criticise movies like this, but praise a smarmy and elitist piece of crap like Sex and the City. A show with some of the most irritating, narcissistic charcters to ever appear on television. A group of women who bear no resemblance to real women an some deluded souls actually have the gall to call it feminist.

    I also don’t understand this whole bit about Death of a salesman. So the only thing that play is about is that capitalism is bad. I agree that was the main perspective the play was originally written from, but I how can you say that’s the only thing it deals with. Why can’t the play also be about the existential angst of ageing.

    By the way I should say I’m not saying this because I’m some sorta Charlie Kaufmann fanatic, I liked Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but I wasn’t blown away by them and there are parts of both them I considered to be self-indulgent. I however loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a modern masterpiece in my opinion. If you haven’t seen it Louis I highly recommend it.

    Now since I haven’t seen this movie, maybe the argument you make is correct that kaufmann works best when his work is translated through another director. Maybe the self-indulgent part of him got the better of him this time. However, his work shouldn’t be arbitrally dismissed because he makes vulgar jokes or because he has an irreverent view of death.

    Louis I love your movie reviews in general and how you refuse to go along with mainstream critical consensus on most movies, but there times when your tone can be very condescending. I’m not saying you have to like Charlie Kaufmann or Judd apatow, but least in the future try to look at movies outside of your own generational viewpoint.

    In closing I’d like to say I’m sorry this post is so long. I’m sorry if seems like rambling and I wish could condense my thoughts more.

    Comment by Dave — November 22, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  4. Film reflects the age in which it is produced and Synecdoche definitely reflects the dire times we live in. Whether consciously or not Synecdoche seems to be a meditation on the play that it begins with, “Death of A Salesman” but what we witness here is the death of a civilization. What I take away from this film is the utter, desolate alienation of the modern-day artist in the death throes of the prevailing capitalist economy.

    Comment by dae — November 29, 2008 @ 8:23 am

  5. Hello Louis,

    I don’t find the suffering of other individuals very funny either.

    However, the Caden character in this movie is fictional and I can laugh at his horror at his own demise only as easily as I can at my own similar horror.

    I laugh at my anxiety when not possessed by it. Caden is always anxiety ridden. I laugh at Caden because I am not Caden. Caden is only a funk anyone can be in.

    I have to laugh at my own mortality which becomes ever more a reality as I approach 59 years old. The absurdity of losing the totality of my familiarity with the world attained after struggling up from total ignorance a lifetime ago is darkly humorous to me now only because I’m mostly happy in my denial.

    The Cotard delusion is the belief by the deluded that one’s self does not exist or is falling apart. Please Google it.

    I don’t think of my future state of non-being any more than I obsess about my present state of not being an apple.

    Comment by Glenn — December 1, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

  6. We watched this movie last night at our town’s new art movie house, which we are doggedly trying to keep in business. The first thing I said when the lights came up was, “Prozac has spared the world so much.” Interesting that you had the same reaction.

    Comment by Del — January 17, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  7. Del,
    You had this to say about the movie: “Prozac has spared the world so much.” Too bad it hasn’t spared us of your comment, and of Louis’s review. You both need a prescription.

    Comment by Norton231 — July 23, 2012 @ 10:30 am

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