As everyone with a good dictionary knows, a ‘synecdoche’ is a literary term where the part stands for the whole and vice versa. It is also a play on words for Schenectady in a film by Charlie Kaufman.
I had been looking forward to watching Synecdoche, New York – his film starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman – for some time, as I had missed its theatrical release, but I had the chance to watch it over Christmas. It’s not obvious festive viewing and wouldn’t compare favourably with, say, It’s A Wonderful Life when it comes to all-round holiday entertainment. In fact, my wife burst into tears at the end and said that it had been unfair of me to put her through it without advance warning.
It’s the story of a middle-aged theatre director called Caden Cotard, who wins a grant or ‘genius award’ from a prestigious philanthropic foundation at the very point where his life begins to fall apart. He is filled with doubt about his latest production. His wife leaves him and takes their child away with her. Afflicted by a variety of mysterious ailments, he believes that he is going to die. There is a particularly affecting moment where Hoffman peers into a toilet bowl and prods a recent evacuation with a spatula.
With the proceeds from his grant, Cotard embarks on a project filled with ‘real honesty and truth’. He builds a replica of his own neighbourhood in a huge warehouse, casts himself as a character and spends the next thirty years of his life rehearsing an enormous ensemble cast in a play based in the minutiae of his life. The play is never performed and Cotard dies friendless and alone, rejected or abandoned by the people he cared for most.
Becoming a poetic meditation on the sense of death in life, the film even underlines this by naming its central character after Cotard’s Syndrome – a psychiatric condition whereby the victim holds the delusional belief that he or she is dead. Kaufman described it like this: ‘I was trying to present a life, with its moments of nothing. There is something that happens to people when they get old, which is that they get sidelined. There isn't a big, dramatic crescendo and then their life is over. They're forced out of their work, the people in their lives die, they lose their place in the world, people don't take them seriously, and then they just continue to live. And what is that? What does that feel like? I wanted to try to be truthful about that and express something about what I think is a really sad human condition.’
The film is also an extraordinary, hallucinatory, multi-textured piece of work and that rare thing – an intelligent, allusive and innovative American movie. Some people will love it, most people will hate it, but barely anyone could be unaffected by it.
Writing rarely inspires envy or jealousy in me, but I must admit I’d be quite happy with Charlie Kaufman’s work appended to my CV. He is the most distinctive American film maker since David Lynch and my identification with the film was absolute.
One reason is that a few months ago I was given a Creative Wales Award by The Arts Council of Wales to develop my ‘creative practice’ as a theatre director.
If you’re wondering, it’s just the same as ‘a genius award’.
So, if you end up passing through Adamsdown in the decades ahead, that’ll be me.
Or, at least, someone looking a bit like me.