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Synecdoche, New York: Relations of a Breakdown

Relations of a Breakdown
By Kian M.

            What is a breakdown? What defines it? What causes it? Life is a series of crossroads leading down to a singular endpoint. The concept of everything having a beginning having an end is heavily prevalent in Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York (2008), a postmodern psychological drama that focuses on ailing theater director Caden Cotard, whose latest project begins to blur the lines between reality and fiction as his mental and physical state slowly begins to deteriorate. Caden is masterfully played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who manages to hone in his character’s personality almost perfectly and craft a subdued representation of a man at a juncture in his life. While already known as a critically acclaimed character actor, Synecdoche, New York finds Hoffman crafting an entire new persona to inhabit, drawing from pieces of his own broken life as performer to craft a dark and layered visualization of what type of person Caden is. Working alongside Kaufman’s immaculate script and direction, Synecdoche, New York makes great use of placing Hoffman’s central performance as the highlight of a film by carrying the central narrative arc, honing the themes explored by the film and carrying Hoffman’s dark history of abuse and mixing it with Caden’s inner turmoil to craft something familiar, but entirely new and audacious at the same time.

Firstly, to understand Hoffman’s performance, you have to understand him as the performer. Prior to his death following an accidental overdose, Hoffman had a long history dealing with depression and substance abuse. To shield this persona from the public, Hoffman would often delve headfirst into various acclaimed performances. Drawing from this darkness within, Hoffman puts everything into his performance in Synecdoche, New York as someone who is deteriorating physically, artistically and spiritually. And that commitment that Hoffman brings to the performance is naturally fitting, because the character of Caden as a whole represents the concept of solipsism; which is essentially the drive to succeed one’s personal goal without acknowledging the desires, motivations or lives of others.

 Throughout the film, Caden is so focused on himself, whether it his own insecurities or nailing his onstage mimetic recreation of life in Manhattan, that he fails to realize the inner turmoil facing others. In one particular scene in the film, Caden refuses to give Sammy, an actor portraying Caden in the play, permission to pursue a relationship with box office worker Claire (someone who the real Caden shows romantic interest in). As a result, Sammy becomes so overwhelmed with grief that he takes his own life. It’s in this very scene, where Hoffman powerfully uses his persona and defined characteristics to fully involve himself as someone who is truly unhinged in terms of mental stability. While everyone involved with the production gathers around to mourn, Caden screams at the deceased Sammy for “getting it wrong”. He doesn’t even see Sammy as a fellow human being by this point, merely as a liability. His suicide was not a loss of life, but a hiccup in the production that created an issue of logistics for Caden. Here, Hoffman expresses a sort of rage that comes out that we see in sporadic moments to counteract the subdued depression he feels throughout the rest of the film. His slowly, plodding movement is replaced by swift, almost viciously angry movements. He teethers every word he states and directs it at Sammy’s corpse with a fervorous animosity. It may seem like Hoffman is delving into using rather simple techniques to demonstrate how his character is slowly falling apart, but it goes a long way. It demonstrates that this is man who really doesn’t have it together, not because of a lack of commitment, but because of too much commitment. And with Hoffman’s own abuse issues casting a hidden shadow over his commitment to works like Synecdoche, New York, there lies an interesting parallel to how Caden functions on a day to basis and how that is inhabited through the performance at hand.

Next, the aforementioned scene with Caden berating Sammy following his suicide goes a long way in terms of how Hoffman’s performance juxtaposes the rest of the film. Synecdoche, New York is a film that has its’ entire narrative revolve around Hoffman’s performance, so the actions that he takes in that one scene also serve to carry the narrative forward and develop how the audience interprets the unfolding events. As the film progresses forward, we see society slowly begin to teeter on the brink of self-destruction, ready to collapse at any given moment. The character of Caden is supposed to be depicted as so singularly driven that he is also blatantly stupid and fails to realize what is going on here. And part of what makes this blinding ignorance feel so taut and visceral is because that we’re not seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman play Caden Cotard as he experiences this downward spiral. We are instead watching Philip Seymour Hoffman become Caden Cotard before our eyes.

Hoffman inhibits the role of the professional within the context of performance in this work. He functions as one who knows what he is doing and as a result, uses his persona to create a character. The spine is the same but the essence of what defines the character can be different. And when it comes to the defining characteristics that define a performance, you don’t need to experiment with the properties of the player. Their physicality, voice, eyes, face and age all provide a certain dimension to the character. You need an expressive body, face and set eyes for the camera to pick up and for audiences to react to. You need to be able to move. You have to be comfortable in your body because the camera picks it up. For Synecdoche, New York, so much of the film’s central themes play with the inevitability of time and what comes along with that. Hoffman is shown to age as the film he goes on and it’s little gestures, maneuvers and movements he makes that represent his character’s growth, or in this case, his inner confinement.

When the film opens up, we focus on Caden stubbornly remaining in bed as his alarm clock goes off and his daughter sings. It’s Hoffman’s subdued range of feelings that he facially emotes that make us realize something is wrong is in this man’s life. As the narrative progresses, Hoffman continually toys with how this stubborn solipsist attitude will be his undoing. He goes the extra mile to show that Caden is in constant distress - mentally and physically. He berates and attempts to control characters like Hazel and Sammy. Hoffman initially juxtaposes that feral side of him with a more meandering personality to parallel that same sense of control. Hoffman goes out of his way to create a softer angle to the more controlling side of his character as a means to add more emphasis to the “aggressive” scenes, such as the one following Sammy’s suicide. It’s a form of analogous performance that is created as a result. To show that our protagonist is in distress and state of mental exhaustion and confusion, the performance switches tonally as a way to show a man with a lack of solidified identity and purpose in life.


In conclusion, Philip Seymour Hoffman does something quite remarkable with his performance in Charlie Kaufman’s film. He manages to embrace what we expect from a typical performance from him, only to use it as a tool to subvert those same expectations. As a viewer, the various movements and patterns that Hoffman speaks or physically moves in are barraged with peculiar motions that affect how we perceive him to be - as a character and as the actor behind that character. In that essence, Hoffman delves into his own commitment and his own personal solipsism to craft a centralized on-screen persona that drives Synecdoche, New York and its’ themes forward. It is the little things prevalent throughout Hoffman’s complex execution of this role that make it stand out and switch up audience expectations.

Things like using relaxed, depressed mannerisms throughout the entire film only to jump into fiery outrage and quick-paced speech patterns in one scene to demonstrate the protagonist’s continual downward spiral. Hoffman is a master of the screen performance; because he combines every valuable element at his disposal to create something that is precisely different from anything we have ever seen before. Personal mythology, speech and bodily mannerisms all merge together to form something that gives Synecdoche, New York a razor sharp lead performance. In this film, Hoffman doesn’t merely perform. He molds, subverts and evolves.

There’s nothing quite like it. And by simultaneously rolling with and switching up presumptions, we are left with a magnum opus of a performance that will forever define Hoffman’s legacy, both on and off the screen.

Works Consulted
Synecdoche, New York. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan. Roadshow., 2008. DVD.


An analysis and review of The Double and appreciation of Richard Ayoade’s movies

Watching Richard Ayoade’s Submarine in the prime of my adolescence sparked a transformative catalyst for me-- in many ways it helped start a love and appreciation for film early on. It was the first love story I’d watched in a long time where I actually felt with the characters on their individual emotional, disheartening journeys.

Submarine’s storytelling and cinematography drew me to Ayoade’s work as a fan of Wes Anderson, and while both directors are uniquely distinct, I think many adequate comparisons can be drawn, especially in placing emphasis on color as its own character and quick, blunt subtleties of humor.

So when I saw The Double on Netflix, I decided to watch right away-- admittedly, mostly because a Jesse Eisenberg was staring before me with piercing blue eyes in a dark and foreboding manner--and thought the premise to be intriguing what with doppelgangers and the dualities of nature. About ten minutes in, the film felt familiar after seeing characters from Submarine start to trickle into The Double as characters and short cameos (Craig Roberts and Sally Hawkins), causing me to wonder if this was directed by Mr. Richard, and alas! It was. Upon this discovery manifested high hopes that I would say this dark comedy mostly fulfilled. The Double was a thrilling, mind-boggling ride from beginning all the way to the twenty odd or so minutes after the actual ending-- it’s one of those films that makes it difficult not to want to mull around, contemplating about.

The storyline follows Simon James, as Netflix describes him, a timid and unassuming, “office drone.” Simon’s social anxiety is painfully severe enough to make the watcher cringe, but simultaneously feel empathy for such a character who is considered forgettable and pathetic by the co workers he sees everyday and his own mother. Simon has a crush on a girl at work whom he spies on from his apartment window more endearingly than creepily, called Hannah, who does not acknowledge his existence. A strange man by the name of James Simon appears inexplicably at his work one day who physically resembles Simon’s doppelganger. James is perhaps Simon of a parallel universe: he is charming, popular, bold, and fearless. He reaches out to Simon and offers some pointers on how to be more confident and attract the girl-- their interactions are initially cordial, like two just-discovered twin brothers switching places, amused by one another’s presence. However, the plot quickly darkens when evil James soon begins to take over Simon’s life and his girl just for the sociopathic, narcissistic hell of it.

James’s origins are not clearly conveyed in the film. For that reason, we do not know if he is a genetic twin, or really of another universe. One interesting theory when considering a Jekyll and Hyde complex is that maybe they are one person: James is Simon, Simon is James. James could perhaps very well be an extension of Simon, or a figment of his imagination. While he is shy and bland, he imagines a version of him that is everything he could and want to be, but is also afraid of his own self and the damage that could erupt if he were to appropriate James’s dangerous persona. If the film were to be psycho-analyzed, one might argue that Simon is bipolar or schizophrenic. But of course, also like the ending, that is left to our own interpretations. What is made clear in the film is that whatever James feels, Simon’s body reciprocates the same feeling in terms of physical pain.

It was truly maddening to watch Simon get screwed over repeatedly and have not one person on his side. Simon’s failed attempts to adequately articulate almost anything frustrated me on a fiery level. Perhaps it goes back to the constructed empathy factor, and desiring so badly that the protagonist fight back, let alone speak for himself. One specific scene in which James expresses to Simon his feelings, he says “I don't know how to be myself. It's like I'm permanently outside myself. Like, you could push your hands straight through me if you wanted to. And I can see the type of man I want to be versus the type of man I actually am and I know that I'm doing it but I'm incapable of what needs to be done. I'm like Pinocchio, a wooden boy. Not a real boy. And it kills me.”

The prevalent theme of loneliness is conveyed by not only Simon, but also Hannah. He believes that the two belong together: “I can tell she's a lonely person, even if other people can't. Cause I know what it feels like to be lost and lonely and invisible.” I think that for many Simon’s character is relatable and most of his fears resonate with us.

For a comedy, this film unveiled a rather fragrant emotional facet, kind of reminiscent once again with Submarine’s storytelling style.

Switching back and forth from character, Jesse Eisenberg effortlessly played Simon and James. His performance did not feel forced; he was able to showcase the contrast between the two characters by slightly altering his voice and mannerisms without overdoing it. A lot of the acting in the film was truly masterful: Mia Wasikowska playing Hannah as the brooding and blank manic pixie dream girl, Noah Taylor as the crude “friend.” It isn’t often that you get a film that doesn’t compromise acting for artful cinematography, or vice versa.

In both Ayoade films there really isn’t any obvious indication about the time and period. Is it dystopian? Is it of the past? In a way there is a sort of alluring charm about the mystery that allows it to focus on strengthening other aspects of the film-- one of which again here, is beautifully crafted cinematography. Thinking about creating signatures while creating film, another hint that The Double was Submarine’s sister is the entire vibe: a vibe created by dramatic color saturation, camera angles, and the 60s. But because I don’t know enough about cinematography, all I can shamefully say is that it was aesthetically pleasing, maintaining a very pretty color theme and brightness the whole way.

However, the lack of an obvious setting statement always inspires me use my imagination, and something about both films reminds me of the 1960s. Perhaps the 60s connotation is not as strong in Submarine. Many argue that the film more aptly takes place in a steam-punk era, but for me, Craig Robert’s physical appearance of hair and outfit choice was a giveaway for “guy influenced by the Beatles.”

While in The Double, similar costume choices also fuel the idea, but more specifically it was the music. The epic soundtrack consists of psychedelic 50s and 60s-esque Korean and Japanese songs which surprisingly fit the scene of which it is accompanying; Kyu-Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki and Kim Jung Mi’s The Sun quintessential 60s sounds and a couple best off the track. (I might also be biased because I love the 60s and I loved these films.)

The Double deserves a watch- there’s a lot to say regarding its complexity and all around great choices in style and plot. Analysis is hard to avoid with this one. And maybe when you’ve finished, take a look into Submarine as well. You might also soon become infatuated with Richard Ayoade’s underrated filmmaking.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi's latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, was in limited release in the U.S. on June 24th, 2016. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and is possibly one of my favorite films from this year.

The plot itself is at once simple and wildly imaginative. There is a lurking thought in the back of my mind that none of this could possibly be happening, and yet I toss that all aside in order to enjoy the ridiculously fun adventure through New Zealand.  Meet Ricky Baker, played by 13-year old New Zealander Julian Dennison, who is a comically portrayed foster kid. Ricky is angsty, adorably chubby, and stubborn in his refusal to succumb to the evil Child Services' attempts to place him in a home. Yet all it takes is the heartwarming constancy of an "Aunt" Bella, (hilariously and movingly played by the relatively low profile Rima Te Wiata), to make Ricky Baker comfortable with the idea of family again.

Rima Te Wiata's relatively short screen time stunned me as she embodied a compassionate, flawed, and loyal mother figure. Wiata's realism served her best as she paired warm, well-intended love with silly, ridiculous games that reminded me of what a happy family meant during childhood. The Ricky Baker (Dennison) and Aunt Bella (Wiata) interactions, and the memories of those, were some of the most moving parts of the film.

Wiata's hysteric inducing yet loving performance sets up the contrast, and the conflict that drives plot, for the differences in Ricky's relationship with Aunt Bella versus his relationship with his stoic Uncle Hec. Played by the strong, grandfatherly Sam Neill (of Peaky Blinder acclaim), Uncle Hec is perhaps the opposite of his wife Bella, and most similar to Ricky Baker at the beginning of the movie. Both are inexpressive, sullen, and lonely. Their initial unwillingness to build a relationship is essentially the driving force of the movie. And Uncle Hec plays the part of the reluctant but ultimately deeply caring paternal figure to Ricky Baker.

Sam Neill owns the space as Uncle Hec. His perfectly swept hair briefly flickers an ember of jealousy in me; the man is 68 and perfectly well-groomed. But far more important is his portrayal of the almost stuttering, incommunicable old man who'd rather be lonely again than risk the attachment of befriending his wife's adopted child. He struggles with death, and the coping of that (one scene takes a particular amusing jab at religion's answer for death). Uncle Hec should be closed off and tries to be. But Hec simply cannot help the magnetic charm of Dennison's playful, amusingly "hip" Ricky Baker. As their relationship grows, one cannot but help feel the growing intensity and desperation that Ricky and Uncle Hec share as they fight for one another, against Child Services and society and the world. Despite the realization of how death can take a loved one so easily, or perhaps because of it, the two fight savagely to protect their little family on their adventure through the wilderness of life.

Neill's subtle, awkward glances communicated Uncle Hec's struggle to express himself. Neill's performance is not forceful or overly strong; he simply is the lonely, independent man. Rachel House also makes a funny performance as the overly stern, completely clueless, and obsessed Child Services  representative. House's portrayal as Paula becomes a highly exaggerated representation of societal forces that attempt to divide loved ones from each other. (I don't think I've seen any other film with a Child Services agent at the helm of a tank). But Rachel House's dramatic, stern antics, with the careless insults she tosses at Ricky Baker demonstrates the film's sub-criticism of the foster system as a whole. Juxtaposed with Aunt Bella's wholesome love and even Uncle Hec's grudging friendship, Paula's infuriating pursuit of "government property" makes me question the validity of our foster system, and wonder how far off the dramatized, demonized Child Services is from the truth.

The rest of the film is Uncle Hec's and Ricky Baker's wild adventure through the beautiful New Zealand wilderness, as they are on the run from Child Services. The chase builds on the growth of Hec's and Ricky's friendship, and the beautiful message that the childhood strength and love that we so desperately long for can come from who we choose as family, no matter how silly, or broken indeed, we are.