synechdoche, new york

Just watched this excellent movie, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman (fantastic actor, although he really needs to be careful ’cause he could really go to “seed” without traveling very far) and Catherine Keener (love her, love her voice).

If you haven’t watched it already, get thee hence. And be prepared for a not-brief stretch of puzzlement around the middle, but see it through. And pay attention. It’s totally worth it.

The premise is that the marriage between Kaden (Hoffman), a theater director, and Adele (Keener), a visual artist, is not a good one. They have a wonderful fantastical (wonderfully fantastical) daughter, Olive, who is the key “player” in an emotionally gripping scene at the end, where Kaden recalls a moment from her childhood where she “directs” their play: they are fairies, and she is gravely ill, and wants to be put in a box with a tiny glass of water and a thousand tiny pizzas. . .well, it makes more sense in the movie, and I don’t mean just relatively speaking.


Adele goes to Berlin for an art show, and takes Olive (age 4) with her, presumably for a month. But they never come back. Meanwhile, Kaden wins a MacArthur genius grant, and proceeds to spend the rest of his life creating a play based on his life. The viewer, after coming out the other side of puzzlement/confusion, realizes that he or she is watching a sort of existential worm hole, a life within a life — at one point there is an actor named Sammy, playing Kaden directing the play about Kaden, and an actor playing Sammy, etc., etc. The set is of a part of Manhattan built within a warehouse, which includes a set of the set of the part of Manhattan within a warehouse, etc. . . There’s a moment in, well, “rehearsal,” (although at this point the action in the play is every bit as real as the life the actors are leading, if not more so) where SammyplayingKaden says something to the womanplayingHazel and Kaden stops them, saying “I never said that.” Sammy says, “No, but you thought it.” Or maybe he says “But you should have.” Same difference I guess.

Throughout the movie Kaden suffers from a series of mysterious ailments which cause a variety of difficult/uncomfortable/degenerative symptoms. He seems always to be dying, as are we all. When a relatively young Hazel realizes that she and Kaden will not manage to find a way to be together she decides she needs to create her own life, and tours a house that is for sale, and perpetually on fire, and says to the realtor that she is concerned about buying a house — it’s a big decision, after all, and she’s afraid of dying in the fire, and the realtor responds by saying, “It is a big decision, choosing how you’re going to die.” Years later the house is still on fire, crackling in the background as they talk in Kaden’s car on the street outside, when they finally spend a night together. . .

Everything is about life, and life real v. imagined, and choices and the self-closing loops they create, and the timeless battle between all that we hoped for/believed about ourselves and all the ways the world/ourselves disappoint us.

The final scene involves Kaden on various life support machines, and then getting up from his bed and walking through the set where most of the actors have apparently died in some kind of apocalypse. The woman, Ellen, (Diane Wiest, fantastic as usual), at this point in the “play” playing Kaden, in voice over which is simultaneously telling Kaden what to do/think (I’ve *** over the parts that only make sense in the context of the whole movie and to try to create a logical narrative):


there was supposed to be something else

you were supposed to have something

calm, love, children

a child at least,




he hates me

I disappointed him and he hates me


Everyone is disappointing when you know someone


I remember having that picnic with my mother

Look at me

I was so young

there was so much hope


look at the night table for a note from Adele

stare out the window

remember the time she got you to pose for one of her paintings

how she told you how beautiful you were

how she made you feel pretty again for a little while

think how you miss her

stand up

now you are waiting and nobody cares

and when your wait is over

this room will still exist and it will continue to hold shoes and dresses and boxes and maybe someday another waiting person and maybe not

the room doesn’t care either

what was once before you, an exciting mysterious future is now behind you; lived, understood, disappointing

you realize you are not special

you have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it

this is everyone’s experience, every single one,

the specifics hardly matter

everyone is everone

so you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive, you are Ellen, all her meager sadnesses are yours, all her loneliness, the gray strawlike hair, her red raw hands, it is yours; it is time for you to understand this


as the people who adore you stop adoring you,

as they die,

as they  move on,

as you shed them as you shed your beauty, your youth,

as the world forgets you,

as you recognize your transience,

as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one,

as you learn there is no one watching you and there never was, you think only about driving

not coming from any place, not arriving any place, just driving, counting off time,

now you are here

it’s 743

now you are here

it’s 744

now you are




4 Responses to “synechdoche, new york”

  1. September 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I think I get it, but shouldn’t it be Synechdoche USA?

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