Film and TV

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Bewildering Masterpiece Synecdoche, New York Explained (VIDEO)

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Wed, Feb 5, 2014 at 5:09 PM
click to enlarge Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan as Caden Cotard, and Samantha Morton and Emily Watson as his true love Hazel
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan as Caden Cotard, and Samantha Morton and Emily Watson as his true love Hazel

It's impossible to pick Philip Seymour Hoffman's best performance. But I can pick my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman movie: Synecdoche, New York. In a way, it's an easy choice. Charlie Kaufman's first and only directing effort is literally a film about everything: life, death, love, creativity, identity, frustration, forgiveness and regret. You get the sense that Kaufman feared he might never make another movie, and so crammed in every idea he'd ever wanted to explore. It's at once epic and intimate, brilliant and scabrous. It's even funny. Take it to a desert island and in this one film, you'll have the best of everything Hollywood has ever imagined.

In 2010, I voted Synecdoche, New York the best movie of the new millennium. (I was in good company: So did Roger Ebert.) Four years later, it still is. Last April after hearing the news of Ebert's death, his appreciation of Synecdoche was the first thing I ran to re-read. "Here is how life is supposed to work," Ebert wrote. "We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die."

His four-star rave wasn't so much a review as a mirror he held up to try to make sense of his life, and the rest of our lives, too. Ebert even admitted it straight-on: "There is no need to name the characters, name the actors, assign adjectives to their acting. Look at who is in this cast. You know what I think of them."

We did know what he thought of them, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman who he once called "that fearless poet of implosion." Hoffman bled empathy, so much that it was unnerving. We didn't always want to see ourselves in his darkest characters - the molesters, the addicts, the depressives - but Hoffman asked us to, and then even challenged us to love them despite their faults. And his lighter roles were a delight. This week, Ebert's widow Chaz revealed that he'd hoped Hoffman would someday play him in a biopic. That the critic who'd written up every great leading man since 1961 singled out Hoffman to play himself is almost as unsurprising as it is bittersweet.

When the sad report broke that Hoffman would never get that chance to bring Ebert to the screen, I was in the middle of recording the /Film podcast with David Chen and Devindra Hardawar. We were caught flat-footed. "Do you think it's a hoax?" asked Chen. "I hope not," I spat out, thinking that there could be nothing worse than the rumors were an evil Twitter prank. Then I exhaled and realized that the worse thing of all would be if it were true.

We had to take a break. Again, I thought of Synecdoche, New York. Both Hoffman and Synecdoche's Caden Cotard were relentless artists in pursuit of the truth. And they were also flawed human beings, as we all are, only distinguished with the bravery to fictionalize their personal pains and share them with the world. If only Hoffman had as many decades of work ahead of him as did the fictional Cotard. He grew older on film than he ever could on earth.

On the spot, Chen and I decided to pay tribute to Hoffman with a video essay about his most bewildering and beautiful film. We spoke so long about Synecdoche, New York that Chen realized he'd have to split it into two parts. Here's the first of them in which we try to make sense of Charlie Kaufman's fast-forwarding of time, Cotard's daughter Olive's fatal flower tattoos, and yes, the eternally burning house. Part Two will be up next week is posted below, where we'll hash out Tom Noonan's stalker, Hope Davis' psychologist, and the dawning sense that the last act of the film takes place amidst an unacknowledged apocalypse.

A caveat: Kaufman himself never wanted to explain the film, so that everyone could enjoy their own take. (When asked to explain the burning house, he joked, "Who cares?") In the spirit of his wish, please remember that neither Chen nor I consider our thoughts gospel. Instead, we hope you decide to watch, or rewatch, Synecdoche, New York yourself. There's no better way to celebrate Philip Seymour Hoffman's life than to keep alive the films he created while he was here. 

UPDATE: Watch Part Two

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