09 November 2008

Complexity on Film: Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche: a figure of speech that presents a part for the whole, or the whole for the part; for example, “hands” for sailors, or “the law” for police. A reproduction of a life, for the life. Or, in some cases, a reproduction of a reproduction of the life. Mirrors within mirrors. A theatrical Mandelbrot set in which characters play the characters playing the characters within a film.

Such is the brilliance of a film that is itself a case study in complexity, Charlie Kaufman’s new movie, Synecdoche, New York. The story itself is simple. Theatrical director, Caden Cotard, played by the always mesmerizing Philip Seymour Hoffman, wins essentially unlimited funding that enables him to reproduce his life over a lifetime in a massive warehouse. In the process, he is forced to reconcile his feelings and relationships with the various women in his life – his wife, daughter, assistant, and others. A simple enough story. Yet, complex systems are built from simple elements. It is the recursion of both feedback and feedforward loops, and the small, seemingly insignificant, perturbations that result in massive systemic changes out of which emerges this cinematic masterpiece.

Apparently, people’s opinions on this film are split: you either love it or hate it. Synecdoche is not mindless entertainment that allows an audience to escape everyday reality. Kaufman makes his audience work to engage with his characters. It is a textbook example of a McLuhan cool medium, needing the audience’s active participation to complete the work. If you plan to see it – something I heartily recommend – plan also to spend several hours with an intelligent companion mulling over its absurdist roots and surrealism. (Metaphysics homework assignment: answer the question, what’s with the burning house?) Plan as well on seeing it at least twice, if not three times, to begin to capture the various fractal twists and turns through the warehouse of Cotard’s life, even as he cleans up the mess left behind by his vanished wife, Adele, subletting Capgras’s apartment. If, as is said, the unexamined life is not worth living, Caden Cotard’s life has indeed been recursively worthwhile. And so too is spending at least two hours with Charlie Kaufman's magnum opus.

(And if I ever have the chance to teach a course on complexity, this film will be on the syllabus.)

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