One day in the winter of 2008 I fast-walked across a frozen landscape to our town’s art cinema on the edge of the campus where I worked. I snuggled down in my seat in the dark empty theatre, still wearing my black overcoat, having just finished teaching, and watched with growing amazement Synecdoche, New York. It had premiered at Cannes in May, and had made it finally to our wintry corner in Appalachian Ohio.
The script by Charlie Kaufman and the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman were equally astounding—like nothing I’d ever seen on film or dreamed of seeing. The film’s plot is at first easy to follow. Hoffman plays a theatre director whose genius and ambition far outstrip his paltry achievements; his wife is an artist whose paintings are, in significant contrast, such miniaturized images that they require special glasses to view. Though he loses his wife, who takes his daughter to Berlin and becomes famous, he wins a MacArthur genius grant, and with it enough rope to hang himself. He pours his money and life into a vast warehouse set that’s peopled with actors who endlessly portray aspects of his past as he ages and disintegrates. The film gets weird and challenging—and achieves its freakish glory—as the lines blur between his artistic vision and his nonlinear inner life. The pair make a Jungian collage, or an incomprehensible mess, depending on how you experience it.
It took my breath away. After classes the next day, I ran right back and watched it again.