Kaufman’s ‘Synecdoche, New York’ conjectures the meaning of life through feces

As Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa finally reaches Portland, Portland State’s 5th Avenue Cinema hosts a weekend with the director’s 2008 debut. Continuing the cinema’s winter screening schedule, Synecdoche, New York offers the opportunity to catch up on Kaufman’s previous work while questioning your existence and the substance of your bowel movements.

The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a theater director granted a MacArthur Fellowship after the success of his production of Death of a Salesman. He uses the funding to construct his next play: a life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse filled with actors portraying real lives.

For those familiar with Kaufman’s previous work, Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Human Nature, it might not come as a surprise that his directorial debut would be such an absurd examination of life in the realm between reality and fiction. But there’s something incredibly profound and different about Synecdoche, New York. It’s intimidating in the way that it justifies and rewards re-watching and consideration.

Oddly enough, Synecdoche, New York often doesn’t feel too far outside the horror genre. Whereas it is scary, it doesn’t fit classifications like “bodily horror” or “near-nude teen-slasher.” It’s something much more terrifying—real life horror. It doesn’t revel in jump scares or terrifying reveals, rather, it finds its horror in pushing hard life questions: What if my art is shit? Am I a phony? What if I don’t patch things up with my family? What if I die?

Caden is concerned with his health to the point of paranoia and becomes increasingly obsessed with death. His health is rocky and he sees signs of his demise in his fecal matter. Like tea leaves, he digs through them looking for answers. His legs are covered with mysterious boils. He urinates streams of color from unsettling areas of the spectrum. He returns home for his mother’s funeral only to find that the murder scene—her bedroom—has not been cleaned, and the remains of her brutal stabbing death are everywhere. His father dies. The woman he loves lives in a house that’s been on fire for decades. The list goes on.

There’s something relatable about trying to accomplish something meaningful in death’s shadow. While we may not be recreating New York City, we’ve all stopped to think about whether or not we’re full of shit. We’ve wondered if there’s any point to anything we’re doing. We’ve wondered what would happen if we got hit by the MAX. Would it go all white? Fade to black? Would it hurt? Maybe that one’s just me.

These are big questions that don’t come with easy answers. Perhaps the search for the big truth often causes one to miss out on the smaller, yet equally profound ones. Sometimes you have to dig around in a toilet bowl to find them. But maybe not.

Charlie Kaufman ‘s new film, ‘Anomalisa,’ begins screening in Portland on Jan. 15 at Cinema 21. If you plan your weekend just right, there are several opportunities to turn ‘Synecdoche, New York’ and ‘Anomalisa’ into a cross-town double feature. Visit 5thavecinema.com/ and cinema21.com for more screening information.