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23 May 2009

Obscure Linguistics + NYC = Huh?

I don't think that a sleepy, sunny Saturday afternoon is quite the right time to see a Charlie Kaufman movie. I'm not sure when is the right time to see a Charlie Kaufman movie--possibly whenever accompanied by someone far better analysing mindfuck movies than myself. I loathed both Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine the first time I saw them but after a second or third viewing, I came round to them a little.

Synecdoche, New York, however, won me over with its title: how could I resist a title that combines an obscure linguistic term with my favourite US state? I first came across the term synecdoche about four years ago while researching an essay on the role of metaphor and metonymy in semantic change. Metaphor is, of course, a well known process involving a comparison of two concepts or objects between which there is some similarity of meaning and an imaginative--but not real world--link. The English word muscle, for example, comes from the Latin musculus "little mouse." Musculus was then used figuratively to refer to certain kinds of muscle that resemble the shape of a mouse (of course, there are plenty more examples; George Lakoff wrote a whole book on the subject, which is pretty interesting). 

Metonymy, on the other hand, has been described as, "intrinsically less interesting than metaphor since it does not discover new relations but arises between words already related to each other. In this case, the comparison is made between two concepts between which there is a real-world link. For example, the spatial relationship between the Latin word coxa "hip" which became the French cuisse "thigh." Synedoche is a sub-type of metonymy. As I wrote in my essay (ah, the banalities of undergrad essays):

One common subcategory of metonymy is synecdoche, which involves the substitution of a part of an object or idea for its whole, such as redbreast for "robin," or skirt for "girl." It can also involve the substitution of an inventor for her invention (e.g. the French for "hot air balloon" is montgolfier, after its inventor), place for origin of a product or food (e.g. Camembert, Champagne), or the name of a quality for the person who possesses it (e.g. beauty > a beauty). Champagne originally referred to that geographical region in France and although it retains that meaning, it has acquired the additional meaning of "white sparkling wine from the Champagne region in NE France."

Of course, my ability to churn out multiple examples of synecdoche in action didn't go too far to help me appreciate the film, which could equally have been called Caden Cotard et Ses 8 Femmes; other than Philip Seymour Hoffman-- who plays the talented but mid-life-crisis-ridden theatre director who takes it upon himself to create a life-size reconstruction of the city of New York in a warehouse as his swan song (hence the synecdoche: his warehouse represents the whole of NYC)--most of the other main characters are women. Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton are both good as the rivals and sometime lovers and long-time friends of Herr Direktor. It makes sense, though, that there are a lot of women once the director, Caden Cotard, gets started on his synecdocal opus because when he starts to create a play of his life (and the life in NYC in general), he needs actors to play the parts of his nearest and dearest and this is when the film starts to become more complicated than a set of Russian dolls created by someone who has drunk far too much vodka. 

There is, for example, an actor playing Cotard--a guy named Sammy who has been (somewhat creepily) following Cotard for many years--but once this actor starts to become part of the real Cotard's life, a new actor must be recruited to play the part of Sammy, and so on. This is also true of his women. Indeed, after his artist wife and her lesbian lover run off to Berlin with their daughter, Cotard eventually hooks up with and, later, marries Michelle Williams's character, Claire, who has acted in some of Cotard's plays. When they get married, though, and have a daughter who is very similar to the original daughter who was sequestered in Berlin, it becomes unclear as to whether Claire and Cotard actually did get married in "real life" or whether it was all just part of the script. And what is "real life" anyway?

I don't think I'm going to recount any more of the plot as I don't think I am likely to clarify anything. Suffice to say the film was weird and creepy but also funny and quite poignant in places ("everyone is disappointing, the more you get to know them," says Cotard's (first) wife prior to her departure for Berlin). I might be able to get my head around it after a night's sleep...but then again, maybe I won't...


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