Posted by: Sally Ingraham | January 17, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

“syn·ec·do·che – A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).” -from

I spent the past week trying to pronounce this word. We were showing the movie Synecdoche, New York at Reel Pizza and it was pretty funny to listen to our poor customers chew the word up and spit it out in all kinds of different fragments. Frequently I sold them tickets to “er, that one I wish I could pronounce” and I found myself congratulating those daring enough to go for it and say something that was close enough.

I got to see the movie myself on Wednesday night, clocking out early and grabbing a Guinness to help Charlie Kaufman’s mad writing and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mad acting go down a little smoother.

I’ve tried to describe this movie, but it is difficult to say the least. Here’s Netflix’s synopsis:

“After his painter wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes their daughter to Berlin, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stages a new autobiographical play in a massive warehouse amid a life-size replica of Manhattan. Meanwhile, Caden must contend with the many women in his life — including a box-office worker, an actress and a shrink — in this beguiling directorial debut (nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards) by ace screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.”

Yesterday I spent 15 minutes attempting to convey to one of the librarians at Jesup what made the movie so very “beguiling”, what it’s story attempted to show. The intriguing beauty of the mundane, the ordinary/extraordinary life of the mind, the layers upon layers of reality that exist for each of us…

It’s a sad story about a lonely, troubled man, who accomplishes nothing and seems to fail ultimately at living. Somehow though, in a mind-bending confusion-inducing kind of a way, the movie is comparatively uplifting.

Speaking toward the end of the movie, and his own life, Caden has an inspiration about how to do his play. He says, “I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”

That’s the clearest thought I came away from the movie with – that, and a new realization of how complex the ordinary life is. Moments later in the film an actor playing a minister launches into a monologue, starting with this:

“You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make…”

We are the lead in our own story, and we can’t see very far beyond our immediate selves. We are the most important thing in our lives, and yet only a tiny fraction of the big picture.

Thus, I suppose, we are all the “synecdoche” in the great sentence of life.


  1. I’m thinking about this movie now in relation to Happy-Go-Lucky. There are some interesting parallels. I hope you get a chance to see it.

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