The first time I watched Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, I just watched it. I tried to follow the events and purposely let the metaphors and symbols slip right past my eyes and into my subconscious. When the ending came, I was floored. I didn't know why, but I was floored.
The second time I watched Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, I knew what I was looking for. Subtle hints of time passing (something like 6 months in the first 10 minutes), covert suggestions about who was who (Sammy shows up a lot sooner than you think), dialog that makes clear we are living in Caden's memory (or are we?). Still, I got sucked into the story and the characters and their relationships. The metaphors and symbols slipped right past my eyes and into my subconscious. When the ending came, I was floored. I knew a little better why, but I was still floored.
What is SNY about? I really don't know. I know that we follow Caden's life from the moment it really begins for him until the day he dies. But what is his life about? Why are we following this particular character? Maybe this is just a giant exercise in Rashomon-like memory play. Maybe this is a direct assault on the tendency of modern American movies to have their plots play out over two or three days. Maybe Kaufman is trying to show us that the real poetry in life stretches out over decades.
Maybe that's why I was floored both times I watched SNY. Here is a movie that takes on the grand scheme of things and wrings out the poetic poignancy of life. A director who can put on a brilliant play in the theater but can't put on a decent show at home. The same director thinks that every ailment is life-threatening but survives every one---for thirty or forty years, no less. He doesn't die from some sickness or his inability to salivate or whatever holocaust is wreaking havoc on the outside world; he dies because he acquiesced to someone else's control.
Maybe, in the end, that's the key to unlocking SNY.