Sunday, November 16, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, the writer's first feature as a director, is a brilliant work of metafiction. It's also confounding, disturbingly scatological, grindingly negative and morbid, self-indulgent, and at times almost impossible to watch without feeling an unpleasant sensation forming in the pit of one's stomach. Its brilliance and its tendency to irritate are not mutually exclusive, and in fact Kaufman blends the two together as thoroughly as he does the border between art and reality. The film centers around the theater director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose life is continuously disintegrating around him in the first quarter of the movie. He believes he is sick and displays many, likely psychosomatic, symptoms, and the cavalcade of doctors he visits do little to reassure him. When he asks one if his condition is serious, the doctor replies, "I don't know. But yes." Caden is obsessed with dying; he reads a newspaper headline and announces, "Harold Pinter is dead... Oh no, he just won the Nobel Prize." He is putting on a production of Death of a Salesman which features young actors in the principal roles, to remind the audience that even youth fades and eventually these young people will be in the same place in life as Willy Loman. He is not, then, a cheery soul, so it's no surprise when his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes their daughter Olive with her, going to Germany for an ostensibly short trip from which they never return. While abroad, her art career takes off: she makes paintings so tiny they have to be viewed with magnifiers. Throughout the rest of the film, Adele never appears in person again, and Caden only receives news of her indirectly, through articles in magazines, by peering intently at retrospectives of her paintings, or by visiting and cleaning her perpetually empty sublet apartment.

At this point, the film's artifice begins to grow more intricate and convoluted. Adele's departure is a "down the rabbit hole" moment that frees Caden (and Kaufman) from the mundane documentation of reality, and it is this event that triggers the film's increasingly bizarre contrivances and occurrences. Time moves unpredictably from here on, covering large swaths in surprisingly short spans. At one point, Caden believes that Adele has only been gone a week, and he is surprised to be informed that it's been a year already. The audience is surprised, too; there's been no clue to indicate such a long jump. This is only the first of several destabilizations in the film's structure. Soon, the adrift Caden receives a "genius grant" in order to produce an original theatrical work of his own, and he embarks on an ambitious but poorly defined project to create something "real" within the theater. He surrounds himself with actors he's worked with before, including Claire (Michelle Williams), who at one moment he's sleeping with, and at the next he's married to, raising a young daughter who Caden barely thinks of as his own. He refers to his "real" daughter Olive, as though this marriage and the daughter it produces is only imaginary. In film terms, it might as well be; it all happens as though in a dream, in only minutes of screen-time. Time is condensed and moves through unexpected wormholes like this, vortexes where the passage of years is indicated only by the seismic shifts in character relationships that accompany this timespan. It is hard to imagine a better cinematic representation of the way time works, seeming endless and eternal in individual moments though, in retrospect, the time of one's life seems to have flown by in an eye-blink.

Caden ages before the audience's eyes as the film progresses and his theater project drags on for decades without reaching its finish, and Hazel (Samantha Morton) ages along with him, the object of Caden's unrealized romantic desire. She is the one who got away for him, the woman who he hesitantly romanced when she handled the box office for his earlier plays. She is a constant in his life, obviously in love with him and obviously a perfect woman for him, but he is unable to truly connect with her due to his self-absorption. She grows older on-screen along with Caden, standing by his side as his theater project begins to consume and reflect his life. In one of the film's more explicitly surreal touches, she lives in a house that is perpetually on fire, smoke wafting through its room and flames licking out of the walls, though it is never burned down completely. She accepts this as the price of having a home at all, a place to call her own no matter how damaged it is.

As Caden's life continues to spiral out of control — his marriage to Claire falls apart, he is tortured by his inability to connect with Hazel, and he receives distressing bulletins about his daughter Olive, who has been raised in Germany into a tattooed lesbian who believes all the hateful lies she hears about him — the theater begins to consume more and more of his attention. Within an abandoned warehouse in New York, he starts building a replica of the city itself, populated with an enormous cast who he instructs via an elaborate system of notes about the events happening to their characters, all of which consist of such morbid details as "your wife had a miscarriage." The play keeps getting more complex, and Caden becomes obsessed with getting ever closer to reality: from traditional cut-out sets with the "fourth wall" missing he progresses towards closed-off realistic building replicas, and eventually towards an all-encompassing totality in which the entire city is recreated in the warehouse. Naturally, this includes a replica of the warehouse itself, and within that a smaller replica of the city, a process that seems destined to continue ad-infinitum. Caden's artistic project is an irreconcilable paradox between solipsism and the reflection of reality. He says that he wants to mirror the world in his art, but these Chinese boxes of cities within cities are nothing but a retreat from reality, an attempt to get further and further from the uncomfortable facts of his own life. His art, though founded on idealistic notions of capturing mundane reality, is the ultimate escapism, as he flees from his life into ever-more piled-up layers of artifice.

This concept is a familiar one for Kaufman himself, who has often been accused of this kind of artistic self-indulgence, and who here seems to have decided that self-indulgence is in fact the essential and most true form of art. The artist is the person who builds an entire city just to understand and reflect his own life. In this sense, Caden is Kaufman's obvious stand-in, just as within the film itself Caden has his own stand-in: Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), an eccentric old man who has followed Caden around obsessively and who is thus the perfect actor to step in for him in the play within the film. Sammy winds up being perhaps too good for the role, though. He hits on Claire and ultimately drives her away, then follows Caden by falling in love with Hazel. Meanwhile, Caden finds himself sleeping with Hazel's own stand-in Tammy (Emily Watson), doing with her what he can't seem to do with her real-life counterpart. Indeed, for Caden the term "real-life" is beginning to seem increasingly remote, as there is nothing that happens to him in life that is not immediately recreated in the theater, with actors playing himself and the people around him. The layers between reality and artifice pile up, and soon even Sammy has a stand-in, an actor roaming around playing Sammy, who's playing Caden, who in a sense is playing Charlie Kaufman just as Nicolas Cage did in Adaptation.

The film is at its best in its latter half, as Caden's reality and the play he's making become increasingly intertwined, even as he and the rest of the cast ages before the audience's eyes. The cast of his play is frustrated that they have been working for decades on a theater production that never gets to perform before an audience, but even this has a meta-level: the audience is the one watching the film. There is a subtext of the creative mind as God, creating entire miniature worlds of their own, and this concept comes to the fore with the arrival of the actress Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), who originally plays Ellen, Adele's housekeeper, but soon begins taking control of the entire production. She eventually takes over the role of playing Caden, and assigns Caden to play Ellen instead, giving him an earpiece through which she issues God-like dictates that control his every movement. Her final stage direction, issued amidst the post-apocalyptic wasteland that commenced once Caden's theatrical artifice developed into a fully realized alternative reality of its own, is a meta-command that definitively establishes her status as God, ending the film in the process. Kaufman's directorial debut is a fiendishly complicated and confounding effort, alternately aggravating and enthralling. It is not always clear if Caden/Kaufman is heading down the rabbit hole, or merely up his own ass, but the maddening, wild, scattered results on display are satisfying even if they aren't always easy to watch or understand.


Daniel said...

Speaking of metafiction, I'm wondering if you've heard about the recent film, JCVD. It's about Jean-Claude Van Damme playing himself. It's interesting and I can say I honestly wasn't expecting what it ended up being. According to the director, one of his influences is Godard and it really shows here.

Mark said...

Ed, this is an excellent, insightful review. Thank you for expressing many of the feelings I had watching the film and the thoughts I've had since but that I've been unable, somehow, to put into words.

It's my first visit to your site. I'll be back.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: As I was reading this a second time, I kept cutting out the lines I agreed with, ready to paste them in here. About halfway through, I stopped. There were too many.

No doubt, I'm finding the discussion of "Synecdoche" much more fulfilling than the film. Interesting that you can read my rant and agree with most of it, and I can read your (qualified) rave and agree with most of it. It's that kind of movie.

I followed up with some other thoughts on the film in general over at my blog. But here's a discussion for yours (and maybe we can get Mark back into this):

Do you feel the assumption of the God role by Dianne Wiest's character 'works' within the rest of the construct? I thought Caden's surrender to his story and his desire to disappear into it worked, but I failed to see the connection to all that voice-of-God rambling by Wiest near the end. Thoughts? That section of the film is the only part that I feel I didn't 'get,' to the point that the film is get-able.

Ed Howard said...

First, I responded to you back on your "rant." I found some stuff to disagree with you about there now, but you're right that two people can agree on the basic facts about this movie and then come to completely opposite conclusions anyway. It's a very rich film.

Re: Wiest, that's an interesting question. I see her as representing the artist's loss of control over his artwork, which is what tends to happen when the art is released into the world. You can see, in the scene where she takes over as Caden, the art starting to come together in a much more polished, performance-ready form than it ever had before. That's why at that point Caden bows out: this was his life's work because, in many ways, he never wanted to finish it, certainly never expected to. It was an escape for him, something to occupy him and, he hoped, fulfill him. But it's taken off his hands and declared, essentially, finished, and he retires to a dark corner with nothing left to do but die. These are my initial thoughts. I thought Wiest worked in this context, but she is definitely the element that I am still puzzling over in my head the most now that the film is over.