Sunday, January 3, 2010

Synecdoche, New York (2008) A Film by Charlie Kaufman

The decade's most revealing, complicated, and self-lacerating filmmaker surrogate is Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), standing in for first-time director but seasoned screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in his sprawling Synecdoche, New York. Cotard is an artist grappling with the great question of how to depict life in all of its mundane, difficult, and sometimes inexplicable glory through arguably overdone methodology; Kaufman is the writer of such singular films as Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Human Nature (2001), and Spike Jonze's Adaption (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999), works that have now and then elicited accusations of Kaufman as a convoluted hack exploring important themes in a way that spotlights only his own cleverness. Indeed, Synecdoche, New York is heavy on the convolution, and one can't possibly make it out of it without attesting to the fact that Kaufman's damn clever, but the film's exploration of its central figure - an upstate New York theater director - is intense and all-encompassing, rivaling There Will Be Blood (also from 2008) in its unflinching study of a man invested for better or worse in his vocation.

With the obvious finesse afforded to all of the film's ingredients, down to every last detail, it's clear Kaufman is one of these very figures. The film represents an amazing example of an artist working from the outside in, pining to explore his own inner-being and the relationship between his art and his life. Yet it is important not to see Synecdoche, New York as a work of insularity, telling us about its creator but nothing else, for it constantly strives to understand the lives around its protagonist as well as the links that connect them, and often times even condemns Cotard's irrational thoughts, showcasing the negative ways in which they manifest themselves on-screen. An early example of this is when Caden's artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves with their daughter Olive to Germany due to a great deal of mounting anxieties regarding his increasingly paranoid and hypochondriachal tendencies (on a day-to-day basis, Caden believes he has extracted life-threatening diseases that make him more miserable by the minute) as well as a seemingly marriage-long tension between Adele's extroverted, art-chic personality and Caden's introverted, worrisome one. The first few scenes of the film show the family in cramped, rather ungainly quarters going about their own business, Olive inquiring nasally about her "green poop", Adele balancing her daughter's woes with her own busy morning routine, and Caden sitting at the table complaining, for all intents and purposes, to himself about his psychosomatic conditions. Adele and Olive ultimately never return from Germany, and their physical dismissal from the film sets in motion its slow, exacting departure from reality.

Prior to their exit, Caden sees his reworking of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (staged with young actors, a prescient nod to Caden's fear of mortality and aging) open to glowing reviews, causing him to receive a hearty "Genius Grant" with which to create a bold theatrical work. He embarks on this project with little more than a loose feeling: wanting to create a play that expresses the sorrows of life and the difficulty of leading one's own life with the constant pressures of providing for those around him, he devises the concept of a lifelike replication of the city of Schenectady, New York that he lives in (the title then is a play on words, with the replacement word "synecdoche" actually a figure of speech meaning a part representing a whole). He casts familiar actors in the parts of his family, his friends, and his co-workers. This process becomes an attempt to recreate his entire life, his entire environment, and it inevitably grows increasingly complicated and multilayered as Caden's personal life steadily collapses. Romances come and go, tending to add only misery rather than joy, augmenting the grief he feels about his lost family. In fact, women are a constant struggle in Caden's life; although he is unromantic, it seems that a women is always grasping for his attention, and he uses them as a way to combat his loneliness rather than evolve a relationship - love as a vehicle for forgetting.

The character of Hazel (Samantha Morton) is one of the few figures who is consistent throughout the film, and she is also an important aspect of Caden's troubled self. At the theater where Caden works, she is the box office attendant, and displays her giddy affection for him early on when Adele is still living with him. Caden clearly reciprocates the feelings, but is too withdrawn to act upon them comfortably, but when Adele finally leaves, the two begin dating. It is not long though before Caden screws things up in a typically neurotic manner, whining about his confusion and deterring Hazel. Soon enough, she finds her own husband and starts a new life, but Caden's interest does not waver (in a distinctly Gondry-esque visual flourish, Hazel's house is constantly burning with flames of desire). During this time, Caden goes through the motions with his own new wife, the young, passionate, but phony actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), with whom he has a child that he basically dismisses as not his own. Things start out well but end bitterly. Meanwhile, Caden is haunted by the now ubiquitous art-world images of his wife, who has found success with her miniaturized impressionist paintings, so small in fact that they have to be viewed through microscopes, and the image of a flock of museum-goers crowding around the portraits like scientists studying amoebas is a hilarious critique of the increasingly absurd mannerisms of modern art. More stinging is Caden's anguish about his lost daughter, who he finds has transformed into a tattooed lesbian imprisoned by the pornographic industry and the misguided hand of her mother's eccentric friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Evidently, between the chaos of his present romantic situation, the torment of wondering whether or not his daughter remembers him, and the constant fear of sickness and death, Caden has the material to produce a far-reaching, searing portrait of existential blues. Yet it is this burning desire to create something "real" out of things that are painfully real, this meddling approach to art as a form of objective projection, that paradoxically sends him further away from emotional truth and deeper into his own obsessive competition with loneliness. Fittingly, he finds a massive abandoned warehouse to begin staging his play, and in it he builds a stroke-for-stroke replica of Schenectady, which naturally includes the same warehouse within it. This results in a life-size, urban version of a Matryoshka doll, the literal embodiment of escapism for Caden, who frets layer upon layer over every minor detail. The characters in his play mirror this layering effect, because those who represent real figures in Caden's life eventually get represented within the play by other actors, and so on and so forth. Adele's artwork gains an added dimension when we witness the grandiose scale of Caden's, proving that success and artistic merit needn't be proportionate to scale. Towards the end of the film, Caden shrinks within his cavernous surroundings, disappearing amongst the other "actors", and he loses a sense of coherence and control over his blooming production.

Without any warning, decades have past when sometimes it feels like only months. In truth, we see Caden age from a middle-aged father to a brittle old man, and the gaps in time are hardly apparent. The only evidence we get to the contrary is in the slaps of reality that Caden receives: Hazel informs him that his family has been gone for several years when it feels like a few frames have past since their departure, and he hears news of his parents and daughter dying. Kaufman's tricky methods allow the film to sneak up on you. By focusing adamantly on Caden, the film purposefully neglects all other aspects of the story, emphasizing his own static mindset and self-absorption. Because of this, he becomes disconnected and uninvolved in anyone else's life, shown in a scene when Caden finally sits at the deathbed of the grownup Olive and the two literally speak in different languages (German and English). This is not simply sloppy narrative mechanics; Synecdoche, New York effectively captures the effects of passing time, the feeling that one gets about things moving forward at an unnaturally rapid rate. When nearly all of his loved ones pass away in the blink of an eye with no portents about their approaching fates, Caden's overwhelming paranoia and morbidity is that much more potent.

For much of Caden's production, a pressing question is who will play himself. At an interview for the part, a lanky old man with gray hair and glasses (Tom Noonan) boasts to have complete knowledge him, stating that he has followed him for years with utmost fascination. The audience may recall several scenes earlier in the film where the man lurked in the background impassively. For all its well-written, thoroughly explored elements, the film lacks clarity in this figure. He begins as what seems like a conceptual enigma, perhaps indicative of some fragment of Caden's psyche, perhaps a forewarning towards a more metaphysical role he will play later in the film, but instead he abruptly transitions into just another character with his own motivations, falling for Claire and Hazel and eventually committing suicide.

When he's out of the picture however, a new, more beguiling character comes into play. Ellen, the cleaning lady of Adele's high-rise apartment that Caden stalks for some time, believes she understands his essence despite her lack of acting experience. She revamps the production, even taking over Caden's role as director. A play (well, more of an installation) that has for decades been stagnate and ill-prepared for an audience suddenly seems to come alive, yet Caden shows clear signs of submission. Kaufman is probing at the utter necessity of creating art, but also the importance of finishing it the right way. Caden loses his creativity and perhaps a sense of grounding in reality as he grows old and retreats further into his creation. Soon after, his life, and his production - which begins to look like some of the post-apocalyptic vistas in this year's The Road - ends. But of course, "genius grants" do not sustain themselves for such a long period of time in the first place. There is no play, only a man and his troubles, as well as the lessons he learns. This is Kaufman's maniacal, twisted, brilliant idea of a character study.

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