Nobody’s Special and So Are You: Synecdoche, NY
He was born, he suffered, he died.
I come, I shoot, I return.
The above epigrams are two of the formulas that theorists have proposed to express the Grand Master Narrative of human existence. As these samples suggest, most GMNs boil down to a few basic humanist propositions dressed up by their interest in the ‘deep structures’ of civilization, i.e., we are all the hero of our own tale, with the same essential hopes, dreams, frustrations, frailties and neuroses. For adherents of GMNs, all great works of art must somehow evoke the profound tragedy that is the life of the common woman or man. If many great anti-humanist works quickly spring to the mind of the contrarian (from Oscar Wilde’s sophisticated satires to the scabrous nihilism of Gaspar Noé), humanism’s penchant for romanticizing the fight against middle-class anomie has at least fueled many of America’s treasured stage-plays dating back to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
In Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” the acclaimed screenwriter reveals himself as a faithful acolyte of the Grand Master Narrative school of drama. The film is one of the few recent American movies worth discussing in some detail, which isn’t the same as claiming that it’s consistently entertaining or even very good. Throughout its sluggishly paced two hours of running time, it is both, intermittently. But it is also precisely the kind of ambitious, playful think-piece that cineastes and critics are given to waxing philosophical over. Upon the film’s release last October, lyrical tributes bubbled out of Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Manohla Dargis, among others. But audiences found its mannered charms mostly wanting, in contrast to their embrace of Kaufman’s equally unconventional scripts for films like “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a successful theater director in—where else?—Schenectady, New York. Caden happens to be staging a production of “Death of a Salesman” while suffering from a mysterious degenerative condition and the usual romantic difficulties of the sensitive artist. Typecast in another shrewish role, Catherine Keener is his cynical painter-wife Adele Lack, whose trip to Berlin with their four-year old daughter Olive allows her fledgling career to leapfrog Caden’s modest, small-town success. In Germany, Adele raises Olive with her stoner gal-pal and possible lesbian lover Maria (a sexily dissolute-looking Jennifer Jason Leigh). For Caden, the years pass in general unhappiness. Or maybe they don’t. The narrative progresses with a purposeful fuzziness, like his malady, which is probably a hypochondriac’s response to the natural aging process.
Adele and a now heavily-tattooed teenaged Olive are written up in flattering feature stories in highbrow magazines. Maria and Olive develop thick German accents. The trio’s casual, uninhibited attitudes about drugs, sexual partners and cultural exchange become a symbol for the glamorous world of celebrity culture which contrasts with Caden’s flabby physique and drab life in the entropic prison that is “Synecdoche, NY.”
But “there’s more…so much more,” as Dargis’s rave in The New York Times notes (random snippet of her ecstasy: “To be here now, alive in the world as it is rather than as we imagine it to be…a lesson hard won for Caden. Life is a dream, but only for sleepers“). Some of this “more” evokes the oddball humor of Kaufman’s earlier scripts in a slightly muted key. Samantha Morton gives an engaging performance as Hazel, a plain-looking box office clerk who attracts and briefly wins Caden partly because her social ineptitude even exceeds his own awkwardness. Hope Davis pops up in a deliciously smirking parody of a self-help therapist, ministering ineffectively to Caden and Adele’s marriage before turning her attentions to his personal failings. When Adele asks, “Can I say something awful?” during a session, Davis replies with undisguised delight, “Please do.” She isn’t disappointed, as Adele confesses to being filled with relief following a fantasy about Caden’s death.
Caden scores a success with his “Death of a Salesman,” which Adele dismisses as a bone to the “blue hair” crowd while challenging him to risk putting his true self on display in something. Winning a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, he seizes the chance to prove that his true self can do something “tough” and “true” and “honest,” as he whines to his therapist. From this point, the narrative turns increasingly surreal as Caden becomes obsessed with staging a massive trompe l’oeil play built in a preposterously spacious New York City warehouse, filled with his troupe of actors and a host of doppelgangers from his life as well as the lives of everyone else in the film.
If you are apt to be annoyed by the obviousness that christens the unloving wife in the story “Lack,” your patience will be sorely tested by the increasingly baroque hi-jinks Kaufman trots out once Caden and his company start rehearsing the play, which bears a series of pretentious names before being wryly dubbed “Infectious Diseases in Cattle.” By this point, in academic terms, the film has transformed itself into a mise en abyme construction, with the story-world of the play commenting on and freely intermingling with Caden’s ‘real life.’
At the epicenter of both worlds are Caden’s twin fixations: his idealized memories of the young Olive, stolen from him by her globe-hopping mother Adele, and his disgust at his pitiful body and ‘womanlike’ emotions (a desire to feel beautiful, to be mothered by his lovers). Like many of Kaufman’s male leads, Caden’s self-loathing is an obstacle to his happiness with women of varying types. He’s apt to begin blubbering or fail to perform in the sack with the doting Hazel. On the rebound, Caden marries the radiant Claire (Michelle Williams), a self-absorbed actress who starred in his version of “Salesman,” cast with younger actors to heighten the tragedy since the audience, he claims, will visualize the performers heading for the same fate as the Lomans. The marriage fails because of Caden’s sense of physical inadequacy and Claire’s insincere star-worship of his inchoate intellectualizations (“It’s Karamazov,” she breathes in awe, following his insipid explanation of the new play). Adele may be more intellectually compatible and attractive enough without being too threatening. But her castrating success has Caden fantasizing that he’s nothing more than an elderly cleaning lady scrubbing Adele’s chic downtown loft clean.
The formal devices which confuse and poke fun at the reality-fiction divide are often inventive. Olive’s diary, left behind on the trip to Berlin, continues to keep us and Caden informed of her progress, with new entries magically appearing to detail (suggest?) her life abroad. The spectral-looking Tom Noonan appears as a stalker eventually cast as Sammy, the play’s fictionalized Caden, after his amusingly nonsensical explanation that the stalking was character research (for a play not yet conceived). The play’s endless rehearsals lead to comedic confusion between actors and the people they’ve been hired to portray. Sammy becomes romantically involved with the real Hazel. In a tit-for-tat, Hoffman’s Caden has a tryst with the performer cast as Hazel’s counterpart (Emily Watson).
Other touches are more heavy-handed and less illuminating, including a succession of flatly-staged funerals when the characters begin dropping like flies (before committing suicide, Sammy chastises Caden for being an utterly self-absorbed artist, a charge viewers could easily lob at Kaufman after this film). But the accumulated devices offer a more layered construction than the simple alterations of dream sequences and ‘reality’ that mark well-known mise en abyme films like Fellini’s “8 1/2.” The film and the play-within-in-the-film are both capable illustrations of the concept of “synecdoche,” i.e., a part which stands in for the whole. As Caden sets out on a futile quest for “total literature” (as Budd Schulberg once termed a story encompassing all facets of human existence), Kaufman’s tale illustrates that artists must inevitably settle for a representative hunk of narrative which refers imprecisely to an infinitely complex reality.
As the rhapsodic reviews suggest, Kaufman has created an intricate and fully articulated rumination on some revered dramatic themes: the ultimate potential of art, life’s fleeting nature, human frailty, the universality of suffering and loneliness. Which begs the question…Why is it so much more fun to argue about and ponder the movie after the fact than to sit through it?
Any number of explanations may suffice depending on the viewer’s tastes and temperament. For all its blurry indeterminateness, “Syndecdoche” doesn’t offer intellectuals the pleasures of puzzle-films like “Last Year at Marienbad,” where, as Susan Sontag once noted, the only meaning behind the elegant plot obfuscations is the opportunity to contemplate the ‘meaning’ of the possible films suggested by the trickery. It doesn’t take a famous dead intellectual to discern that the tale hidden inside Kaufman’s complex mise en abyme (or the ‘synecdoche’ of “Synecdoche”) is a very simple one. An approximate synopsis would go something like this: Feeling that life is passing him by, a fortysomething theater director divorces his first wife, becomes estranged from his daughter, has a romantic liaison with his assistant, marries and divorces his leading lady, and spends the rest of his days pursuing artistic ‘truth’ at the expense of personal happiness before dying with-a-whimper-not-a-bang in his dotage.
By the film’s second hour, the novelty of Kaufman’s assortment of reality-blurring techniques has worn off. In its place, we’re left with a thoroughly navel-gazing spectacle: the slow disintegration of an artist who fancies himself a twenty-first century Willy Loman. There is a kind of humble nobility in the tradition of soldiering on through the unhappy epiphanies of mid-life: the knowledge that, for all our sensitivity, we are no less ‘special’ than the sad sack of humanity next door in all our mortality and regret for lost youth. But these would-be epiphanies remain fairly pat answers to the questions provoked by life’s unceasing ups and downs (unlike Kaufman’s philosophical script for “Eternal Sunshine” which was content to raise questions with no answers: about memory, fate, identity, etc.). Espousing the idea that we are all just one degree of separation away from a Willy Loman trainwreck is a quick-fix cure for liberal guilt (another ghost in Caden’s/Kaufman’s angst machine). But the individualist delusions that some are more special than others and immortality through art remains possible have long been the spark behind exuberant flights of fancy like “Being John Malkovich.” Which, for some of us, help keep the middle-class anomie at bay.