I started writing this for the film column in the back of the Super Saver, but it was eventually deemed inappropriate – “not enough bargains,” they said. So pardon the un-bloggy feel.
Often misheard, oftener mispronounced, Synecdoche, New York marks the directorial debut of Charlie S. Kaufman, one the most consistently interesting, and simply consistent, screenwriters working. Note first the oddity of a contemporary screenwriter with an instantly recognizable narrative style. If Robert Altman’s The Player sounded, however ironically, the death knell of the writer as a generative force in American cinema, Kaufman’s still-nascent oeuvre calls it back from the dead. Beginning with the interesting-if-flawed Human Nature (2000), Kaufman’s work has dealt with classically modernist and postmodernist themes and formal devices: involution, self-reflexivity, doubling, memory and alienation. Working with directors Michel Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), and George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Kaufman’s scripts are essentially romances played out through the surreal logic of their central conceits: a character writing himself into the very film we’re watching, a company that erases portions of its clients’ memories, a tunnel that leads into the brain of actor John Malkovich, and so on. The rigid formalism of Kaufman’s scripts demands the director’s full adherence to their narrative logic but also creates problems of presentation that seem tailor-made for the sensibilities of Gondry and Jonze, both of whom owe a spiritual and stylistic debt to the trick photography and elaborate production design of magician-turned-director Georges Méliès. Stories like Kaufman’s provide those directors with scripts that demand the visual extravagances on which their styles are founded.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that not long after the Spike Jonze-directed Adaptation (2002), a wildly self-reflexive film focused on a writer named Charlie Kaufman and his difficulty adapting Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to the screen, Kaufman would stand behind the camera that mediates the story and the screen. In fact the processes of mediation, the ways in which films, plays, and literature interpose themselves between people and the world that they live in, constitutes the central thematic material of Synecdoche, New York. But in Kaufman’s world there is no such thing as strictly “thematic” material – symmetry is paramount and any thematic dynamic finds its analog in a formal development. The film centers on Caden Cotard, a stage director whose marriage to painter Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) is broken beyond repair, whose hypochondria and morbid obsessiveness find outlet (though not exhaustion) in a lauded production of Death of a Salesman in which the entire cast is young, and who is beset by a strange series of lesions that lend an air of decomposition to Hoffman’s raw chicken complexion. As his marriage finally collapses and Adele departs with their daughter Olive for a gallery show in Germany, Cotard both fails to consummate an affair with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a ticket girl at the the theater, and finds that he’s won a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Cotard decides to use the grant to mount a massive production that attempts to capture a huge, expansive truth about the way life is actually lived.
The rest of the film takes place within the set and frame of that play, and as is customary in a Kaufman script, the distinction between object and subject grows blurrier and the subject grows more and more obsessed with possessing its (usually his) object. The “play” happens in a massive soundstage, within which a cast performs around the clock as Cotard wanders its streets giving notes and making minute adjustments. Cotard’s life is also sucked into the play, and as he consigns more and more of himself to the project, the distinction between Cotard the director and his surrogates disintegrates.
Synecdoche has caught some shit for the gloomy haze that follows it through, but I think there’s something incredibly affecting not just about the gloom, but about the ambitious scale on which the gloom is staged. Synecdoche is not just a film about a very depressed person trying to exercise control on a massive scale as a way to give body to a massive existential absurdity – it is also massively ambitious on the level of form. Cotard’s endless staging of his own pain, the construction of an artificial world as the only proscenium large enough to encompass the pathetic, petty sufferings of one person, (combined with John Brion’s wonderful score) distorts the solipsistic navel-gazing in such a way as to actually make said navel-gazing universally appealing. Or at least universally appealing in a universe in which everybody is like me.
Maybe it’s the cloud of David Foster Wallace’s death that still lingers, months later, but I couldn’t help but compare Synecdoche to “Good Old Neon” – both of them are able to locate reflexivity itself as the irritant that can only express itself reflexively.