Tag: david foster wallace

Synecdoche, New York

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.

DFW (1962 – ∞)

I was out of town all day on Saturday when the news broke that David Foster Wallace is dead, apparently a suicide. Wallace was one of my favorite writers, probably my favorite living writer, and the news that he committed suicide, I’m sorry to say, was a greater shock to me than it was for others. Before I finished reading the LA Times story, I thought about “Good Old Neon,” one of his best pieces of writing and, fuck it, probably my favorite short story. Scott Eric Kaufman went there too, and along with the ” I couldn’t finish Infinite Jest but still that guy could write” tropes and wide-eyed invocations of the Kenyon commencement address, the story has been one of the top DFW reference-points of the day.

What to say about an author whose work juggled formal innovation, a refined moral sense, and a sustained meditation on the proliferation of psychic damages wrought by postmodernity? That his fiction is already being re-read through the palimpsest of his suicide goes without saying. That the Times Online reports that Wallace is now part of the sacred pantheon of American writers who ended their own lives is hardly unexpected – as though “Those Who Would Eventually Commit Suicide” were a kind of Borgesian genre of American writer, or as though suicide was particular to American writers. How you fit Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace into any kind of category that makes sense is a mystery to me.

One of my favorite qualities of his non-fiction was it’s non-participatory participation. Especially in pieces like “Consider the Lobster,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” he constructs something between standard first-person reportage and New Journalism, something like “on-location thinking.” Especially in “Consider the Lobster,” where the ostensible journalistic interest of a report from the Maine Lobster Festival gives way to an ethical consideration – a la Peter Singer – of the practice of eating for pleasure, and so (in the case of boiling a lobster alive) inflicting pain in order to attain pleasure. In such pieces (and not all of them are like that), we lose the thread of journalistic narrative at the inward turn of Wallace’s narration. That is, at some point, Wallace grows interested in the abstract dynamics of a situation to the exclusion of concrete events.

Luckily, Wallace’s navigation of those dynamics is always fascinating. While talking about how you decide what your favorite band is, a few friends and I agreed that a band is your favorite when you like the crap just as much as the good stuff. Talking about your favorite band to others, then, is something like repeatedly discovering that you’ve been using the word “ambivalent” incorrectly for the last twenty years: you understand what it really means, but you retain a secret belief that it “really” means what it meant to you before you discovered the truth. People find it easy to grade their best and worst albums, but such talk is nonsense to you, as all is equally good. So you eventually consent to the understandng that “Remain in Light” is better than “Speaking in Tongues,” but you retain your secret belief that you who cannot judge remain the only fair judge.

David Foster Wallace is my favorite band, and I’m helpless to tell you anything beyond personal preference because there was something about his writing that I found, perhaps perversely, absolutely addictive. Many people did. Though he probably won’t achieve that stature of someone like Saul Bellow or Don Delillo, nobody speaks of Herzog or Underworld with the same exhiliration as they do Infinite Jest or “Good Old Neon.” It’s a cliche to say after the death of one’s favorite author that the worst of it is that we’ll have no more to read. That’s obviously not the worst of it. Almost nobody knows the worst of it – maybe Wallace’s widow does, or his family, and we may think that we got some glimpse into how bad things got for Wallace himself by reading his work and its accounts of depression, addiction, people damned to the infinite regresses of fakery and pose, &c, but we’ve only gotten what he wanted us to see. I think one thing I’ve taken from Wallace’s fiction is that the projection always reflects back onto the projector, that the tragedy of the fakery of narrator of “Good Old Neon” is not that it’s fake, but that fakery has become his mode of sincerity, that when there is no end to dissimulation save for dissimulation itself, then the there is no way to distinguish between an image and its original. And there is no difference, really. That’s a lesson that’s been taught a thousand times in a thousand different bits of theory and fiction, but Wallace’s worked through the emotional vicissitudes of this mirror-play. I can think of nothing dumber than simply reflecting back on him as though he were nothing but one of his own fictional surfaces.

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