Monday, November 3, 2008

Movies: Synecdoche, New York

I’m stymied. Appropriately so. When one is confounded at the prospect of writing about a movie that is about the confounding prospect of making art whilst living life, and making that art relevant in light of that life—in light of all life—one knows that the filmmaker did his job well. If he hadn’t, one could simply write, “The so-called hero is an impotent loser to afraid of his own demons to do anything worthwhile,” or, “the filmmaker sets up a straw-man turned effigy, at whom he can coyly poke fun and then cruelly burn without ever investing that straw-man with his own frustrated soul.” But one can’t, because Kaufman did invest that hero with his own frustrated soul, and his hero does do something worthwhile, even if, at the end, he (the hero, not to be confused with the writer/director, though to do so is tempting) feels that he’s failed.

There are one million brilliant details, some larger than others, that beg to be discussed, which is another source of my fear of the insurmountable, which of course dovetails nicely with the hero’s own fear of the insurmountable. He is (he being Caden Cotard, the small-town theater director played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), from the moment the film begins with the morning alarm of his clock radio, tackling an insurmountable task: to live an (artistically) meaningful life in the face of (eventual) impending death. Kaufman, of course, lulls us into believing that this will be a tender, domestic existential crisis; Caden’s precociously neurotic daughter Olive worries from the toilet that her poo is green, and from the backseat of the family car that she “has” blood (“I don’t want blood!” she desperately cries), and his beautifully aging wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) paints postage-stamp sized female nudes with a Yuskavage-meets-Bacon sensibility, so small that viewers must wear plastic magnifying lenses perched on their nose-bridges. Meanwhile, the voluptuous ticket-taker Hazel (Samantha Morton) who works at Caden’s box office seems to have a thing for him, in spite of his chubby nervousness, and their encounters are bathed in buttery, mellifluous light.

Our suspicion of the strain on the Cotard-Lack relationship is confirmed by the blonde caricature of their marital counselor (Jung meets Paris Hilton meets Caden’s curious subconscious), on whose couch Adele admits to fantasizing about Caden’s death (in front of Caden), which would give her a guilt-free chance to start over. Meanwhile, Caden doesn’t feel well; a freak plumbing accident lands him in the hospital with a headwound, from where he’s sent to an ophthalmologist for improperly-dilating pupils, from where he’s sent to a neurologist. Living cysts appear under the withered skin of his calves; pustules break out on his jowls. Adele misses opening night of his play (Death of a Salesman, in which all the roles are experimentally cast with young actors), and then decides to go to her opening in Berlin without him, taking their daughter with her. They don’t come back.

And it’s here that this film morphs, from a very intelligent and poignant indie-household drama, to a recognizable Kaufman mobius-opus. It is, without question, his grandest project to date. Caden finds himself served with papers, and while we’re all expecting divorce documents from Adele, who has been gone without contact for months now, who is famous, and who has a five-page, full-color spread in the cinematic equivalent of Vanity Fair, featuring the banner quotation, “I’m at a point in my life where I only want to surround myself with healthy people,” he finds instead an announcement that he’s won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant (which, if you don’t know, is a gift of $500,000 intended to allow the artist to pursue his or her work without compromises). With this, he decides to stage a new play, of his own writing, to address the entire ebb and flow of life and death and desire and disappointment and hope and fear and frustration and anxiety. There is no script yet, but he begins to cast his core group of actors in roles that echo the figures in his life. He has, meanwhile, tried to staunch the Adele-inspired bleeding of his heart with the attentions of Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), the naïve and ebullient actress who idolizes him; they marry and have a daughter, but it goes poorly; Caden’s heart belongs, in part, to Adele and Olive in Berlin, and, in part, to Hazel, whom he tried to bed, but too soon, finding himself on his back like a quivering, beached whale, pale and impotent and crying, while the light suddenly sharpened, showing Hazel’s heavy flesh, the frowsy kinks of hair, the lines in her sad, sullied face (she looks at that moment like nothing so much as a Courbet painting).

Caden goes to Berlin, but is sent away by Adele’s old friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has taken over his own role in Olive’s new, German life. He returns to work on his play, now developing in a ruined warehouse somewhere in New York, in which he’s building a replica of his apartment building, filled with actors replicating his life and all the lives around him. He acquiescently casts as himself a bespectacled thin man, who towers over him, who has been following him for years (it’s true—we saw his frightful shadow through the curtains when Caden and Hazel tried to make love, or standing on the corner watching, back when Adele still lived at home; his name is Sammy). He casts a Hazel (since she’s taken over as his assistant, and is so deeply now a part of his life, though they’ve not tried to become lovers again, and she has been married, birthing five boys of her own, the whole family living in the eternally flaming house she bought in a tenderly literalized fire sale), and soon it comes time to cast. But Sammy falls in love with the real Hazel rather than the equivalent actress; meanwhile Caden goes to bed with the equivalent actress the night of his father’s funeral, because Hazel is busy (having dinner, as it turns out, with Sammy). When Caden and Hazel rekindle their love for each other, Sammy jumps off the mock-apartment building’s roof; he’s dead, and a new Caden must be cast. The real Caden and Hazel, meanwhile, seem to have at last found completion; they go to bed in her burning house with the fragility and weight of age, and the next morning Hazel is dead, from smoke inhalation.

And so Caden longs again. He has been spending his nights cleaning the loft where Adele now lives, posing as her cleaning woman Ellen. Soon, he moves into her walk-in closet at her behest. She is never home, though she leaves him notes, leaves the shower running with steam, invites him to stay, in that sexy, breaking voice, for a fresh pot of coffee, without ever materializing. And so Caden casts an Ellen in his play, and when he begins to break down, the actress takes over for him (not the role of Caden in the play, but the actual place of Caden in his life), so that he can be Ellen (not Ellen in the play, but real, actual Ellen) in his real, actual life, though time has passed, and the elevators in the loft are no longer running, and the halls are filled with rats (the apartment’s interior remains timelessly pristine). Olive has long since died, from an infection of the floral tattoos that covered her entire body (painted by her mentor-turned-lesbian-lover Maria)—Caden was there at her deathbed, years after finding her dancing nude in a plexiglass box in a Berlin basement, speaking to her through translation headphones (she spoke only German), when she demanded that he apologize for abandoning her in order to spend time with his homosexual lover Eric (which confession has nothing to do with the truth, but which he repeats nevertheless, since she’s dying and demands it)—and then did not forgive him. And so, he is completely alone, nested in the corner of Adele’s closet like a pale, hairless rat himself.

All this while, the play has grown and grown and grown; nearly twenty years have passed, and the set has expanded from a warehouse to two warehouses, to warehouses one through nine; the play has become a compound (not at all unlike the grounds of an entire movie studio), on which everyone has a particular, pedestrian role that nevertheless burgeons with all the potential beauty and grotesquerie and sadness and joy of life. But the day comes that Caden leaves Adele’s apartment to find that everyone on set is dead; he has been aging and getting more and more sick, and less and less mobile, having seizures, then losing control of one leg and needing a cane, then needing a suitcase-sized machine to sleep. But he has outlived his entire cast and crew, except the one woman cast as Ellen’s mother in a childhood flashback; they sit on a couch together in the damp morning air on the wasted lot, and he asks to rest his head on her shoulder. The film increases in brightness until the images completely washes out, and the film is over.

So what is there for me to say about all of that, when Kaufman has said it all in the very film itself? We are driven to make art, but we are afraid. We know that we won’t last, and we know that it won’t either, but we are so attached to ourselves and to it, our art; we want it to be great, to be all-encompassing, to purge us of our every intention—not even just our mere actions. We want to make it, but we can’t—it’s too big, we haven’t the time, the strength; and it is logistically not tenable. But how else can we fill our empty spaces, make right what we did wrong, if not by reliving it, in our mind’s eye, with layers of punishing self-criticism—frustrated with circumstances, frustrated about being frustrated, frustrated for being frustrated about being frustrated. It is crippling. We are stymied.

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