January 19, 2009

Putting the "Meta" in Metaphor

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“Every one one of us is hurtling towards death,”theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) rapturously announces to a room full of hushed actors sitting with blank stares and crossed arms, beginning the grand experimental project that will become, in more ways than one, his life’s work. It’s as close to a punchline as we get in Charlie Kauffman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York.
Instead, the film’s macabre, Chekhovian humor is everywhere underpinning the perpetual existential crisis of its characters as they are fated to lead lives of compromise and broken promises even in their most exulted moments. Kauffman’s characters begin so high-minded that they are inevitably goverwhelmed by their vicissitudes, each groping toward art or love as a form of salvation, and thereby neglecting to salvage their own empty shells from the onrushing tide of life. The film’s closing sequence implies that everyone wants to keep going even though each of us knows there is inevitable devastation ahead, through a lonely golf-cart ride around the rubbish-heaps and bonfires strewn inside a skeletal warehouse that once held Cotard’s outsized yet entirely mundane drama.
As a screenwriter, Kauffman has previously garnered accolades — and even rarer for a screenwriter, a bit of notoriety for such loopy mindbenders as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation. But for all of Synecdoche’s intellectual contortions and defiantly counter-narrative twists, the film is designed to rend the heart rather than the head, evoking a private apocalypse that accumulates from a lifetime of awkward dates, break-ups, career anomie, bodily decay both real and imagined, bingeing on second-rate art and a malignant sense of lost connections.
The basic plotline of the movie is that Cotard’s wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), leaves him abruptly, asking him in a flippant deadpan, “this love thing … it’s really all just projection, right?” before she leaves with their four-year-old daughter with her. Cotard then mopes around postulating and projecting himself onto TV commercials with no real purpose in life until he chances to land a MacArthur “genius” grant, which he then uses to embark on a work that will, he resolves, finally have the quality of truth. He decides to reenact assorted vignettes taken directly from the people around him and himself within an impossibly large converted airplane hangar. But as the project grows to include a cast of thousands and span decades, its fiction grows too close to his reality — figures of life and art become interchangeable doubles, creating an infinite regress of simulacra that plunge Cotard further down the rabbit-hole of his own morbid reflections.
But to speak of the movie’s “basic plotline” fails to live up to the way it portrays the nonlinear passage of time, the slippery temporal and emotional disjunctions, that produce the nagging question whether one has failed at life or life has failed one. For example, while all the other characters undergo the ravages of age, the beautiful actress (Michelle Williams) with whom Caden has an affair retains the same youthful glow throughout, highlighting how time is shaped by the mental projections we impose on it, much like the way film itself has the ability to speed up or slow down experience.
Often, Synecdoche indulges moments of sheer fantasia. There is a poignant running gag that the house owned by Hazel, Caden’s personal assistant, is continually in a fire without ever burning down. A perhaps less effective, slightly maudlin moment of surrealism occurs when the rose petal tattoo on Caden’s dying daughter withers and falls off onto her hospital cot. But rarely do directors take risks using a grabbag of different metaphoric set-pieces and genres or are able to turn schtick into tragicomedy. One of the few parallels I know of in recent memory is Soderbergh’s neglected but brilliant low-budget film, Schizopolis, in which Soderbergh’s ex-wife plays the wife his character may or may not be cheating on and cheating with, a state of affairs that’s echoed throughout Synecdoche.
Cinematographically, Kauffman’s images often have a beautifully damaged exactitude, framing such painterly scenes as a desiccated jumble of old posters and the brilliant, jagged depth of overlapping graffiti along a Berlin sidestreet. The painterly vision is made explicit since we see several stunning glimpses of Adele’s microscopic portraits in the vein of Lucian Freud or Marlene Dumas, both with and without a magnifying lens. But there the visual assault is subtle — a slightly dim, bluish filter is utilized, for example, for a shot in which Cotard lovingly scrubs the fecal residue off a toilet-rim.
The casting of Hoffman as the schlubby, nebbishy artist at once seems inevitable and uninspired in a movie that makes counterintuitive casting a theme. Hoffman, however, manages to build a character that has both an overdeveloped ego and delusions of lacking a self, as the name Cotard implies. When he directs clueless young actors, his own acting deliberately becomes a shade more stagey. Hoffman is able to “perform” self-consciousness, zigzagging through autistic fits of rage and blanking out. Quickly navigating such nuanced emotional registers, Hoffman displays his versatility in a powerful scene in which he visits his grown-up daughter in a strip-club’s private booth, banging on the sound-proof glass that separates them, then finally kicking and screaming as he’s dragged away by a bouncer. Among the supporting actors, Samantha Morton does a standout job portraying Hazel as both sweet and seductive, simultaneously breezy and desperate.
Though the movie begins to slow-down about three-quarters of the way through during a series of funerary orations, these are used to represent how Cotard has buried himself in his work, becoming deadened to the world around him while trying to represent it. The fractured meanings in this self-reflexive — and self-annihilating — film continue to fascinate long after one has left the movie-house, revolving endlessly in the mind’s ludic shadowplay of grieving its own demise.