Monday, November 10, 2008

You Really Hurt Me, "Synechdoche, New York"


I love Manohla Dargis' review of Synechdoche, New York, so much so that I want to feel this movie the way she did, but I just don't. I know my feelings about this movie are colored by the mental unbalancing act I was conducting the day I saw it--a mixture of headache, heartache, something flu-like, and seeing this sucker alone on a Sunday night--and I wonder if, upon a second viewing and/or Manohla's unlikely return of my (many) phone calls, I'll feel differently.

In Dargis' close, she raises her fist and sings:
Despite its slippery way with time and space and narrative and Mr. Kaufman’s controlled grasp of the medium, “Synecdoche, New York” is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies. To be here now, alive in the world as it is rather than as we imagine it to be, seems a terribly simple idea, yet it’s also the only idea worth the fuss, the anxiety of influence and all the messy rest, a lesson hard won for Caden. Life is a dream, but only for sleepers.

I wholeheartedly agree that this movie is a "cry from the heart" and is "tethered to the here and now," but as it stands, I really can't feel this film as a call to life, to be present and loving in all the pain and muck and beauty. Maybe this sentiment resides somewhere in the film, but for me this lesson gets lost and obscured by the extent of cruelty and tragedy to which Caden Cotard (Philip Seymore Hoffman) is subjected.

When relationships crumble, when he reaches desperate measures with the younger (annoying) women around him, when his body pops and burps and twitches with disease, Caden Cotard uses his "genius grant" to construct a theatrical universe where he can play all these scenarios out with the theater director's strange combination of intimacy and remove. His construction of this universe is painstakingly elaborate. He pours himself into this inauthentic world and this is what Dargis sees as his fatal choice and this is what we're supposed to learn from. But I struggle to absorb this point because I don't think Caden actually does make this choice; Cotard does engage in the world around him! He heartbreakingly, desperately tries to do so! And, in a hopeless stroke of Kaufman's brush, these noble efforts are met with more cruelty, more dead ends, more death.

He longs for his disappeared daughter; he reads her diary; sends her gifts; touches her things; his memories are tangible. He tries to find her on multiple occasions and succeeds! And in these sought after encounters, he's quite brutally separated by soundproof glass, security guards, a decade of brainwashing, language, lies, and grief.

He longs for his wife. He stares at her studio, looks at her paintings, visits her exhibits, asks for her at the front desk, goes into her home, cleans her toilet, leaves her notes. As much as this character can be thrilled, Cotard gets a thrill (if tinged with masochism) from just briefly occupying spaces she inhabits. He takes in her obliviously insensitive notes--in which she thinks she's writing to her housekeeper Ellen but are actually to her ex-husband and secret housekeeper Caden--with deep breaths.

And after all of his crushed efforts to find the world, the family, the life he had created for himself, he faces reality in one more, crushingly honest way--he finally acknowledges the evasiveness of his previous life and opens up to have a real, loving connection with a longtime friend and partner. The gratification is pure because it's so fettered and honest and imperfect and it crashes to a close because she dies.

Yes, Cotard created a huge, inauthentic world, a carbon copy, a mold, a replica. But I don't see this as the escapism for which Dargis sees it, largely because it's coupled with all of these other honest, emotional actions. I see this massive construction and his leap into fabrication as a legitimate way to examine these real life tragedies. He stages them to remove himself just enough to put on his directorial jacket and analyze them. Given the cruelty of his life, one cannot blame him for going a little overboard with this project. I think this reading is better suited to Kaufman's film which is so soaked in modernist reflections on art, performance, filmmaking, storytelling, and inauthenticity. For, what is a movie if not a giant-expensive construction of a beast we might face off-camera. And what is this movie but an artificial projection of the terror and anxiety that floods the soul when disappointment overwhelms us, when such longing fills us, when things crack and then break irrecoverably, when death mounts.

Caden Cotard stages a production of Death of a Salesman with all young actors so that the tragedy grows out of realizing that the young, vibrant faces on stage are fated as well, to at least death if not Willie Loman's brand of loneliness. It seems Charles Kaufman gives us Synechdoche, New York with a similar message--not so much, you can face life and do better! but more, look how we must face life and see how it wilts us.

1 comment:

Ryland Walker Knight said...

a beautiful final clause, martha.