All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
William Shakespeare "As You Like It" 2/7
Director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wakes up every morning with a fresh pain to fuss about in the morning and a malady that he saves for the afternoon. He's a mess. So's his life, and the only time he feels comfortable is telling actors how to play their parts. But he frets about everything else. "I have 650 lighting changes! Why does it have to be so complicated?" "Because you make it complicated," says his wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), whose own art is to make paintings so small you need magnifying specs to look at them in the gallery. She's reductive. He likes to blow things out of proportion, which sometimes manifests itself, physically, as sycosis. "It's spelled differently," he tells his daughter Olive. "P-s-y 'psychosis' is when you're crazy, like Mommy is sometimes."
Welcome back to the World of Charlie Kaufman (and yes, after all the success you can still call him "Charlie"). Kaufman's screenplays are expanded "Twilight Zone" episodes where reality is warped and woofed through the gray matter of Kaufman's mind and some basic axiom of the human condition comes shining through like sunlight through cheese-cloth. "Synecdoche New York" is the same sort of Möbius-loop swirl like Kaufman's scripts for "Being John Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," and "Adaptation.."* And as with those scripts, you not only get the story as it stands, but also a look into the soul of Kaufman, as well. "Malkovich" was the story of an street-artist who dreamed of being more than a puppeteer and ended up becoming a director of another man's life--a grander-scale puppet-master. "Eternal Sunshine" explored relationships and the hopeless act of putting one behind you. "Adaptation." was a look at obsession, disguised as Kaufman's own frustrations at trying to write a screenplay for an un-adaptable book. "Synecdoche New York" is another step altogether: Kaufman makes his directorial debut in this film about a director who can direct anything but his own life.
"And the Truth Is..."
"...well, like most directors, I suppose, what I really want to do is act."
Mel Gibson's Oscar speech, 1996
As life sometimes happens, when one part of your life is going great, another slides. Adele has taken Olive to Berlin for a showing of her work, and the weeks stretch into months, and Cadon can't hold his fragile state enough to have an affair with Hazel (Samantha Morton) the ticket-agent at his theater. The he gets a MacArthur grant. How's he going to spend his "genius" money? He rents a warehouse--like a monolithic Quonset hut in the middle of Schenectady, and begins a series of work-in-progress workshops, where the play will begin to take shape. But pretty soon, the play cannot be contained, and Cotard begins to wander through an increasing maze of scenarios intertwined with a phalanx of actors seeking direction and a cityscape forming inside the warehouse. He begins to lose track of his life and the play's purpose until he hires Sammy (the terrific Tom Noonan) to play himself. Sammy claims to have followed Cotard for years and says he knows the director better than he knows himself. At the time, that didn't seem like quite a stretch. For awhile the two are inseparable.
And then things start to get a little bit weird.
syn•ec•do•che (sĭ-něk'də-kē) Pronunciation Key n. A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).
To explain any more of the plot is to do two things: 1) Give away what's going on, and 2) explain what's going on; I can do the first, but not the second, which 1) is anathema to film criticism and 2) required of film criticism. The stew of "Synechdoche New York" is so rich that one can only pick a flavor or two, a passing impression, the overall emphasis, but I can't tell you what it tastes like, other than to say "I enjoyed it immensely, and I'd order this item on the menu again." I can understand why it would completely overwhelm a casual tasting or appear too rich to stomach, and I can certainly see the polarizing effect it has on those whose tastes don't run to such things.
But taste is an individual thing, and the structure of "Synecdoche New York," which, in itself, is its own false-front, is a deliberate shout-out that "Nothing is real," so if you're looking for explanations of some basic matters, it's just not going to happen, because the connective tissue that would provide the answers not only isn't there, it's considered irrelevant to the task at hand, and manipulated to actually confront, confuse, and consternate. And make a joke of it.
Which I find hilarious.
For instance, I love that Kaufman cast two actresses—Samantha Morton and Emily Watson—who I find, frankly, a bit indistinguishable, and cast them as an important woman in Cadon's life and the woman who's playing her in the play. That the two actually do become indistinguishable is a wonderful joke that I, alone, might get, but I still enjoy it. That the background score for a poignant telephone conversation seems to travel over the telephone line, as well (with the same tinny sound), is a great joke, but might frustrate someone else looking for logic or reason. That Adele coughs in a voice-over might make someone throw up their hands and question why someone would consider doing that only makes me giggle. That Hazel, when taking a tour with a real estate agent, makes a comment that she's really nervous about buying a house, but really wants to take the plunge, so much so that she'll ignore that the house is on fire, and, oh by the way, the agent's son is living in the basement, only reminds me of the compromises I've made and the flaws I've overlooked in similar decision-making processes. It also says something about the character...yes (*sigh*) in a lunatic way...but I found it funny.
"And the Truth Is..."
"I thought I was President of the United States. Then when my daughter was born, I realized I was just the Secret Service."
Seattle actor Ken Boynton, explaining Fatherhood
What's interesting to me is that I have my own ceiling of "guff" in movies: I'll "take" Kaufman because the spirit in which he creates is playful, the ideas he expresses I find, if not profound, worthy of consideration (such as the over-uttered point of "SNY") and the work, and the path taken to get there, entertain me; I appreciate the journey, even if the destination disappoints.
Yet, as a recent post on David Lynch's "Inland Empire" made abundantly unclear (my fault: I'm sorry, I was being illustrative of my frustration with the piece and its artist) there's only so much obfuscation I can take. There is a difference between an artist being deliberately "difficult" to understand, and an artist with a point to make. If you want to confound, go into the puzzle-making business. If you want to communicate—and that means taking the chance that your message may be received and judged—make sure that you're communicating. "Inland Empire" had no "Rosetta Stone," not even the orientation of humor, to guide the viewer, so whatever "TRUTH" Lynch was aiming for got lost in the scene-shuffle.** One can argue about the cruel economics of the film business, but every so often an indulgent artist has to give his Muse a bracing cuppa joe, black, (and amusingly, Lynch, of all artists, should know this!) and show it where the audience is sitting.***
Which brings up the philosophical question: If a theater-troupe makes a play in an empty theater, does it make a sound
And the answer is: "Who cares?"
"And the Truth Is..."
I know now that there is no one thing that is true - it is all true.
Ernest Hemingway, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
"Synecdoche New York" is a full-price ticket.
* Although nobody ever brings up his writing for "Ned and Stacey" and "The Dana Carvey Show"
** I don't make a habit of beating up on Lynch. I love 80% of his out-put, especially "The Elephant Man," "Blue Velvet," "Mulholland Falls," and "The Straight Story." "Wild At Heart" and "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," pffft!
*** At the Guild 45th late show, a late-comer sat across the aisle from me, and throughout the movie we separately giggled and hooted throughout the film, laughing at the same parts. Only when the credits came up did we glance at each other and, in a perfectly synched move, raised our drink-cups in salute to the screen.