Thursday, November 13, 2008
Down the Rabbit Hole: Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman is the writer of such imaginative films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and with Synecdoche, New York he is out to prove that he’s a genius. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard is the convention-bucking theater director of Death Of A Salesman, and with Synecdoche, New York’s play-within-a-play he’s out to prove that he’s a genius. Tom Noonan’s Sammy Barnathan is an actor obsessed with Caden Cotard, and in Synecdoche, New York’s play-within-a-play-within-a-play he’s out to prove that Kaufman and Cotard are geniuses. Anyone detect a pattern?
Synecdoche, New York, both written and directed by Kaufman, and for all intents and purposes starring him, is a film packed with visionaries that has eyes for only itself. Kaufman’s previous films have been self-aware and even self-referential – in Adaptation, Nicolas Cage plays a tormented screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman – but this is the first time that a portal into Kaufman’s mind has revealed nothing more than the screenwriter’s brain. Whereas with Eternal Sunshine Kaufman viewed familiar concepts (love and fate) through the kaleidoscope of his imagination until they were distorted enough to seem new again, here he takes a microscope to the mechanism. Synecdoche has themes and emotions, sure, but they are peripheral distractions – ends necessitated by the means. For all the effort involved in creating a spectacle on par with The Great and Powerful Oz, the film ultimately prefers that we bow down in praise of the little man pulling the levers.
Some will say that’s Synecdoche’s triumph. Don’t believe them. This is a film in which art imitates life until Kaufman’s life is the only art we see. The main character, and Kaufman stand-in, is Hoffman’s Caden, a theater director who is doomed by a literally fatal blend of aspiration and self-doubt. Recipient of a “genius” grant that gives him virtually unlimited funds for his next project, Caden resolves himself to live up to the grant’s name and its worth. He starts by procuring a seemingly infinite warehouse in which to stage the production, which of course creates the pressure of designing a drama big enough to fill it. He determines that this next play will be his lifetime achievement, and thus he operates like a man determined to spend his lifetime achieving it – as if anything less would be settling for mediocrity. He becomes so consumed with the fear that he’ll die before making something of himself that he begins to age more rapidly – growing noticeably weaker, sicker and frailer by the day. Paralyzed by his own expectations and void of any true artistic vision, Caden slaves away at vagueness for so long that his dogged pursuit of art becomes his art. His play can never be realized, because then he’d lose the struggle and the whole operation would cease to have meaning.
Caden’s play within Kaufman’s play generates another play within that. That’s where Noonan’s Sammy comes in, playing Caden trying to direct his theatrical performance and sort out the pieces of his life at the same time. Confused? Don’t worry about it. Per the structure, Sammy will illuminate Caden, who illuminates Kaufman ad nauseam. Meantime, we sit back and endure the tedium with little to grasp onto. Sure, it’s nifty the way all these physical worlds and pseudo-realities sit one inside the other like nesting dolls, but what does it reveal beyond Kaufman’s cleverness? Caden’s long-time-in-coming epiphany is the notion that all the extras of the world – regular folk like you and me – are in fact stars of their own productions. But while that’s true in the big picture, it’s a sham within this one. Just like Caden is seen walking past his actors, spitting one-line directions at them to suit his whims while they slave away in his interminable rehearsal, Kaufman is less concerned with any of his individual players – Caden included – than with the enormity of his undertaking.
If Synecdoche seems complex, challenging or elusive, you’re working too hard and giving Kaufman too much credit. Yes, the film has peculiarities, like the always-burning house of Caden’s assistant and quasi love interest Hazel (the ever captivating Samantha Morton), or the diary that writes itself. But these are empty riddles. They can be answered however you’d like because they lack any official definition. By contrast, in Citizen Kane we at least come to learn that Rosebud is a sled, leaving us to figure out for ourselves what’s so damn important about it. Here we merely get the word. With Synecdoche, Kaufman is faking it like a wannabe poet at open-mic night, convinced that the convolution of the tale makes it profound. To be moved by this indistinct mindfuck is to read your horoscope in the paper and believe it’s written especially for you. Your emotional reaction will be genuine, but it says more about you than about the art.
Kaufman’s unconventional approach is refreshing on the whole, but a filmmaker shouldn’t be praised for playing his instrument backward and occasionally hitting the right notes. Combine Kaufman and this impressive cast, which also includes Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest, and it’s hard to resist the urge to impose depth on this 124-minute tangled mass. But save for an intriguing first half-hour that’s brightened by a winsome Morton, it just isn’t there. Guess what: if it looks like an anvil and feels like an anvil, it’s an anvil. Synecdoche is dead weight. It’s a gigantic idea that delivers nothing beyond the blunt force of its scale. Like Caden, Kaufman put so much attention into the meta and the minutia that he lost track of any emotional core, the reason for creating the story in the first place.
As chance would have it, prior to seeing Synecdoche I was killing time in a bookstore and happened to pick up from the bestseller rack the self-titled autobiography of Slash, the guitarist from Guns N Roses. After glancing through the photo inserts, I thumbed to the chapters pertaining to 1991, when I was a freshman in high school and the band was at its peak: releasing two albums simultaneously that debuted at the top of the charts and creating mind-bending epic videos for play on MTV. In his book, Slash describes how the creation of those albums (Use Your Illusion I and II) required him to lay down his guitar riffs alone in a recording studio, whereupon the tapes would be sent to lead singer and creative director Axl Rose, who put all the pieces together in Howard Hughes-like seclusion. It worked. The band’s output was more complex and lush than ever before, and yet it marked the moment Slash felt the band’s identity slipping away: Guns N Roses was creating records, true, but it was no longer making music. It wasn’t a band anymore.
So seems to be the case for Kaufman. Synecdoche marks the moment his storytelling process finally overwhelmed his story. For the moment, he has disappeared down the rabbit hole, and in a year that has seen tremendously disappointing films from such gifted storytellers as Steven Spielberg and M Night Shyamalan, it’s hard to keep from fearing that Kaufman might never come back out again. To complete the previous cautionary tale, it’s worth noting that after a sloppy follow-up album (The Spaghetti Incident), Rose set to work on the band’s next supposed masterpiece, Chinese Democracy. The year was 1995. As of today, the album remains unfinished. If Synecdoche is a window into Kaufman’s psyche, America’s most talented screenwriter may be sinking into his own abyss of ambition, expectation and neurosis. It would be a loss for us all.