Monday, December 29, 2008
As an auteurist, it is difficult for me to assign even a screenwriter the role of creative force behind a film. But when that screenwriter is Charlie Kaufman, it's hard not to. Now that Kaufman has made his confident directorial debut, it becomes academic. His newest film, Synecdoche, New York, is most assuredly of a piece with the rest of his oeuvre, solidifying the argument. Like in Adaptation (2002), the protagonist in Synecdoche is a writer, a playwright in this case. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is also depressed, pessimistic, and completely self-centered. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) absconds to Berlin with their young daughter, Olive, ostensibly to promote her art show (she paints tiny thumbnail-size portraits). But in reality, she is setting up house with her maybe-more-than-friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Just like Nicolas Cage was playing a version of Charlie Kaufman (literally, as that was the character's name) in the earlier film, Hoffman seems to be channeling the same spirit. His self-absorption manifests itself in the form of severe hypochondria; a lack of self-esteem that somehow makes him more charming to women, not less; and his greatest enemy seems to be a lack of confidence in his writing. While Cage's character felt a block at the idea of adapting another writer's work, here Cotard's impediment is mounting an autobiographical play that will have enough scope to rival the enormity of his life. Cotard may lack self-esteem, but he doesn't lack artistic hubris. This is where we start to realize that Cotard inhabits a surreal world not unlike that in another of Kaufman's films, Being John Malkovich (1999). You'll recall that as the film where John Cusack's Craig, a schlub puppeteer, ends up working as a filing clerk at a company whose offices are on the 7 1/2 floor of a Manhattan office building. In Synecdoche, Cotard purchases the largest warehouse one can ever imagine, and proceeds to mount a play with the largest cast ever assembled in what will eventually be a life-size version of New York City. Yeah, don't worry. Just like it made sense to find a portal into actor John Malkovich's consciousness on that 7 1/2 floor, it makes a weird kind of sense when you see Cotard's play being staged in this movie. Synecdoche's world is an odd one where it's not unusual to hear a former flame of Cotard's, Hazel (Samantha Morton), tell him that she's got to leave to meet her husband and the twins, and she proceeds to rattle off three children's names instead of two. When Hazel goes house-hunting, she buys a burning house because it's more affordable. The picture above is of Hazel entertaining Cotard in said house after she's moved in. Surrealism is not used simply for the sake of piling on non-sequiturs. There is a moral dilemma being explored here through the prism of surrealism, just like in Kaufman's most accessible work, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In that film, Joel (Jim Carrey) was dismayed to find out that his former lover, Clementine (Kate Winslet), was so over their relationship she decided to have the memories of it erased from her mind. Consenting to the same procedure as an act of revenge, he instead finds he does not want to lose the memories. Synechdoche's dilemma concerns introspection. It asks, at what point does self-examination become more than a way to improve oneself, and become instead, a way of exiling oneself from one's own life and its significant events? Cotard is so fearful of dying of some disease he ambitiously tries to capture the meaning of life in his grand play, ignoring every event or person that would give his life the importance he seeks. This is a theme that runs through all of Kaufman's work, the denial of elements in one's persona in the pursuit of answers to the mystery of same. Whether it's Joel discovering this trap a little too late into his memory-erasure of Clementine; or Craig's decision to hide behind John Malkovich's appearance in order to both advance his career as a puppeteer and win a woman's attention; or Charlie trying to gain personal redemption in adapting someone else's story; all have Kaufman's distinct imprimatur. Synecdoche, New York is our first opportunity to see Kaufman's unexpurgated vision of reality unfold before us, and it is a resounding success.