Synecdoche, New York

Originally posted in 2008.

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is a fractal hallucination.

I’ve been a fan of Charlie Kaufman for years, and it’s been interesting to see how his work transforms under the guidance of different directors. “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”, his early collaborations with director Spike Jonze, were intellectually scintillating, but emotionally cold. Personally, I much preferred the transcendent “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. Kaufman’s impeccable dream logic made a perfect match for director Michel Gondry’s visuals, and his tightly structured plot brought discipline to Gondry’s lush romanticism. Conversely, Gondy endowed Kaufman’s characters with a warmth and humanity missing from their counterparts in the earlier movies, thus producing that rarity in the world of cinema, a movie with both a brain and a heart.

“Synecdoche” is not the masterpiece that Sunshine was, but it is a box of delights, and another fascinating visit to Kaufman’s mind. Earlier, in “Adaptation”, Kaufman wrote a version of himself into the script as a screenwriter writing about a screenwriter. Appropriately, his directorial debut, then, is about a director directing a version of himself in a play within a play within a play. The effect is not unlike turning a video camera on a monitor showing its own images, and thus creating a multiplication of images that seemingly stretch away into infinity.

Much like Kaufman’s other movies, “Synecdoche” begins in a realist mode, and it is not until a significant way in that things begin to get surreal. A strike on the head of the protagonist in the movie’s opening minutes offers a chance to rationalize subsequent events as brain damage or a posthumous purgatory, but little else suggests that Kaufman wants us to take the fantastic events of the movie as anything less than reality.

In sum, the plot concerns Caden Cotard. As the movie begins, his marriage falls apart when his wife takes their daughter and goes to Germany –and simply never return. Although the opening shows him to be a chilly and remote husband and father, their loss starts Caden on an obsessive lifelong quest to regain them and the life they shared.

The movie’s first significant repetition is Caden’s second marriage, which is portrayed as a pallid attempt to recapture his first. His second wife is a young actress, and it is no stretch to think of him “casting” her in the role of “wife”. Yet he is entirely dismissive of her and their life together. He worries constantly about his missing daughter and her fate, yet his second daughter passes through the movie like a half-seen ghost, a pale shadow of her sister in the eyes of her father.

It soon becomes clear that this is the central theme of the movie. Like a classic Kierkegaardian hero, Caden is so obsessed with the aesthetics of securing a repetition of what is past that he devalues and subordinates what is available to him in the present moment –as epitomized by his abortive affair with a pretty and flirtatious box office manager.

The bulk of the movie is concerned with the playing out of the concept of repetition, as Caden takes over a vast warehouse, and devotes it to an ambitious project, a nearly life-sized recreation of his own life. The effect is much like a fractal shape, made up of many small copies of itself, and the movie hints that the warehouse itself has a smaller warehouse within it, and that has a yet smaller warehouse inside and so forth, perhaps to infinity.

Yet what saves the movie from the dreariness of a clip played on endless repeat is the fact that Caden’s project is doomed to failure. Those he casts as figures from his life have their own identities and existences, and refuse to stay within the lines Caden delineates. Like the famous Mandelbrot fractal, where each nested self-similar image holds new secrets and unique characteristics, the successively nested repetitions of Caden’s play advance the plot by their departures from what has come before –as when Caden’s second wife, playing herself, leaves both him and her stage husband on a set made to resemble their own apartment.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the movie is the actors who show up to portray Caden –who himself is clearly a stand-in of sorts for Kaufman. The first faux-Caden is “Sammy” a stalkerish fan who has studied Caden’s every move for twenty years. He introduces himself with the lines “now see who you really are,” and seals his hire by announcing it as though he were already Caden himself.

Yet despite his mastery of the external minutia of Caden’s life, Sammy is never completely successful in the role. He longs to be Caden, not to portray him, and covets his authority, his wife and his lovers. In addition, his personality is essentially active, where Caden’s is passive, and so Caden’s constant complaint is that Sammy is overreaching, taking actions and giving directions that go beyond those Caden himself would endorse. This contrast reaches a dramatic peak when Sammy makes a final, tragic decision, and Caden’s instinctive response is to criticize it for the way in which it went beyond the events that inspired it.

The more successful Caden is as superficially different from Caden as Sammy is superficially similar. She is Ellen, a cleaning woman, or rather, Millicent, an actress hired to play the part. From the her first introduction, Ellen functions as Caden’s anima. She is the person he would like to be in his heart of hearts; female, rather than male, a servant, not a director, focused around caring for others rather than obsessing over the events of her own life. As such, she has an existence even more mysterious than most of the other characters of the movie. Never glimpsed in actuality, she is present only in reflections –in a tiny portrait of her painted by Caden’s ex-wife, in the person of the actress who portrays her, and in the improbable circumstance of Caden being mistaken for her.

When Ellen –or crypto-Ellen– takes over from Caden, the contrast with Sammy is immediate and vivid. Where Sammy arrogates the right to be Caden on the basis of his study and obsession, Millicent establishes her ability to take on his role through her intuitive insight into Caden’s hidden nature. Then, as she slips into the part, she moves through a scene in progress, whispering brief suggestions in each actor’s ear. When they play the scene again, however, its effect has been utterly transformed. Instead of the sterile repetition of a scene we have already experienced in Caden’s reality, the new scene has been transmuted into poetry, as the actors depart from their lines to bring to life something that is less accurate but somehow more truthful.

This scene, I think, is the long-delayed fulfillment of a squandered opportunity left over from “Adaptation”. The point of “Adaptation”, in my mind, is that art is not life, and that allegiance to the facts is no defense against the charge of creating lackluster art. The joke at the heart of that movie is that Kaufman rises to the impossible challenge of turning a quiet, meditative, internal story into a Hollywood movie through the self-conscious and ironic addition of all the standard Hollywood elements –fictionalization, car chases, drugs, illicit affairs and multiple personalities. Yet I feel the direction failed the script in as much as it did not commit wholly enough to providing the real Hollywood experience, complete with dramatic lighting, a swelling soundtrack, soft focus, and other blatant cues to mark the passage between fiction and reality.

The Millicent-directed scene in Synecdoche, on the other hand, provides it all, and while those trappings might have seemed cheesy or artificial out of context, they work perfectly where the scene is placed. It is genuinely moving to see that at long last, the dross of Caden’s life can finally be elevated into something higher.

As the movie draws to a close, Caden and his anima trade roles, and she becomes the Caden he has been looking for all along, the one who can give him what he never had before: Guidance, the opportunity to be told what to do, an escape from himself –and ultimately the permission to die.

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