Peripheral City

Peripheral City
Peri, played by Josh Elrod

Friday, December 5, 2008

Kaufman's Synecdoche: Reflecting on Reflecting on Reflecting...

I went to a party tonight hoping the guy I've been in love with for the past three years wouldn't show up so I could get over him, have a good time, meet someone new... but the idea he might be there was so intoxicating I had to leave my objecting girlfriends ("he's not in love with you!") and go anyway. He wasn't there. I got to talk to his crew for the first time unattended, and really enjoyed them. I was half hoping to stage a revenge make-out session with one of these folks for him not loving me enough, but realized I liked them all too much to use them. I then got side tracked by talking about Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche" instead, a film I had seen only last week with the object of my desire, the viewing of which had prompted an opening of the heart so large as to think it was wise to revisit this as-fortold relationship I had painfully extracted myself from only this summer... for the umteenth time, and had brought him home because of it.

Upon seeing this film, it seemed to me my life had been a series of can't haves, events and relationships that resulted in unfulfilling outcomes- as mirrored by the protagonist of Synecdoche's life, played painfully raw by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But regardless of constant failure, the protagonist, Caden Cotard, had been compelled to try anyway, over and over again, hopelessly until the end. In the discussion of Synecdoche, I was hung up on the can't haves , while my friend , Dylan Latimer, an actor and director, was hung up on the tries anyway; Dylan was convinced the genius of Kaufman was that his tries anyway lay in the storytelling. The chances that Charlie Kaufman takes cinematically are the reason to love him, not the story. Dylan was sure that you don't have to like Kaufman's movies to appreciate them, you may not relate to the characters, the acting may suck at times, you may find yourself bored, slammed by the repeating tropes and gags, neurotic dialogue about livery subjects which are not as offensive so much as embarrassing, but then one never knows where they're going to lead you and then you get slammed with beautifully elegant and simple punchlines. I don't think Dylan said "elegant" or "simplicity" anywhere, in fact I did, and Charlie Kaufman doesn't think twice in Synecdoche about throwing up ridiculously intricate woven smoke screen of paranoia and character defaults before getting to his point. He will light the house on fire for years if he wants to and pretend like this is as normal, viable a story telling element as much as if it were about a mortgage; and we go along with it- Synecdoche is the most complicated, neurotic one liner ever, "guess what, then you ***," and it's beautiful, because the traumatic build up of Cotard's life lets the sweet moments be all the more sweet.

Synecdoche is the story of a story of a man, Cotard, who wins the MacArthur Genius Award, a grant of half a million bucks, but not before his wife takes his child and leaves him due to his neuroses about his supposedly failing health. He suddenly wins a MacArthur Genius Grant of a half a million bucks and after a silly production of "Death of a Salesman," in which he casts old protagonists with young actors. He goes on to stage a new and liberating theatrical production which will be his masterwork, take up the course of the rest of his life, is about his life, and never gets completed because every next thing that happens is always better, more "real" and "true" than the last thing, and therefore must be written in. The play becomes one long, unending thread of constant reflection. It's vainglory and narcissism, which never gets a title because Cotard is too myopic and verbose to narrow anything down. The play takes on a life of it's own, a life running besides the director's own "real" life, hiring actors to ply himself and every other leading figure in his life, his lover turned scretary, his next wife, his ex, and reality becomes negligible. Living to be recreated he gets it wrong and like the Quantum Mechanical Law of Uncertainty, an electron being watched takes on a new direction. The actors have their own opinions and motivations. Although the sets (built inside an abandoned bunker bigger than lower Manhattan) are exact replicas of the buildings in his own life, nothing is the same and the seams are revealed everywhere, which gets a little cute and cloying after a while. The actors make suggestions about how the play Cotard's life and start to exact little changes. Cotard eventually gives up control of the entire project, living in the closet of his ex-wife whom he never crosses paths with, and who thinks he's the maid. He takes direction from the new Director, the second actor playing him (a woman now after the original actor's suicide) through a little ear kernel in which he takes commands for even the simplest of body movements.

Long before this however, one broken relationship follows another, as his first wife and daughter leave him, his next girlfriends, then wife are subjected to constant scrutiny and mimicry as their real relationship foibles are staged in rehearsals before their eyes, going on at all times all around them, with zero privacy. This is all pitilessly portrayed, as the only people involved with Cotard anyway are actors and theater people who have dubious ambitions in the first place. The play goes on and on. More actors are hired, more sets built. His ex-wife, long gone, is a huge success in Berlin and Cotard is taunted by her on magazine covers. He goes to Berlin in search of his daughter who seems to be aging way too fast and fails to find her. When he does, she's a fully tatooed stripper behind glass and he cant get to her. Nothing gets finished. The actors, in one scene, stand on half built rigging. They look at Hoffman bleakly. One actor says, "It's been seventeen years, are we ever going to have a show?" When the rehearsals start to take-on their own lives, the endings alter from Cotard's original story, the first actor playing Cotard jumps off a building and kills himself, broken -hearted over the Secretary (Samantha Morton's) affections, which are won by the real Cotard. As the dead actor lies half submerged in broken sidewalk, Cotard yells at the crumpled corpse, "I never jumped!!! Remember?" When he had tried to kill himself, jhe had indeed been hpulled off a ledge and humiliated. When he visits his dying daughter, finally found too late, she forces him to ask her forgiveness for abandoning her for a gay lover Cotard never had, then doesn't forgive him. Near the end of the film he finally professes his love for his secretary, whom he disappointed long ago, they have one happy night together, then she dies of smoke inhalation, her house having been on fire for thirty years. The film doesn't just push buttons, it literally rips them off.

For me the film was very emotional, my buttons hanging by bloody threads, every fear exposed. My never-to-be love and I were shaking and crying by the end of it. Our light flirting, laced with promise of simple mutual attraction at the beginning of the night, turned into clinging to each other for dear life by the end of it. I asked him if we were going to miss our chance to have a love story, like Cotard and the Secretary. We went back to my house and watched two episodes of "True Blood," the HBO's vampire series, just to let some light back in. He left in the morning... upon which all of my can't haves swelled up in me. I can't have you, by the time I get you, we will get one night together then you'll die. You weren't ready for me when you had me and you wasted all of my youth and love not knowing how to love me. You still love her. All these can't haves is what I came away with immediately during and following Synecdoche, but since then what I got was greater. Afterwards, with tears in my eyes, I had begged my never-to-be love to not let our love story die. He slept over. I saw him again the next day for Thanksgiving and haven't really heard from him since. I thought about it all weekend, in bed sick to my stomach. Would I have done anything remotely foolhardy had we seen "Let the Right One In" instead? Maybe someone out there actually saw this life-cracker of a movie like Synecdoche and was luckier than I, proposed to their ex, and the ex said yes. Movies are there to pull at strings, hopefully heartstrings (and sometimes booby-traps). This movie very successfully pulled at anything silly enough to be sticking out. A very reliable canon of film narrative drama is to have your audience tugged to and fro like the tide. If it weren't for this movie I would never have had the balls to try again one more time. It didn't work. He didn't marry me. But we try again, and if that ain't a miracle after all the pain, I don't know what is. If it's not film, it's not real.

No comments: