Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Play's The Thing

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Emily Mortimer, and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York

I don't have any deep insights into the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman beyond a vague distaste for the moralizing tone of some of its observers. It doesn't matter how he died. His family will grieve and then go on and sooner than you might think, the manner of his death will be outshone by what he did in life. This is the way these things happen. The shotgun does not outshine Nirvana. The needle does not outshine Hendrix. This is right and proper. I'm probably the wrong person to even be writing about Hoffman, because Hoffman has always been an actor who doesn't connect with me. I appreciate what he did, but my own tastes run to watching other people. This has nothing to do with his worth as an actor. He was very, very good at what he did.

According to the folks at my local art house, Hoffman appeared in more films to play their screens than anyone else other than Patricia Clarkson. They decided to send Hoffman off with a screening of his 2008 film, Synecdoche, New York, one of Charlie Kaufman's existential mindfucks. Given the way that the film maneuvers itself into a state of nothingness, it's likely the perfect film to stand as the actor's epitaph. It's a film I've resisted writing about, in part because I'm not sure how to encompass all of the thoughts it evokes. It's a film where its metacinematic structures create a vortex that sucks everything into it. More than that, it's a film that defies easy synopsis and forget about unpacking everything in it in the 1200 words of a blog post. Future film scholars will pore over feelies of this film like cyberpunk Talmudic scholars.

Synecdoche, New York ostensibly follows the life of theater director Caden Cotard, whose life fractures mid-film into a spiraling recursion as he assembles a production to recreate life itself as a theater piece, with actors standing in for the people in his life. That's a gross simplification of what happens in the movie. I say that the film fractures in the middle, but that's not strictly speaking true. It's fractured from the beginning, cracks don't show (much) at the beginning because it starts out with a fair imitation of banal cinematic naturalism. But even at the outset, you can sense where it's going. One of the first things we hear Caden say is, "I think I'm dying." He is dying of course, because everyone dies eventually. Images of Caden appear in media from the outset, from the cartoons his daughter watches to actors appearing in medication commercials. These are the first hints of the grand strategy the second half of the film unleashes. As a basic plot: Caden's marriage is unraveling. His wife, Adele, feels suffocated in the marriage, which she expresses in therapy. Caden is stagnating at work, directing an ill-conceived version of Death of a Salesman in which the principal actors are all too young (this, too, feeds the later part of the film, btw). When Adele leaves for Germany, taking their daughter with her, Caden lapses into a depression from which he never emerges. This eventually destroys his subsequent relationships with Hazel (who works at the box-office at the theater) and Claire (one of Caden's troupe of actors). All of them, save Adele, are sucked into the grand design later in the film, when everything is deconstructed as performance. Everything becomes unhitched: identity, gender, the world itself. Parts of the world at the end of this film are vaguely apocalyptic. The end of the film postulates a more personal annihilation.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton in Synecdoche, New York

It's hard for me to look at Charlie Kaufman's films and not see Kaufman himself as the lead. Oh, I know this is a colossal mistake, but the level of meta in this film suggests the same kind of autobiography one sees in Adaptation, in which Nicolas Cage played a version of Kaufman--named Charlie Kaufman, no less--and a fictitious brother. I also see themes recurring over the body of his work. The faithless wife, the need to forget and the pain of the inability to forget, the vague homophobia, the unlikeable schlub that Kaufman paints as an avatar of himself. In this, Kaufman is a true auteur. All of his films are metacinema, of course, films about films, self-reflections of their makers. Synecdoche, New York reveals that Kaufman's earlier films only waded around in the shallow end of that pool, though, because this one goes off the high dive into the deep end. This is a profoundly solipsistic movie, in which Caden, as the director, creates a simulacrum of the world that revolves entirely around his pain and self-pity.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener in Synecdoche, New York

For all the structural razzle dazzle on display in this movie, this core of its story remains a wallowing in the problems of affluent straight-ish white men. Caden isn't even particularly likeable, which suggests that Kaufman has a deep-seated self-loathing if indeed the character is an avatar of his creator ("Charlie Kaufman" in Adaptation, Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Craig Swartz in Being John Malkovich are all similarly unlikeable). There's and element of wish fulfillment in this movie, too, given the trail of women who attach themselves to Caden, though the film is perhaps aware of the absurdity of this in the scenes with Hope Davis's therapist, who seems a parody of an attractive woman throwing herself at a schlub. I need to back up a bit and explain my use of "strait-ish" because there's a strong hint of homosexual panic in the back half of the film, when Caden eventually reconciles with his daughter. On her deathbed, Olive reveals that she has been told that Caden left her and her mother for his gay lover. The way the gender roles and performances of characters flip flop in the last act only serve to expand this subtext. I don't think that Caden is gay, but the way this film elides levels of reality, I wouldn't be surprised if he was.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis in Synecdoche, New York

The end of this movie is haunting. Most of the film depicts a man trying to take control of his life, who does take control of his very set of reality, only to have that control wrested away from him in a way that suggests that all control that he may have thought he had throughout his entire life was illusory. He's not the director, even as he plays one. The real director guides him ever so gently to oblivion and death. It's hard not to see the end of this film as a kind of rehearsal for Hoffman's own life and death. In this, he seizes the film away from Charlie Kaufman forever and ever. It is, as I've already said, a fitting epitaph.

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