Sunday, December 14, 2008

Synecdoche, NY - or any other town where depression lives

I'd been wanting to see Charlie Kaufman's latest movie, Synecdoche, NY, before it left the theaters and I finally did Friday night.

I write this blog without reading any other reviews of the movie. That said, I'm sure there are several points of the movie that I will miss - simply because of the film's complexity. The movie is existential at its core. The first theme I see in the movie is Nietzsche's thoughts on Eternal Reccurence. The overly simplistic premise of this theory is that time is infinite, but matter is finite. We are finite beings, and as opposed to actually dying and/or being reincarnated, one lives the same life over and over again (because there is a finite amount of matter - meaning us- in an infinite span of time). So, the takeaway here is: if your life is infinitely cyclical, make it the life you'd want to live again and again, forever.

The movie starts by dropping us into the lives of the Cotard family. Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an overweight, thirty something sycosis-suffering husband and father. Caden's wife, Adele, played by Catherine Keener, is an unhappy woman, around Caden's age, longing for a more bohemian-type lifestyle, or just some other life and lifestyle than she's currently living. The couple share a four-year-old daughter, Olive, who suffers from her own obsession with the color of her poop, but still oddly enough appears to be somewhat of a normal kid. The family is an artistic one - Caden a live-theater director and Adele a painter. The couple seem to be on a continual search of something other than what they have, although neither know what it is they want.

We attend a regularly scheduled marriage-counseling session with Caden and Adele. Caden sits on the left side of the couch in somewhat of an upright position while Adele is on the right side, slouched down and leaning over the side - illustrative of any 15 year old teenager forced into therapy that she "obviously" doesn't need. Adele confesses to the therapist, played by Hope Davis, that she's fantasized about Caden dying so that she can start over again without feeling guilty. Caden doesn't appear shocked by the confession. We know their separation/divorce is inevitable and kind of hope for it, so both of these people can experience some sort of long-term happiness.

Caden wraps rehearsals of his latest apt production, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and returns home to share the accomplishment with Adele. Adele is happy for Caden, but informs him that she will not be able to attend opening night due to another engagement. Caden is clearly disappointed. It's obvious that Adele does care for Caden and vice-versa, but you realize that it's only a legal relationship at this point. Adele does manage to make it to the second night of the play, but it lacked the specialness of opening night. Hazel, the box-office attendant, played by Samantha Morton, readily and eagerly fills the vacancy on opening night. The two share a mutual attraction but Caden remains committed to his emotionally absent Adele.

The table turns when Caden is anticipating a trip to Berlin with Adele and Olive, where Adele will premiere her latest artwork. As the couple huddle over their kitchen bar for breakfast, Adele announces that she thinks only she and Olive should travel to Berlin. Caden is somewhat taken aback and Adele apologizes for hurting his feelings. Adele leaves with Olive and we are left with Caden, and all of his pustules - literally. Here is where the movie changes and somewhat resembles Being John Malkovich, also written by Charlie Kaufman.

Time passes but Caden doesn't seem to notice. He receives a fellowship grant that will allow him to produce his magnum opus. He rents a huge "stage" large enough to hold a city, which is a good thing because that is exactly what Caden proceeds to build, albeit unintentionally. Caden starts pre-production of his play, which he never titles although he tosses around lots of potential titles. The problem is that the play is only a reproduction of his life with Adele. Life continues to happen around and to Caden and he even thinks he's actively engaged in it, but he is not. (For example, Caden finds himself in a relationship with an actress named Claire, played by Michelle Williams, but only mechanically - he's not at all enganged in the relationship - even though the two produced a daughter, Ariel, whom he often calls Olive.) He is on an unknowingly mission to find the vanishing point in his and Adele's life. The actors in his plays take on the earlier life of Caden and Adele, but only starting at the point in which we are dropped into the picture. The movie continues to evolve like this and eventually catches up to itself and then surpasses it, with actors portraying Caden and the others involved in his life moving directly in front of Caden and the real "others" in his life. The movie ends when Caden becomes the directed instead of the director.

So many things happen between the time Adele leaves Caden and the end of the movie. It would take me several days, perhaps weeks, to intelligently write about the many complex layers in the movie so I will only focus on just the one. First, meet Sammy Barnathan - a very odd man who we see early on in the movie but don't find out that he is a real person (as opposed to someone in Caden's imagination, for example) until Caden is casting for his masterpiece. Sammy, claiming not to be an actor, auditions for the role of Caden and admits to following Caden around for years, taking notes. He knows the way Caden thinks and can accurately anticipate and predict Caden's actions and reactions.

Second, note that Hazel is still around. Granted after giving up on Caden ever reciprocating her feelings, she moved on, bought a house (that stayed on fire during the entire movie), married a decent man and had three boys (although she only admits to having twins). However, several years pass and Hazel loses her job at the box office and calls on Caden. She is once again sucked into Caden's controlling vortex and ends up losing her husband and children, although she doesn't seem too disturbed by it.

Caden proceeds to develop his play and uses cast members to portray himself, Claire, Ariel, extras in his real life and eventually Hazel. The only two people not cast are Adele and Olive. He is recreating his life and when one thing doesn't seem as it should, he starts from the beginning again. This is the rehearsal that never ends - hence, the Eternal Recurrence reference above. The characters (real and projected) age. However, they never evolve into anything other than themselves. What's interesting is that the actors playing the real people (ie: Sammy and the actress playing Hazel) actually begin to make their own decisions outside of the rehearsal. For example, Sammy and the actress playing Hazel actually do get together and truly enjoy each other's company, but Caden gets jealous and tries to intervene. Naturally, Hazel submits to Caden's advances and loses Sammy. This is where the play catches up to itself and changes again.

In an effort to wrap this very long blog and not scare away future readers, I will say this: Go see the movie. Then see it again, and then a couple more times. Charlie Kaufman spent years preparing the script and then shooting the movie and crafting it just right. The least we can do is spend a few hours watching it, a few more hours thinking about it, and then hopefully a lifetime seeing how it applies to our lives.

Think about Eternal Recurrence. If you are doomed to live your life over and over again, what things would you change right now?

I leave you with the trailer:


Tessa said...

Heckuva insightful post, Paula + now, I definitely want to see the movie!
Psst..In the meantime, I will be pondering this notion of Eternal Recurrence. Heady stuff. :)

Random Becomes Me said...

I love your blogs. You are an amazing writer and have insight into movies that most people miss. This will be a movie I add to my list to see.

I'm sure I'll have to wait until it comes out on dvd. I've never even heard of it before tonight.