Friday, August 28, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

By Eric Jessen 8/27/09

From Adaptation, a movie about Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) writing the script for Adaptation, to Synecdoche, New York, a movie directed by Kaufman about directing, Kaufman attempted to take a step toward the truth in his creative madness. But unfortunately I think he only found a bigger disaster and more confusion. And the once lovably jittery and quirky writer has shifted and evolved into a foreboding director.
In Synecdoche, New York Kaufman's on-screen persona is Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director whose life is unraveling. For Caden it's one ailment after another, one visit to the hospital after another. He is always deteriorating. His marriage is crumbling. Finally his wife (Catherine Keener), who is an artist of miniature paintings, leaves him and takes his daughter. Caden then starts flirting with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a delicate box-office girl. But after Caden crumbles under carnal pressure one night in Hazel's bedroom, he's left feeling inept and humiliated.
At this point “Synecdoche” is simply keen melodrama: well acted and engaging if maybe a little depressing. But then unexpectedly, Caden receives a MacArthur genius grant which gives him unlimited funding to pursue any artistic whim. This also gives Kaufman unlimited freedom in depicting the “creative process,” (obviously his favorite topic). In Adaptation he was forced to do this with narration because his on-screen persona was a writer. With “Synecdoche,” because his persona is a theater director, his thoughts and ideas can come alive on stage.
Caden decides to make his masterpiece, a huge all encompassing work of art, a brutally honest and realistic depiction of his plight and what he believes is his rapidly approaching death. Caden assembles a large cast, he chooses a gigantic warehouse in the NY theater district to house the project. At first his somber, depressing piece seems focused: It's about “Death!” But as his life becomes more confusing, so does his play. He concludes, “I don't know what I'm doing.”
In the deep and scary abyss that is “writer's block” also known as the “creative process,” Caden does as Kaufman did in Adaptation, except he takes it even further which ends up being a step in the wrong direction. In Adaptation Kaufman dug himself out of a “writer's block” hole and a muddle of conflicting ideas by deciding to write the script about the writing of the script: including all the funny stories, reflecting on his social awkwardness, then finally relating it to it's original aim (Kaufman was supposed to be adapting The Orchid Thief). But with Caden's piece, instead of being retrospective, he only deepens the “writer's block” hole. Instead of making a play about how he was struggling with the “creative process” and a terrible, nerve-racking life, he makes an endless play about how he is continually struggling with the “creative process” and his nerve-racking life. As a result the giant warehouse becomes a stagy replica of Schenectady and NYC. His actors mimic everything happening in his life. He hires a woman to play Hazel and another to play his wife. His actors play their parts non-stop. He creates a copycat world to study, maybe so he can discover what is causing his pain.
Synecdoche, New York is at times a synecdochical, poetic delight: thoughtful and fascinating. But in the end it is a mad spiraling-out-of-control mess. The mass of ideas converge and form a confounding, bewildering blob. I was also exhausted and tired from watching Caden's relentless trepidation and bemoaning. But then again as frustrating as the movie is, it comes to a perfect end, its only logical conclusion. The endless spiral, the blob of ideas surrounding Caden finally vanish. He has a serene “writer's block,” “creative process” death. I guess, it's what he had anticipated all along. He falls into the arms of the actor playing him and says just before he passes, “I know how to do this play now. I have an idea, I think...”

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