Charlie Kaufman is one of the great figures of modern century. Genius would not be inappropriate for a man who has written the joy that is Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind; three of my favourite movies of all time. His first movie to direct, Synecdoche, New York was released last Friday in Ireland.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theatre director who may well be the most unfortunate kind of hypochondriac, a sick one. Catherine Keener plays his wife, a woman who paints exquisite tiny paintings. Her name is Adele Lack Cotard. A-delicate-art. Classic Kaufman.
He stages successful reinterpretations of old plays, like Death of a Salesman and flirts with the box office girl and generally lives a miserable existence. This is how the movie lulls you into a sense of comfort. It is all beautifully acted and set up to be a lovely little film about relationships and marriage and parenthood and ambition and skip-to-the-end paint-by-numbers indie credibility. Then it begins to unravel.
The film is set in Schenectady, New York. But synecdoche is when part of something is used to refer to the whole thing. And wrapped up in that little joke is the core of this film. It has taken me a few days to figure it out but I think I have it. The film is about identity. If all the world is a stage and every man has his part, Cotard is trapped in life playing himself. He can only play that character in the same way that the only character you have to play is you.
As we live out our lives we are bound to see ourselves as an “I”. We are just one I amongst many I’s, but we are the only I we have. But our view of our I is not the full picture. It can’t be. The nature of the I is that it is limited to only take in what it can take in. So a gap opens up between the I we perceive and the reality around us. We deal in our lives with other people who are each their own I. Our view of them is even less complete than their view of themselves. And thus more distance is opened up.
In all this I-ity, we are all engaged in a creative process to write a narrative of who we are and how we got here and where we are going to go. And Cotard is our representative. In the distance between our projection of what that other person looks like and the distance of what they are really like, we ourselves are changed in our “I”-ness. Soon we have angles that don’t fit together neatly. As life unfolds we struggle to reconcile all these creative positions we take on what that other person represents and what role we have to play.
This is a gigantic creative process that all of us are engaged in. We call it living life. We create a world in which we can live as master, controlling all the people in our lives as characters in the play we are writing. The set in our head looks almost exactly like the reality and the actors that we interact with are identical to the other I’s out in the world stubbornly refusing to deliver our every whim and fancy. And as the years go by and disappointment piles onto hurt and pain piles onto experience, the details of this stage we create to enact our life start to fray. The plot never quite resolves. We never get our interior world into a tight enough shape for it to be performed, nevermind ending neatly with a happy ending.
And through the perfectly acted Cotard, Kaufman lays this depressing and sad picture of life out for us. He is unflinching until his peak, where an actor dressed as a priest, at the foot of a fake grave in a scene representing a real burial, declares that all of life is meaningless. “Well, fuck everybody. Amen”. This is the Gospel of Kaufman. This is the truth. The life lived on our own, the life we live naturally, Walter Mitty style inside our head is one without hope, joy or conclusion.
The life lived outside of community is a life impoverished. It is a life where the part is forced to represent the whole. We do not belong to ourselves. We are each others. And only in the light of each other can we see ourselves clearly enough to escape the warehouses of our souls that Kaufman so unflinchingly reveals.
It is an amazing, unique, enthralling and beautiful film with stunning performances all around. You should go see it. And if you can make more sense of it, make sure not to keep it to yourself.
Your Correspondent, Doesn’t menstruate, so he doesn’t know how he could smell like he’s menstruating.