Monday, May 3, 2010

Synecdoche New York -- life and death, nihilism and choice

Director: Charlie Kaufman, 2008. (R)

Kaufman's directorial debut is a challenging film that will leave some viewers scratching their heads and wondering what the point was. Others will see a deep exploration of life and death from a unique perspective; it is not a superficial film, although the surface is at times bizarre. A few will list it as one of their favorite films; critic Roger Ebert named it the best film of the 2000s. I found it intriguing if overlong, but not interesting enough to make it to my top 10 list.

The first part of the film is set in Synecdoche, up-state New York, where Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote) is a successful but neurotic play director. This is, of course, a play on Schenectady New York, which has the famous zip code of 12345. But it is more than this. It is a clue to the film itself. A synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part stands for a whole, or vice versa. In this case, Caden, an individual, represents the whole of humanity. We explore the meaning of life and death through this one person.

When his current work, "Death of a Salesman," ends he is looking for his next project. Complicating this, his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking with her to Berlin their young daughter Olive. Into this emptiness comes the news of a Macarthur grant that allows Caden to pursue his project of a lifetime, a play of brutal realism and honesty. With an ensemble cast, this is not a play in a theater. Instead it takes a place in a huge downtown New York warehouse, and it is a replica of life on a grandiose stage.

Where Adele is an artist painting miniatures, Caden is an artist working on a grander scale. As the movie progresses, their scales are amplified. Adele's paintings become impossible to see with the naked eye, but Caden's play becomes bigger and bigger until it is as large as, if not larger than, life. His sprawling work has no focus but is clearly visible, while her is totally focused but invisible. Which works? Which is more effective? Both seem to fail in the sense of moving the viewer but for different reasons. Both have lost their sense of meaning.

The key to understanding the movie comes from Caden himself, as he tells his cast what he expects of them: "I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we are going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't." He adds, "I won't settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal. Each day, I'll hand you a paper, it'll tell you what happened to you that day. You felt a lump in your breast. You looked at your wife and saw a stranger, etcetera." This is life, improvised, played out without a script, in front of a non-existent audience.

This key in itself, though, is insufficient to unlock Kaufman's complex movie. An additional key comes in Caden Cotard's medical condition. He is diagnosed to have a mysterious disease that causes his autonomic functions to shut down slowly and systematically over time. So, he cannot cry or swallow, since he loses this ability. He is slowly dying from the inside. His character is a subtle reference to the actual medical condition known as "Cotard's delusion," in which a person believes himself to be dead or losing his internal organs. Also known as nihilistic delusion, this points to the worldview in sight: nihilism.

When Caden realizes he needs to put himself in the play, he picks Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) to play himself. Sammy has watched Caden for more than 20 years and knows his every quirk. He even adopts his nihilistic philosophy, when he departs from Caden's "script" and declares on-set, "Watch me learn that after death there's nothing. There's no more watching. There's no more following. No love." There is a shallowness to this worldview that ultimately ends in despair, as seen in Sammy.

With Sammy gone, Caden still needs someone to play himself, and he selects Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest). In this curious selection, we see the synecdoche complete. Man or woman, it is irrelevant. Caden is everyman and everywoman. Her closing comment, representing Caden, puts an exclamation point on the emptiness of life from the nihilistic view:
What was once before you - an exciting, mysterious future - is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone's experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone's everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen.
This existence is meaningless.

Of course, this is counter to the biblical worldview, in which meaning and purpose are built into human existence. We are created by God in his image (Gen. 1:26) to live a life that brings glory to him (1 Cor. 10:31). We live this life as preparation for the next, the life after physical death. Sammy's view of no love after death is blatantly incorrect. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8), and for those who choose to follow him in this life will experience the breadth of that love in the next. The emptiness of the theatrical trinity of Cadens is refuted by the depth of purpose of the holy Trinity of the Bible.

In the film, Caden is constantly drawn to Hazel (Samantha Morton), a box-office clerk. Despite a marriage to his lead actress Claire (Michelle Williams) Caden's attraction brings him back to Hazel. His choice resonates with consequences through his entire life. And this is further illustrated in a strange choice she makes. Early on, she buys a house that is perpetually on fire. Smoke seeps into each room, and fire burns eternally throughout. She remarks to the realtor, "I like it, I do. But I'm really concerned about dying in the fire." Perceptively, the realtor responds, "It's a big decision, how one prefers to die." Hazel makes the choice to live there, she makes the choice to die there. All choices we make have ramifications which we must live with.

Interestingly, although nihilistic, this house reminds us of the fires of hell, where those who make the choice not to follow Jesus are destined to spend their eternity after death (Mk. 9:48). A choice in this life brings with it ramifications of dying and eternal death (Rev. 21:8), separated from the one person who can give life: Jesus.

We should not be surprised by the various surreal aspects to this film. Kaufman has focused on the mind in his other screenplays: Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, etc. He weaves fantasy and reality together; desires and dreams coexist in the Kaufman universe. Separating the definite from the delusional is hard to do. Is it a play or is it real? After 17 years of rehearsal without a performance, the lines have blurred. William Shakespeare wrote, "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players." That seems to be plainly in view here.

To this point, toward the end, as Caden ages, he proclaims, "I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They're all leads of their own stories." There is truth here. We are key players in our own tales. We may be bit players in the grand scheme of things, but our stories are important to us, and to our families. In this regard, we have a raison d'etre. We have significance. This echoes biblical truth.

Caden goes on, "It will all take place over the course of one day. And that day will be the day before you died. That day was the happiest day of my life. Then I'll be able to live it forever." In his nihilistic view, there is only one way to live forever and enjoy it. That is to constantly replay his happiest day again and again, like in Groundhog Day.

Living forever in this manner is not eternal life. It is life on the rerun. There is nothing new here. The despair is obvious, in having to cling to this faint hope of eternal enjoyment. The true reflection is in resurrection, to an eternal life of hope and joy (Tit. 3:7). That is a reality that awaits all who choose Jesus. Just as those who choose the burning house reap the ramification, so too followers of Jesus will reap the reward of their choice. But this is a rich reward, one that will take place over the course of forever lived out sequentially, not the same day time after time.

Synecdoche is a puzzling film. Yet viewed with the keys of the title and Caden's surname, we can find meaning buried there. Life is not the empty and despairing experience Caden describes. It does not have to be. It can be full and vibrant, a foretaste of greater things to come. It is your choice!

Copyright 2010, Martin Baggs

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