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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Manipulating Storytellers, Pt. 3: Synecdoche, NY

Part one and two. [Where major spoilers start in the following is noted.]

In a fascinating interview with Wired magazine, Kaufman and his interviewer discuss how conceits provide a framework for his movies. Adaptation has the recursive loop of the events on screen affecting the written screen-play of the events on screen; Eternal Sunshine requires the viewer to deduce, even in scenes not blatantly presented as such, that the majority of the movie is Joel’s memory. But Synecdoche, says Kaufman, “doesn’t turn out [to be] anything other than what you’re watching.” There is the conceit of the title, of course, but there is no resolution of the conceit to tie the story off or justify its peculiarities. Knowing I’d seen it, a friend asked when Hazel’s house was first shown, “Okay, that house is actually on fire, right?” Then later, “Her house is still on fire, right?

Synecdoche is a sly movie. To start, everything from the soundtrack to the color palette appears to be standard quirky indie-movie fare: it opens with a sort-of-lighthearted but faintly macabre catchy song, muted colors, and the story of an artist struggling to realize a great work. It lets you get comfortable with your expectations. The movie’s masterstroke is that the erosion of this comfort is so subtle. Suddenly, a house is perpetually on fire, but no one in the film has any major problems with this, and you are not quite sure if you should. It becomes harder and harder to tell how much time has passed: in the span of about one minute we go from a dentist recommending Caden continue flossing until his next checkup, to gum surgery by a specialist. When Hazel is goading Caden to get over his wife’s departure, she says “It’s been a year.” He retorts, “It’s been a week.” She responds, “I’m going to buy you a calendar.” Our only touchstone for time passing has been the dentist’s “I’ll see you in three months,” three months we assume have passed, because there’s a jump-cut to the second appointment between the first and the surgery, yet Caden’s subsequent assertion contradicts this. Our presumption to be following a normal story arc is continually encouraged and frustrated at the same time. Even if I can say with confidence that Caden is simply mistaken and more time than a week has passed, his mistake is a gesture towards the rhetoric of film that we take for granted. The second time watching, things appear even in the first ten minutes which were relegated on first-viewing to irrelevance, oddity, or mere cleverness: a cartoon figure on the TV show his daughter watches before school, or the man standing across the street when Caden checks the mailbox. These minor things are betrayed by our presumption to know what is already relevant to a story, and in noticing them again we are forced to acknowledge the effects of our desire for the story to be authentic, coherent, and believable

Two moments in particular emphasize this conflict between what occurs and what we must ignore to make sense of what occurs. [Spoilers follow]

Caden gets a phone call while he and Claire are in bed. The call is very brief, around 20 seconds, and when he puts down the phone he tells Claire, “My father died.” Then he launches into an elaborate description of his father’s death, beginning each further piece of information with “They said…” This description of what ‘they said’ goes on exponentially longer than the phone call lasted, and so much more information is relayed than could possibly have been shared in the duration of the phone call. We are not directed in how we ought to respond, whether with laughter or sympathy. Either way, Caden’s need—and our need— for death to be a meaningful event is highlighted. The monologue insinuates the pathological need to distort events until they are personally meaningful (‘They’ said “He asked for me just before he died” and “It was the longest and saddest death speech any of them had ever heard”) even as the shot of the miniature coffin, shown as the monologue ends with his father’s having wasted away, seems to validate the impossible-to-have-known story Caden has just told.

The second scene is even more painfully comic. Caden is summoned to the deathbed of his now grown daughter, who has been living in Germany with her mother and has forgotten how to speak English. Having been tattooed from head to toe with flowers, she tells him through a translating machine, “The flower tattoos have become infected and they’re dying. So I am as well. This is life.” She then says that she needs to forgive him before she can die, but she cannot do this until he asks forgiveness. A little bewildered by this, Caden protests that Adele left him and took her, he did not leave them, but she insists, and he eventually succumbs, asking forgiveness “for abandoning you to go have anal sex with my homosexual lover Eric.” This is patently ridiculous. We are nearing the end of a movie that revolves around Caden’s three failed relationships with women. But even when he denies being gay, Olive flatly responds, “Maria said you would deny it,” and Caden, in need of his daughter’s forgiveness for something he hasn’t even done, willingly submits to her version of the story. It is hard to laugh while one character on screen is dying and the other is sobbing, and yet it is hard to not laugh when a confession of such absurdity is blurted out with such conviction. Piling cruelty upon cruelty, she sobs “No!” refusing his apology, then immediately dies. The story she has concocted is more important to her than even a supposedly peaceful death or reconciliation with her father.  Again, whatever we feel the appropriate response to be, what is happening is clear: Olive’s art kills her as her conviction of her father’s guilt robs her of a peaceful death.  “This is life.”

Both of these scenes rely on a peculiar division of the poignant and absurd. It is our personal emphasis, giving weight to one or the other, which makes one reaction more appropriate than the other.  We can attempt to anneal these disparate and often senseless events into a conventional story: a man abandoned by his family and incapable of healthy relationships throws himself ever more resolutely into his increasingly uncontrollable and failing art. But this requires us to ignore a large part of the movie and results in a forced sympathy with a rather pathetic character who is incapable of recognizing the absurdity surrounding him, the very absurdity which we must ignore in order to sympathize. The pathos is overwhelming, and the more involved in this pathos we are, the more it emphasizes the exploitative nature of, not just cinema, but all stories.

Kaufman, for the majority of the movie, puts viewers in the position of having to make a choice between empathy and amusement. But unlike von Trier, Kaufman does not make the choices we have available readily apparent. We strive to wring coherence out of the story and when it does not appear, our empathy feels misplaced. The escape hatch out of our oppressively unmerited sympathy is a comedic reading, an explicit recasting of this incommensurable story into mere fabrication that, in virtue of being fabricated, can be safely laughed at. Caden deserves little more empathy than the citizens of Dogville. His need to replicate life becomes appalling as we witness it grow. But there is no massive retribution, no punishment exacted. Instead, he relinquishes control of his work.  An actor hired to play a cleaning lady offers to take over his role as director while he takes a break, and he continues, no longer as director, but as a character. Given this job after providing Caden with a summary of himself that he finds acceptable, Millicent dictates Caden’s every move while he goes about her former job of cleaning Adele’s house. He dies at her command, on a bench, in the arms of a stranger, a character he once saw on a TV commercial. Unimportant to him, even to us who would remember the TV commercial in which she appeared much earlier if we had paid attention, this character is Millicent’s mother in the stories she tells Caden about her own life as she directs him about the set. A secondary character, a character’s character, she is apparently the only person left, besides Caden, on the set he spent his life peopling, and he just barely remembers her. Do you laugh, or do you cry? In what way did you manipulate the story?

It is tempting to trumpet ‘everyone is the lead of their own story’ as the easy moral Kaufman is presenting. Several reviews have. It is easy to latch onto, an uplifting antidote to a weighty film, and it’s even said verbatim in the film. And in a way, it is what I’m making the movie out to be about, as this is, of course, my own personal manipulation of the movie into coherency— I am the lead in this story, this version of the movie. This is a self-serving interpretation, one that gives me the pleasure of having figured it out. It is exploitative, almost shameful. But this movie demands to be manipulated. Like life, manipulating this movie is a necessity. Kaufman has stated bluntly in interviews that the movie is about death. He’s also said it’s about whatever you want it to be about. But to make the movie about, say, respect for the originality of every individual as they concoct their own story, is dishonest in the very way that such a statement seeks to show up. It’s not that every single one of the six billion people living on Earth is the lead in their own story; that is Caden’s blindness, trying to choreograph or re-present every single one of those stories and never realizing the ultimate narcissism of that goal even as it overwhelms and relegates him to insignificant solitude. It’s that every single one of those six billion people is the lead in their own story, a story just as necessarily fabricated as Donald, Caden, Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive, Maria, Millicent, Sammy, Tammy, and all the other characters I don’t remember.

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Filed under: Analysis, Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche

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