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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. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Analysis, Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche

Manipulating Storytellers: von Trier and Kaufman (Pt. 2)

(Forewarning: spoilers for just about all of Kaufman’s movies follow, except Synecdoche.)

As I hinted at the end of the last post, the reason Kaufman’s movies appeals to me more than von Trier’s is their openness to both the fact that we manipulate the things about which we tell stories and the fact that we are in turn manipulated by them. von Trier focuses on the human relationship of manipulator and manipulated, and though he is obviously concerned with the repercussions (Dogville) or lack thereof (Dancer), he is only secondarily concerned with how that relationship originated or its reflexive properties. Hence, Grace simply moves from persecuted to persecutor like a chess piece moving spaces, a feat that succeeds due to the overtly allegorical tone of the film, with its historical names, bare set, and chapter titles.

Looking back, the theme of reflexive manipulation becomes apparent in nascent form through most of Kaufman’s movies. There’s the tragic version in Being John Malkovich, when Craig ends up trapped in his wife’s child after attempting to reenter Malkovich, and the comic version in Eternal Sunshine, when Joel and Clementine decide to pursue their relationship despite the knowledge that it hurt them both tremendously the first time around— an ending still potentially tragic, or at best bitter-sweetly comic. (Interestingly, neither were the original endings in the draft scripts, which Kaufman rewrote at the director’s request. The original script for Malkovich goes crazy in the end, revealing that Lester, through a pact with Satan, becomes the literal puppet overlord of the world by controlling Malkovich [and I do mean literally: the final shot pans up the filaments attached to Craig’s arms as he tricks Lotte out of her Eden-like safe-haven from Lester’s control]; Eternal Sunshine ended with Clementine returning as an old women to Merzwiak’s clinic, oblivious that this is her fifth erasure of Joel, an ending still hinted at in the loop over which the credits roll.)

In Adaptation, this theme gets its first full treatment, though it is still subordinate to Kaufman’s most prominent theme of the inextricability of reality and fiction from each other. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche, von Trier

Manipulating Storytellers: von Trier and Kaufman (Pt. 1)

Caden Cotard unintentionally upsets his daughter, while “just trying to explain plumbing,” when he says that it’s nothing to be afraid of, that’s it’s everywhere. She responds with a shocked, “Every single where?!” It’s a fear that seems to prevail in Synecdoche, NY, both in its main character, forever expanding his project, and its viewers, trying to keep track of everything. The movie is indeed monstrous in its scope. It takes you over. One friend commented that it’s one of the only movies he’s seen that puts you in the mood to watch it, whereas most movies you’re “in the mood for” before you decide to watch them. Another friend reacted negatively to such extreme manipulation, essentially criticizing it as not playing fair— it forces you to have an empathetic reaction to a character he felt to be so blind to his own absurdity and selfishness that he doesn’t merit empathy. Another thought it interesting but severely bloated, that Kaufman didn’t have a handle on what he was trying to do and so had to continually introduce new characters and subplots just to keep it afloat. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche, von Trier

Synecdoche, NY

From the paw, the lion. Which isn’t accurate (also, it sounds better in Latin, but I can’t remember the Latin), but is the phrase that I heard when trying to remember who had said “Do you understand?” before… Adele, the absconding wife, right? At the beginning? Well, earlier in the movie, at least. But trying to figure that referral properly, you realize you’re all thumbs, it’s all left feet. And the next phrase sounds familiar too, the way he keeps inflecting the expletive, but he’s a new actor, and his character hasn’t had a part before, at least no a speaking part, and certainly not a monologue of this length. Was it Caden? But we’re back at Adele’s, now, the tape of her talking rolling inside while the old woman playing the old woman by the door accidentally gives the wrong key to— … the woman playing Caden. No, she’s not playing Caden yet, she’s the cleaning-woman, the one Caden filled in for when Sammy sent him there. Was that in the set? Or was that back in New York, the New York outside the set? This part is in the set, of course. But did Sammy build the first Adele’s-place in the set just to humiliate Caden into cleaning it like he had before, to ‘watch him lose another part of himself’ (Is that what he said? I’ve forgotten. Or was it merely for the character study, not sinister?)? Somebody was reading the Overture to Swann’s Way [Ought that be in quotes? The rule is parts of a large work and short works, right?], earlier, but it was between scenes, a close up of the first page— I saw “Overture” in big capitals and then “For a long time I used to go to bed—” and got a little giddy at the recognition— but ‘somebody’ is all you can say, because nobody was reading in the scenes preceding or following the short shot of the first page of the novel (It used to confuse me, before I started reading it and when I was very early into it, that people referred to the whole thing as “the novel,” and not the individual volumes as each a novel)— maybe it was Hazel, since we know she’s the literary one (She’s reading The Trial, or was, earlier) and whatever is before her on the desk in the next scene is hidden from the camera— but it doesn’t matter. It’s there; that does. It’s a foothold, because something tells me I’m going to need a foothold for this one, a place to work from if I’m going to get a handle on the story. (It also bothered me that one of the Loyal Band died of a stroke as he walked out the front door and then suddenly reappeared a few dozen pages later, like it used to bother me that Charles died in a parenthetical.) There’s no reason for it. I will berate the first person I hear theorize this is his death-dream. It is a movie, not a death-dream. That is all there is to it. That’s it. He’s done it, this is his masterpiece, Charlie’s. Will it be downhill from here? I ought to go read for class. I need to read some more Celan if I’m going to be reading about him for class… “all things are less than/ they are,/ all are more.” That’s the epigram for one of the essays on Celan I have to read, which sounds a little vapid out of context like that, and maybe in English, maybe the German has more elegance. The quote doesn’t say where it’s from. I ought to go read the rest of that now. I would rather go find someone to make watch Synecdoche right now, though; I almost want to watch it again now.

Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Proust, Synecdoche

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