To say that art in our society has taken on religious connotations is not to say anything shocking or new. Nietzsche presaged this transposition of religious fervor from church to museum as early as 1878 when he wrote in Human, All Too Human that “art raises its head where religions decline.” Nietzsche wrote this, of course, without any knowledge of the film industry that was about to burst onto the Western cultural landscape.
Film is the only artistic medium that has remained somewhat impervious to Nietzsche’s claim. Despite the development of “art house” cinema and the slow intrusion of the European cinematic tradition into American consciousness, American film-making has clung to its entertainment value, keeping countless generations of Americans distracted and carefree – at least for two hours at a time.
So it is always a shock to see a major studio production such as Synecdoche, New York struggle to fit itself back into the center of the art-qua-religion framework. Charlie Kaufman is a director well-known for his intellectual, “thinking” films such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but this is the first time (and in his directorial debut, no less!) that Mr. Kaufman has taken upon himself the messianic cross of the redeemer.
From the beginning of the film, Kaufman sets the stakes as high as they can go. As we follow aging and ailing theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) through his quiet struggles with his far more successful painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener), his revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and finally, with his own body, which is sprouting strange growths and spewing the wrong bodily fluids out of the wrong orifices, we are forced to confront life’s basic questions – the ones that not so long ago religion answered for us. How do we come to terms with our own mortality? How do we accept unfortunate developments that are seemingly out of our control? What is a life worth living?
Though he never articulates them, Caden seems to ponder these questions until they drive him to the brink of desperation – where he remains for the rest of the film. (Nor does his psychologist, portrayed by a hilarious Hope Davis, seem to provide any answers, let alone coping mechanisms). Caden is cast even further into the pits of despair when Adele flies off for a show in Berlin that will make her career, their daughter Olive in tow, never to return.
Adele’s departure marks a turning point in the film. From here on out Kaufman switches gears from a psychological portrait of Caden to a fantastical tale that blurs all distinctions between what is believably “real” and what simply represents elements of Caden’s imagination. It is here, having introduced those grand questions, that Kaufman takes up the cross.
Caden’s redeeming chance comes in the form of a small letter announcing that he has just won the MacArthur grant – replete with the standard monetary award of $500,000. Before long, Caden purchases a vast, abandoned warehouse in Manhattan and sets off to create a theater-piece for all time, a walk-through, full-size representation of New York City.
His own life bleeds onto the set until it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish the real fight Caden and his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams) are having, from the dramatized version she engages in as an actress with the “fake” Caden – a man named Sammy who has been following Caden for much of his life (Tom Noonan).
Time warps, years flow by from scene to scene. Caden discovers that Adele is back in New York and slips into her apartment pretending to be her maid; his set designer reconstructs Adele’s building within the warehouse, his actors reconstruct the action within the building. Soon, fourth walls are erected and the first warehouse is encapsulated by a second, which is in turn encapsulated by a third as Caden’s play – and Kaufman’s film – begins to spin out of control.
Caden never manages to work out all the things that plague him by casting them onto the “stage” of the warehouses. Despite the meta-ness of the film, Kaufman likewise offers no answers to his own questions, not even any transcendental moments to lift us out of the mire he has cast us into in the first place (unless one counts all those times Caden cries when he is about to make love).
Far from being redeemed, Caden continues to blunder through life as stodgily as he had before he won the McArthur grant. He fails to rescue his first daughter Olive from the hands of Adele’s evil lesbian friend Maria, cannot consummate his love for his assistant, Hazel, and drives Claire to divorce him. Even his actors protest during a cast meeting: “We’ve been rehearsing for 19 years!” a male actor shouts. “When are we finally going to get an audience in here?”
That audience never arrives. Instead Kaufman introduces a new character, Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), who starts off playing the part of Adele’s maid, but eventually takes over for the ever-ailing and ever-despairing Caden himself. She seems to offer the film a second chance at that long-promised redemption, an uplifting of our spirits after we, along with Caden, have dared to look the brutal truth in the eye. She is quiet, meek. She whispers directions into Caden’s ear through a miniature headset. Caden calms down, sleeping for days in the ‘fake’ maid’s room, and we calm down too. Here is comfort, pre-determination. Who is Millicent Weems? Is she a stand-in for God, fate, destiny? Does it even matter so long as that voice soothingly tells us what to say and where to go? Does the “answer” to life’s questions lie in Caden’s ability to become Adele’s maid, to appropriate her memories? Is Charlie Kaufman making a plea for some kind of shared, universal human soul? Showing Caden to be a synecdoche for each of us?
No. Like so much else in the film, Millicent’s voice begins to break up before disappearing altogether. A war has seemingly taken place outside while Caden slept. As he emerges weak and disheartened onto this scene of apocalyptic devastation one cannot help but think that Kaufman has resorted to that age-old trick of creative writing: killing off most of the characters when they become unmanageable.
Indeed, this is the suspicion that lurked in my mind long after I emerged from the movie theater into the cold November night. Instead of Millicent’s voice, it was Kaufman’s I couldn’t shake out of my ear, quietly regaling with “fuck its” and “fuck yous”. Kaufman’s condescension to his audience was inescapable. It was as though he had begun weaving this vast, intricately inter-connected web and, finding himself unable to bring all the disparate strands back together again, gave up on the project entirely with the single hope in mind that if we don’t get it, it’s our own damn fault.
Yet looking around at the gloomy faces exiting Sunshine Landmark Theaters on Houston St. that night, I felt reassured that I was not the only one who “didn’t get” the master’s genius stroke. Kaufman had lured us into the theater and kept us on the edge of our seats as a false prophet, preying on our belief that art – and certainly artistically informed cinema – is somehow transformative, that having witnessed Caden Cotard’s many trials we would come out better equipped to face our own.
In that sense, my strong belief is that Kaufman fails his audience. He ignores any sense of responsibility the artist must unavoidably feel if he sets out, Nietzsche in mind, to pick up where religion left off. Kaufman picks at scabs, unearthing deep wounds that, with the death of God for so much of the population, never seem to heal.
Moreover he seems to know what he is doing, seems to have left the needle and the thread behind on purpose with no intent to stitch those wounds back up. In an earlier scene in the film, when Caden is first explaining his project to Claire, she responds enthusiastically, saying, “I feel like I’m joining a revolution. I’m thinking Artaud, Grotowski…”
In citing Artaud within the film, Kaufman inevitably evokes his greatest literary contribution, a work entitled the The Theatre of Cruelty. In the treatise, Artaud articulates contemporary society’s need for a ‘total’ theater where viewers would be presented with mythical acts of cruelty, and could therefore leave morally invigorated and emotionally purified.
Kaufman understands this thirst we feel for some kind of catharsis, but considers it unquenchable. By having the ditsy Claire bring up Artaud, he is sending a clear message that he considers this to be an impossible aim. After all, if Charlie Kaufman tried to do it and couldn’t, who can?
Kaufman’s arrogance borders on unbearable, and ultimately overshadows whatever beautiful moments the film has to offer. That is not to say that he is necessarily wrong. Perhaps art truly can never be transformative or purifying in the way religion (for a brief historical moment) was. Perhaps the best it can do is, as Kaufman insists, simply point to our weaknesses. Perhaps. But if that is all Kaufman has to say – well, then there’s a kinder way to do it.