Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A Real Deep Peek Into One Man's Crack...

If anyone was wondering what the hell I was blathering on about at the end of last Thursday's post, I bring you a very inward-looking kind of hell: Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York.

(David Allison, looking at his notes for his next Filth essay)

Kaufman's scripts have always tended towards solipsism, but before Synecdoche this had always been partially offset by the showmanship of his director-collaborators Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Allowed to direct his own material, Kaufman plunges deeper and deeper into his protagonist's decaying mind and body with little regard for either plot or audience.

("What's this say? 'Self disgust is self-obsession honey and I do as I please' -- what does that even mean?")

This is a good thing, in some ways. I've never seen a movie which takes you quite so far up one man's back passage, which... wait, was I supposed to be complimenting the movie here?

Seriously though, it works, or it worked for me anyway. It's the kind of project that'll either win you over on the strength of its details or completely alienate you on the same terms. The high concept is very high concepty, as has always been the case with Kaufman's films -- Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a hypochondriac theater director whose sense of hearing/reality might be slightly suspect. He wins a massive wad of grant money and sets about losing himself in an ever-expanding and perpetually untitled play, a mini city full of muted drama and decay. As in Morrison/Weston's The Filth, the decomposition of mind and body are linked in this environment, which ends up functioning as a sort of Ballardian inner space.

What's the point of all of this? Well it's all about death, innit, or at least that's what Cotard says:
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're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't.
I realised that I was genuinely enjoying the picture, as opposed to just appreciating it, when Caden's mother turned to him at her husband's funeral and said: "There was so little left of him, they had to fill the coffin with cotton balls to keep him from rattling around." Did I say that Kaufman showed no regard for plot or audience? Maybe I overstated a little. There's a lot of dark humour on display, and the movie is deliberately constructed to take the viewer down the rabbit hole with Cotard, which is why it sometimes seems like it has no regard for time or causality.

Like I said, if it works for you it really works, as Jog noted in his review of the movie:
It seemed to work on the audience I was with. By the time the city-within-a-city becomes a ruined wasteland, as a metaphor for an old man (so worried about an early death!) outliving all his friends and acquaintances, left with nothing but memories and shadows of old loves, actors playing people, don't ya know, and Wiest, now likely dead and fused completely with Caden's soul, launches into another knock 'em out monologue about how we're all essentially the same useless, ineffective bits of walking nonsense in the face of universal time, the crowd became totally rapt, sitting in shock through the closing credits.
So, if it's good movie why have I been circling round it like I want to take a piece out of it? Well, I guess I feel like Kaufman has taken us down this rabbit hole in pretty much every script he's ever written, and I was hoping that he'd do something beyond show us quite how far into ourselves we can go.

On that note, I can't help but think that the ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind was a lot more cutting than Synecdoche's finale precisely because it pushed its protagonist out of his solipsistic panic and back out into a more socialised reality. Here's what I said about Eternal Sunshine back in 2004:
The final section of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is nothing short of spectacular. It's a headlong rush of uncomfortable awareness for the two main characters, and, in an odd way, what it reminds me of more than anything else is Donnie Darko. Now, before anyone shouts "what the fuck", let me unpack that one a little. While I know that stylistically and thematically there's a lot separating the two movies, what it seems to me that Donnie Darko captured so well was a feeling of confusion that gradually transformed into some sort of weird mixture of knowledge and acceptance in the face of overwhelmingly deterministic forces. Something similar happens at the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with Joel and Clementine facing up to the reality of how their relationship is likely to work out, and deciding to go with it anyway.

It occurs to me that the garbled theories I've just spent several paragraphs constructing may not immediately seem like the best argument in favor of the idea that this is, above all, a simple movie. But... well, lets just put it this way; the ability every one of us has to accept the distance between what we feel we need and what we know that we will end up getting from any given person is both sad and wonderful, and I can think of no more eloquent and poetic expression of this than the final looping segment of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
If I remember correctly, quite a few people found the Donnie Darko reference in that post a bit confusing at the time, but I stand by it. The movies are miles apart in terms of subject matter and theme, but I made the comparison because the last act of ESotSM had a Darko-esque sense of bewildered discovery to it. Anyway, what makes Eternal Sunshine more engaging than either Donnie Darko or Synecdoche, New York is the fact that it applies its mopey philosophy to a "real" human relationship. Also, Michel Fucking Gondry, but we'll come back to that another day. Synecdoche, New York makes a good case for us being a species of lonely, disconnected minds trying to make sense of the chaos around us; Eternal Sunshine shows two people trying to maintain a relationship in full knowledge of the fact that they'll never truly get it to work like either of them want it to. Like the honorable Mr Attack said to me in a 2004 email:
In some ways, I can't help shake the feeling that they've managed a brilliant job of making everyone think it's this sweet, romantic movie, and it's actually this terrifying psychological horror movie. Job's a good un!
And like I said response: actually, it's a sweetly terrifying romantic horror movie, and that's why I love it!

Because seriously? Sometimes this relationship shit is scary hard work, but I still think that it's worth every brain-frazzling second -- or at least, it bloody well can be!


Anagramsci said...

great stuff here--I concur so completely that you've relieved me of the burden of writing anything on Synecdoche, which impressed me without thrilling me... There's no denying that it's a virtuoso performance, but it's so hermetically self-centered that I can't find any way to read it for lustres (Emerson-style)

Eternal Sunshine, on the other hand, is lustrous indeed, thanks to its courageous refusal to flinch from the terrifying frailty of our lifeline to the Other (the inevitable obliteration of which is the REAL death that gives structure to existence)...


zom said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes! It is a sweet, terrifying romantic horror movie and that’s exactly why it’s one of my favourite films of the last ten years. It manages to be convincingly hopeful, quixotic and despairing at the same bloody time, a trick I haven’t seen pulled in a rom-com since the final shot of Manhattan.

Sometimes I wish our remit on Mindless Ones included film because I would love to write about Eternal Sunshine.

David said...

Dave -- yeah, Synecdoche is relentlessly impressive, to the extent that I can't imagine another movie doing what it does quite so well. Which makes me slightly worried that this piece has one foot in the "you should've done it this way" school of criticism, which I normally try to avoid.

Still, after a while the constant feeling that nothing in the movie exists as anything but a flickering reflection of Cotard's brain starts to feel somewhat constrictive. I get that this is part of the point, but it seems like a less rewarding ride than Eternal Sunshine for precisely this reason.

And zom, I'd love to read whatever you have to say about Eternal Sunshine, which is -- as you say -- an absolutely outstanding wee picture. If you ever find yourself just bursting to write a piece on the film it could always find a home here (he said, cackling wildly at his own attempt to steal raw writing talent).

zom said...

I'm not sure the boys would forgive such treachery.

Missed Synecdoche at the flicks thanks to life 'n' stuff.

Boooo! Bloody life!

David said...

Heh -- that's fair, but you can't blame a lad for trying!

I almost missed Synecdoche at the cinema too, but thankfully I managed to catch a late-ish showing with exactly the right group of friends. We probably made quite a funny sight as we staggered out into Glasgow's Friday night madness looking all sheepish and pretentious and battered.

Was good!