Monday, December 8, 2008

Synecdoche thoughts part 1

I saw Synecdoche (film by Charlie Kaufman) this weekend, and want to talk about something it brought up in my head. So spoiler alert, only this is not like a murder mystery—it's not likely I'll say anything that will actually spoil the film, as it's not all that comprehensible anyway. :) However, if you don't want to know what little I understood of the movie, stop now.

Okay, so this film with a title no one can pronounce (sin-neck-duck-key) or define (the device of using a part of a thing to represent the whole thing, like "wheels" to represent "a car"). It's about a writer, so hey! Yay! After all those films about cops and strippers, finally! Films about REAL people like us! Anyway, Caden Cotard is a playwright. (The Cotard Syndrome is worth reading about—the delusion that you don't actually exist.) When the film opens, he is directing to great acclaim a performance of Death of a Salesman, and I think that is significant, as it bookends the "play" trope—that is, here it is, fifty years after the play was written, and audiences are still loving it. (Keep that thought, as his own play lasts for fifty years... that is, it takes fifty years to "write", and it never gets performed.)

So then his wife leaves him and he gets a Genius Grant (a fair trade, given his wife is not really all that appealing :), and he decides to use the money to fund a new project, a play that replicates life. And then it gets sort of weird as Caden starts hiring actors to BE him and the others in his life, and that lasts a REEEEEEALLLL long time. But it's sort of interesting, in a tedious way. I mean, the idea is interesting, even if the actual scenes are pretty boring. (The film is worth seeing... just don't feel bad if there are long stretches you have to concentrate to follow).

What does it all mean? Well, I don't pretend to understand film, but at least it sparked a few thoughts for me.
1) Art isn't life. Art can imitate life (and vice versa), but art can't be life, or even replicate life. Caden spends decades trying to make a play that is like life, and guess what? It's boring and interminable. Life is about living. Art is about selection, conflict, focus. Life is diffuse. Art is concise. This is shown with the contrast of Death of a Salesman (two concentrated hours) and Caden's unnamed masterpiece-manque. Death of a Salesman focuses on a few significant moments, and has lived for 50 years. Caden's M-M has no focus, and outlives most of its actors.

2) Audience makes meaning. Death of a Salesman is performed in the first few minutes of the film, to great reviews and audience rapture. And it's been performed thousands of time, but everytime is new. Caden's version has very young actors performing the older parts, and as he comments, the contrast makes the audience think about mortality—that is, the audience is a maker of meaning, a part of the process.
In Caden's own play, there is no audience, just the creator and the performers... and there is no meaning. At one point, one of the actors points out they've been rehearsing for 17 years and never performed, but Caden's narcissism is such that he doesn't need an audience. The meaning for him is just that... well, I think that he's important and his life is important. This is ratified by all these people who are spending their lives replicating his life. But they are not the audience. There is no audience. So there is no meaning.

3) Art is about selection. Generally it's created in retrospect, in reflection (there are some poetry and rap jams, not to mention jazz and comedy improvs, of course, but usually the improvisers have been preparing all their lives). Revision means you can shift events and words for greater effect. Effect—effect on the audience, of course. In fact, the initial creation might be all about the artist, but revision is all about the audience, about making this make sense for the audience. Caden's M-M never gets to the revision stage, the "audience-effect" stage-- it's all created on the fly, and revised only as life requires (like a character dies or an actor quits).

4) Art is also about permanence. In drama and music, which rely so much on the performer, that means repetition. That is, part of the power of Death of a Salesman is that certain elements cannot be changed without it ceasing to be Death of a Salesman. Caden can cast it with young actors; Arthur Miller can present it in China in Chinese. The setting can be, I don't know, a space station in 2090. But something essential must remain, Willy's salesman persona, the line about attention, the theme of family disappointment. Caden's life-art has no permanence, because it has no ending—it's constantly changing as he changes his understanding of what's going on in his life.

Ars longus, vita brevis. Arthur Miller is gone, but Death of a Salesman remains with us. But when Syndecdoche ends, Caden is still alive, wandering in the derelict precincts of his set, deserted by all his actors and presumably his muse too. His life lasted longer than his art, which I guess suggests it wasn't really art at all... just his narcissism?

Well, okay, I'll think of other "art is" items. But now I'm going to just free-associate rather than try to be organize, or I'll never finish this!

The film is intriguing to me because, like the actor who gets drunk to play the drunk, Kaufman is willing to be boring in order to show how life isn't art.

Theatrical Bookends (motif here):
Death of a Salesman and Caden's Masterpiece-manque (MM)—

Hmm. Well, as I've said, Death is very contained, though actually non-linear—that is, there are those flashbacks that break the chronology. MM is tediously linear, moving only forward in time, though there are sudden jumps forward—suddenly the play has been in progress (or at least rehearsal) for 17 years, for example.

The most famous line in Death is "Attention must be paid!" That is, Willy's important, and someone should notice. His wife speaks this.

In Synecdoche (that is, Kaufman's film, not Caden's play), the actor/stalker who has been playing Caden jumps off a roof to his death (replicating more successfully Caden's suicide attempt). At the actor's funeral, Caden suddenly says, "No one is an extra. They're all leads in their own story." Then, when this event is subsumed into the play, instead of Caden, the minister says this as part of a (nutso) funeral eulogy. Not sure why it's changed from Caden. But I notice that in Death, the corresponding line is spoken by Willy's wife, that is, not by the protagonist Willy. Maybe Caden understood that distance was needed for that sort of pronouncement, but since he's so much lesser a playwright than Arthur Miller, he gives the central realization not to a major character, but to a walk-on, never seen before or again. That weakens the importance of the realization by making it extraneous to plot events—that is, the minister just announces this, and since we don't know him, we don't know what has led to this understanding. (With Willy's wife, we know all that has led to this, her love of Willy, her disillusionment, her identification with him, her vicarious humiliation....)

So by assigning it to a walk-on, Caden is diminishing the power of this, and this is deliberate, at least on Kaufman's part. With Caden, I think it's interesting—this wilderness of mirrors. The actor playing him committed suicide. He is both playwright and character. Both he and Kaufman decide to take his own understanding and give it to the minister.

Well, I think with Caden it could be a desire to distance himself from his own guilt—that is, if he hadn't unsuccessfully attempted suicide, the actor wouldn't have been led to replicate that. And Kaufman certainly wants to pose that question. But he could also be doing what I suggested in a recent post—put the Big Realization in the mouth of a non-credible character, and since the minister has a breakdown during the eulogy and starts cussing, he's pretty non-credible. :)

Funeral too—that is, Willy commits suicide, like the actor/stalker. Willy has been thinking of his own funeral for a long time, hoping it will be well-attended. In fact, one of the saddest moments in Death is when Willy predicts that many will pay their respects when he dies—he's looking forward to his funeral because death will provide the validation life hasn't. (And of course, no one comes to his funeral.) The actor's funeral is actually fairly well-attended, but the truth is, he is important to no one (I can't even remember his name :). He is, no matter what Caden says, an extra, a marginalized character whose importance is just in his role, and who is quickly replaced. He isn't the lead in his own life, because he has chosen to be an extra in someone else's play. So Willy actually has more of a life, more of a reality. He is living his own life, however sad, and his funeral is his own.

So, anyway, Death of a Salesman and Caden's MM are bookends of this film and are meant to thematically resonate and echo, and I'm sure the rest of you can find more resonances!

Off to bed—more thoughts later, including how this all connects to fiction-writing.

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