Last night, on a bit of happenstance, I caught a late-night showing of Synecdoche, the latest Charlie Kaufman and semi-latest Philip Seymour Hoffman movie. (Actually, I think this is Kaufman’s directorial debut—he both wrote and directed this one.) I was not prepared.
If you’re planning on seeing this movie, that’s probably because you like Charlie Kaufman. Is that a fair assumption? And if you like Charlie Kaufman, you probably know what to expect from Synecdoche: criss-crossing realities and an acceptance of the implausible. (We might also add, a sort of sad-sack male character surrounded by female characters that are pretty much inscrutable.) I think this one is kind of specially Kaufman, though. Because—as far as I can tell, anyway—this movie is about death.
PSH, as Caden, starts the movie with an onset of weird illnesses and maladies, and there’s this general sense that his life isn’t going where he wants it to. He keeps having un-success with tha ladies (that’s an oversimplification, but just go with it), and he has this sort of tragic and powerless relationship with his offspring. He’s falling apart.
The movie wastes very little time in becoming illogical (why was that house still on fire?), and time seems to be running extra fast. As Caden rapidly ages, the film starts to spiral into this weird vortex of unreality. He’s a theater director, and he wants his present project—which is taking upwards of seventeen years to finish—to be really real and truly truthful. So he creates what seems to be a mirror of everything he experiences. The set keeps getting bigger, until the whole thing starts to look like a demi-version of his reality.
The movie’s title is a play on
Anyway, things keep not making any sense, and then some more stuff happens, and then Dianne Wiest’s character steps up out of nowhere and seems to explain what’s going on. Maybe. Sort of. I don’t want to give anything away—although that might be impossible, since I’m not sure I understood this movie. Maybe it would be best just to say that the film puts you inside Caden’s mind, and his mind is full of an acrid, itchy fear of death and despair over life.
I like Charlie Kaufman—I like the way his stories go. And I think this is a very interesting, affecting movie. But I didn’t enjoy it. At all, really.
I just didn’t enjoy feeling the way it made me feel. For one thing, I spent at least an hour and a half feeling desperately sorry for Caden, along with wondering where this all was going and suspecting that it wasn’t going anywhere. (I was right.) I feel uncomfortable with that kind of sympathy, because there’s nothing I can do with it.
For another thing, the whole movie is panicked and depressive (though it did have its funny moments). I respect Kaufman for making the kind of art that creates a state of mind. But I don’t like that state of mind, that feverish anxiety, that fear that you’ve screwed everything up, and I’m perfectly capable of experiencing it on my own. At one point, Caden moans, “I think I might be dying.” I have said this exact sentence, if not out loud. And I was doing fine until you showed up, #$@& Charlie Kaufman.
So I left the theater sort of angry. Having a movie create depression for you feels like getting hit in the face by a wet cotton ball, a little of the water splashing upward into your eye. And I didn’t feel like I could say to my companions, “I require you to spend the next hour with me, preferably eating something.”
Maybe I should have, despite the late hour—I think having other people around you is not a bad way to crack a window in the experience of depression. But I don’t think this movie made me depressed. I think it made me scared of being depressed. And that’s almost as bad.
I came home and turned on Scrubs, only to despair that it was the episode where Turk, J.D., and Eliot all have patients that die. So mortality was inescapable for me last night. This morning I woke up to the choice of believing that, despite how sucky life can be, and despite the fact that I don’t “get” death and possibly never will, there’s such a thing as good.