Synecdoche, New York
I’d seen all Charlie Kaufman’s other pictures – yes, even Human Nature – and greatly enjoyed most of them – no, not Human Nature – yet had contrived to avoid Synecdoche, New York. Something about it just didn’t appeal. Perhaps it was the writer-director element, the feeling that unfiltered Kaufman might just be a little too rich. Or perhaps it was that the concept, even by his standards, seemed like a lot of hard work, the rewards for which would likely be familiar by this point.
Unfortunately, I was proved largely correct. For all its virtues – a fine cast, fitfully inspired explorations of the unravelling of the mind/being and with it, greater reality and its assumed underpinnings – the film is a sombre, indulgent slog. As Jonathan Rosenbaum observed, “it seems more like an illustration of his script than a full-fledged movie, proving how much he needs a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry to realise his surrealistic conceits”. This is true. Kaufman never quite finds a satisfying way to visualise his conceit or do so in a manner that reflects the power of his ideas.
This piece is only partly about Synecdoche, though. In part, it is also about the highly tangential reading/ viewing that finally led me to check it out. Which, when I get onto it, will make the review of the film itself highly tangential. But my reaction. It wasn’t a clean response, where one can clearly hold up the ideas of its originator and reflect upon them. Synecdoche is revealed more as a blurry melange of existential ruminations, on life and death and what happens in between, and in particular on the idea of autonomy, or our innate lack thereof by virtue of limitations, be they self-imposed or otherwise. To the extent that we can be living our own rote commentary even as we may convince ourselves we are actively engaging. None of this felt very tidily or coherently framed, though. Because the film simply isn’t very tidy. Like its protagonist’s great project, it’s an unwieldly, ungraspable behemoth.
In establishing detail, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard bears a passing resemblance to your classic Woody Allen hypochondriac (exemplified in Hannah and Her Sisters) but devoid of the light relief Allen brought to his best dramedies. Allen’s “What’s if all for?” (per Crimes and Misdemeanours) existential angst is reframed here as “For nowt”, with even fundamental artistic expression bereft of real inspiration; Caden is simply engaged in imitation of ever less manageable proportions, as his decision to mount a production of his life (and the lives of those around him) takes on the proportions of infinite regression (wherein the picture is – not coincidentally ironically – at its most inspired, as actors are employed to portray the actors portraying the subject characters). There’s a very strong kernel here, but as Kaufman delivers it, it rarely fails to translate other than in an offputtingly pseudy manner.
That kernel is suggested by the title (Synecdoche – whereby a part represents the whole, or vice versa) and in Caden’s mooted internal title (Simulacra; less so Infectious Diseases in Cattle). But if Kaufman’s inspiration isn’t in question, the film too often feels like a flabby reworking of familiar themes as he blends dream, reality and senses of self and purpose. I can give credit to the Jungian interpretation of the picture as expressed through Caden’s vague “four steps to self-realisation” but not so much something as on-the-nose and unnuanced as Hazel (the ever-amazing Samantha Morton) buying and living in a burning house, despite knowing it will kill her.
In complete fairness, though, Roger Ebert’s review offers a coherent take on the picture that almost had me thinking it deserves the benefit of the doubt. That it’s about “human life and how it works”, fine. But “Think about it a little and, my god, it’s about you. Whoever you are… Here is how life is supposed to work. We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die… To do this, we enact the role we call “me,” trying to brand ourselves as a person who can and should obtain these things”. Most incisively, Ebert observes:
In the process, we place the people in our lives into compartments and define how they should behave to our advantage. Because we cannot force them to follow our desires, we deal with projections of them created in our minds. But they will be contrary and have wills of their own. Eventually new projections of us are dealing with new projections of them. Sometimes versions of ourselves disagree. We succumb to temptation — but, oh, father, what else was I gonna do? I feel like hell. I repent. I’ll do it again.
It’s a persuasive analysis. But for me, the wash of projections as Catherine Keener exchanges places with Michelle Williams, as Jennifer Jason Leigh is reported to be having a relationship with Caden’s eleven-year-old daughter (a few scenes later a tattoo-ridden performance artist brought to voyeuristic ruin), and as Caden’s timeframes become confused and jumbled, quickly becomes tiresome. In contrast, the mental meltdown of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the biographical playfulness of Adaptation were giddily entrancing. That said, I was generally more ambivalent about Synecdoche than irritated by it. Its worst crime is that it just sort of hangs there, any internal momentum slopped on the floor very early on.
But how I got onto the film. I came across an interview(s) with “Z”, also going by XabnondaX, on truthscrambler.com, in which he offers an outspoken take on the nature of reality and where we currently find ourselves in relation to it. It makes for a counterpoint to other ex-secret projects confessions from the likes of Aug Tellez and Donald Marshall, both as a rebuke and endorsement of certain themes. Z calls them out as (partially) fantasists while in turn taking credit for originating various staged theatre in the alternative field (the secret space programme? That was Z. “I wrote 20 and back!”. Famous song lyrics? That was Z). Marshall’s celebrity cloning centres are fantasy, but “We all have clone bodies that are working in the real world, the underworld”. Aug is dangerous, yet Z promotes the same basic last cycle/last chance despair of an eternally repeating narrative.
Z’s perspective is, by and large, much more coherent than Aug’s (well, it could hardly be less so), but nevertheless leaves huge question marks, not just in terms of internal consistency but also the fundamental poser of any such character emerging from the woodwork: how can you even begin to trust what they say, however apparently autonomous? How can they trust what they are saying? Particularly when, as Z responds to CW Chanter on being asked this very thing, “When you know, you know”.
Z referred to Synecdoche as “an amazing movie” in its representation of this reality, whereby “we have the opportunity to play a character playing a character” and that, paraphrasing Shakespeare, “our entire world is a schematic stage”. The full ramifications of this are not entirely evident, beyond basic principles of recurrence, however. And that the world according to Z is mostly populated by simulacra, rather than real ensouled individuals (or should that be enspirited?) Most of us are, effectively, NPCs (albeit he takes issue with that term), and there are actually only 144,000 (since revised to 169,000) real souls out there, or here.
Z considers his view one of “benevolent elitism”, in which most of the remainder of bodies – he doesn’t actually say useless eaters, but he probably wouldn’t disagree with such a description either – are surplus to requirements. Fortuitous then, that controlling intelligence, our gnostic creative mother principle figure Sophia, en route to total destruction – via a singularity somewhere around 2045, unless the 144,000 win out and persuade her to stop dragging her heels and get on board with the originally intended programme – will be purging a significant number of them.
Z readily recognises the “treacherous territory” of this subject, even as he comments that most of the hallowed 144,000 “are currently shitheads”. At one point in his conversation with Chanter, he appears to be suggesting that membership of this select band is potentialised for everyone (“This is a competition to the death”). However, he later ameliorates this to the much more inclusive (for anyone out there reading or listening to him) “I don’t believe that anyone that is inside themself debating this stuff isn’t part of the 144,000, because only the 144,000 care”. Which is pretty much the script delivered to anyone debating whether they will be along for the ride when it comes to ascending to 5D, unsure whether they fall into service to self or service to others.
The 144,000 thing isn’t just the stuff of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah Witnesses. It has also gained currency in Devon Elon Madgy’s personality cult, and the number’s importance has been interpreted in a range of different ways (for example, that it represents the ascended masters returning right now to help the Earth’s transition at a crucial time).
Perhaps there’s some basis to it, but readings of Revelation, like those of Nostradamus, remain very much in the eye of the beholder. Z’s tack cannot help but foster a feeling of superiority and exclusivity in anyone who embraces it. It would be a surprise if such a perspective didn’t dilute basic empathy (unless you subscribe to the Church of the Subgenius, of course). And, on a practical level, it’s slightly disconcerting that Z, who professes to be “probably the most targeted individual on the world”, should have as his mission statement a desire to unite as many of the 144,000 as possible. Because, however “commendably” minded that may be, if he’s receiving that kind of concerted attention, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that any actions he takes would also place them in the spotlight.
I was minded of Rudolf Steiner in both similarities to and divergences from Z’s perspective. Both attest to soulless humans among us on the planet (well, I’m unsure Z thinks we’re on a planet, so let’s call it the Earth plane); Steiner said there would only be more coming in. Like Steiner, Z is prone to finding spiritual exclusivity reflected in physical qualities, although I suspect they reach rather different conclusions of who is better based on eye colour. Both place little emphasis on God in the equation (Z considers God entirely retooled as the 144,000; Steiner tends to resist a single presiding influence, thus far in existence, but also sees humanity, actualised, achieving status in the hierarchy of deities). Both affirm the inevitability of transhumanism, and the key being who is coordinating that process and to what ends.
Steiner, however, while he considered the possibility that humanity may fail (in part due to the various influences of Lucifer, Ahriman and Sorat) foresaw multiple ages and epochs ahead for the Earth, so would surely have disavowed the idea that we’re on the last of (nearly) forty billion repeated spin cycles trying to get out of this mess (Z’s take on resets, ascribing to them periods of no more than two 150 year cycles, isn’t entirely removed from the mudflood reset hypothesis that has snowballed in popularity over the last couple of years). Nor did Steiner relate the root cause of everything to Sophia welching on the original deal; indeed, in stark contrast to Z, she upholds an ideal of purity and wisdom.
Kaufman’s subsequent study in disassociation, Anomalisa, worked much better for me, even though, if anything, it probably doubles down on the unremitting bleakness. He has a genre detour coming up with I’m Thinking of Ending Things for Netflix (isn’t everything now?), as well as being one of six credited writers on forthcoming disaster Chaos Walking. They represent his first material adapted from another author since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Inevitably however, both feature as key elements the undercutting of assumptions about the nature of reality, personal or societal. Perhaps Z will give them a rave.