Life on The Installment Plan

Watching Synecdoche, New York, I was reminded of a short story I read in college. Collected in The Best American Short Stories 1989, Harriet Doerr’s Edie: A Life compresses the eponymous character’s fictional existence into a mere fifteen pages. Margaret Atwood, the editor of the collection summed it up as “…an entire life, in miniature as it were, complete and rounded and unexplained as an apple.”

In Synecdoche, writer and director Charlie Kaufman achieves the same effect by putting the main character’s perception of reality on fast forward. After a household accident, theater director Caden Cotard played by Philip Seymour Hoffman develops an unnamed mental dysfunction and as a result his grasp on the flow of passing time comes in fits and starts.

I have to admit that I wasn’t crazy about Adaptation. It seemed to be full of recycled postmodern tricks that I had already gorged myself on reading literature. In Synechdoche, Kaufman really makes the most of his chosen medium. Filmgoers are accustomed to seeing a life pass by in the span of two hours, of years excised with a single cut without so much as a dimming of lights or drawing of the curtains. So when Cotard crosses the Atlantic to track down his daughter, a child only minutes ago, to find her an adult woman performing in a peepshow, we’re reminded of just how strange are the conventions of cinema that we take for granted. True, in the film, this is due to the quirk of his illness, but all of us to some extend become Caden Cotards for the two hours in which we’re wrapped up in a film. Somewhere I read some sharp blogger’s observation that the main character’s last name Cotard is the name of a strange medical condition in which the sufferer believes themselves dead, despite any evidence to the contrary. In the film a more precise diagnosis might be to describe his predicament as “Near Death Syndrome.” As we watch, the high points of Cotard’s life are literally flashing before his eyes.
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Even as time rushes by him faster than he can grasp it, Cotard is engaged on a theater production of enormous scale, his guiding credo and criticism of every detail that it must be more “real.” What this amounts to is a recreation of New York crammed into the space of an Olympian warehouse, peopled with stand-ins for everyone he knows. These are the kinds of springboards that Kaufman employs so well, because he always lets a wild idea run as far as he can take it. Cotard employs an actor to take on the role of himself in the production, which of course requires still another actor to direct the stand-in and so on ad absurdum. Synecdoche is similar to Being John Malkovich in that each could easily be bookended neatly at the point of weird revelation like an episode of The Twilight Zone. For Kaufman, the point where say, Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses after becoming entombed in a library surrounded by his beloved books, would comprise Act One.

Cotard, goaded by the criticism of his ex-wife, misses sight of the fact that part of an artist’s job is distillation (indeed, like a rebuke we find that his wife’s paintings over the course of the film seem to be shrinking in inverse proportion to his stage production’s scope). His appetite is too big. He dutifully recreates confrontations he has had with the people in his life, only to find that his actors are carrying on relationships of their own, which in turn should be represented. Whereas the literary meaning of synecdoche is that a part is employed to represent the whole, for Cotard, the whole must represent the whole.

Kaufman of course can contain within his own work everything Cotard is attempting and more. There are jokes within jokes just as there are layers of artifice built one atop the other in the quest to create replicas of replicas, which will somehow, eventually, loop back upon themselves to arrive at the genuine article.

Calling the film a “puzzle box” is sort of appropriate, given the level of detail in the work, elements adhering to the strict definition of a synecdoche. You could spend multiple viewings noting how a single scene or action resonates with the entirety of the film’s structure. But it misses the fact that at times it can be quite heart wrenching. This is not a cold blooded film despite the fact that it explores the quixotic implications of many an artistic pet principle. The humorously colossal extent of Cotard’s undertaking doesn’t diminish the fact that it radiates outward from the relationships in his life, most of which are painful ones. Nevertheless, the intriguing set-up will leave you exploring the ramifications of Kaufman’s ideas long after the film is over. Just as Kaufman’s film can easily accommodate Cotard’s impossible ambition, there are likewise hints that it holds even more than what shows up on screen. I found myself wondering about that warehouse with the scaled down version of New York, which itself must contain a smaller representation of the same, inside of which is surely a doll house-size model filled with figures pantomiming the act of planning an ambitious toy drama.

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