Infectious diseases in cattle: questions about Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York
I didn't exactly enjoy viewing Synecdoche: New York, but I immediately felt the need to watch it again, mostly to try to catch more of the important details that writer/director Charlie Kaufman sneaks in on the edge of the screen. Mostly, the film left me with several questions:
1) Why is it that so many films feature loser older male protagonists these days? What is Caden Cotard? The artist as big baby? Was anyone else bothered by his whiny, simpering "I'm so lonely--woe is me" schtick?
2) Writer/director Kaufman does strive for a literary density in his films. Originally a comedy writer, Kaufman seem to get increasingly despairing in his recent movies, and in its attempt to convey one theatrical director's decline from age 40 to 80, Synecdoche is as bleak as they get. I think Kaufman's portrait of life is slanted too far to the negative, but one has got to admire his stubborn refusal to give the viewer any kind of release from Caden Cotard's gradual doom. Synecdoche's characteristic scene: a funeral. Hoffman's characteristic pose in the movie: head bent forward, veins bulging on his forehead, about to weep. Why is it he gets to live another forty years when he seems ready to die in scene one?
3) What is the deal with Hazel's burning house? A combustible living room makes for great mise en scene, but what does it mean?
4) In the Olive-as-tattooed-nude-dancer scene, did Kaufman mean to evoke Paris, Texas (1984)?
5) Insofar as Caden's first wife Adele (Catherine Keener) dumps him for a woman (the extra-despicable Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh)), were we supposed to think of Meryl Streep's character doing the same to Woody Allen in Manhattan (1979)? Is it just me or does much of Kaufman's world resemble a more Kafkaesque Woody Allen movie?
6) Did anyone else notice that the movie's Groundhog Day first shot of a clock radio depicts the same time (7:45) as a clock drawn on a brick wall at the very end of the film?
5) What are we to make of the Sammy Barnathan character (Tom Noonan) who spies on Caden for twenty years (even taking notes) before taking on his role in the nameless play project ? Is he meant to evoke paparazzi, the side of one's two selves who looks on and judges, or the artistic self-consciousness of Caden? When Sammy looks on to take notes on Caden's grey stool in the bathroom, why doesn't Caden mind?
6) I find it odd how Caden leads such a woebegone life, and yet he carries on several affairs in the course of the film, even marrying Michelle Williams' character. His creative line of work makes his romantic life at times resemble Guido's in 8 1/2, yet heaven forbid if Kaufman ever lets Caden enjoy himself. If Caden's character were to somehow reflect Kaufman's life as a successful award-winning screenplay-writer and director, does Kaufman feel obliged to punish his fictional double? In a sense, Synecdoche, New York is a film about playing God, but, as if in atonement for this arrogant premise, Kaufman makes sure his creator-character gets punished on a scene-by-scene basis. Does Kaufman feel guilty?
7) I liked the warehouse within the warehouse set design as Caden's play project develops and expands with Dark City-esque complexity and surrealism. As all of the extras stand immobile in the street, did Kaufman mean to evoke The Truman Show? Or was he implying that all of our lives increasingly resemble second-rate melodramas, signifying nothing? I especially liked the idea of one's autobiographical creation starting to catch up with and overwhelm the reality of one's life. The film in a sense depicts the ultimate artist's nightmare--getting subsumed in one's duplicate selves like Charles Foster Kane's reflected hall of mirrors as he walks through Xanadu. And yet, Caden's theatrical project looks like fun, for Caden anyway.
8) Finally, towards the end, Dianne West takes over the movie, guiding Caden in his final footsteps in a dystopian post-apocalyptic movie landscape by speaking into a device in his ear. Is this Kaufman's way of asserting that God is better played by a woman?