Synecdoche, New York and Directing our own lives

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I watched Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York the other day. It is at times compelling, hilarious, and mysterious.

The story follows a theatre director, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Awarded a grant to produce a expansive artwork, he recreates scenes from his own life inside a huge warehouse. But of course, after a while, his own life revolves around producing the theatre piece… So that gets recreated inside the warehouse too. He has to recruit an actor to play himself, and eventually an actor to play the actor that plays himself! Likewise with the other important people in his life and the production. The play becomes more and more recursive, in the manner of Borges’ The Circular Ruins (a dream within a dream).

Although I have only seen it once, I flatter myself that I worked out part of the mystery of the piece. Two elements go unexplained throughout the film. The first is the fact that Hazel’s apartment is perpetually on fire. The second is that the actor who is cast to play the director in the theatre production is actually a stalker, who we have seen lurking in previous scenes. Both of these elements point to the idea that the director we are seeing (the person played by Seymour Hoffman) is himself just another actor. There is another level of reality above what we are shown in the film. Confused? I think that may be Charlie Kauffmann’s intention.

These days, once I have watched a film, I tend to visit the Roger Ebert site to see what he has said about it. The review for this film is gushing. It is also quite perceptive. Ebert does not let himself get lost in the riddles (as I allowed myself to get lost) but instead hones in on the overall theme of the film, which is how we perceive ourselves as we plod through life.

Here is how life is supposed to work. … We find something we want to do, if we are lucky, or something we need to do, if we are like most people. We use it as a way to obtain food, shelter, clothing, mates, comfort, a first folio of Shakespeare, model airplanes, American Girl dolls, a handful of rice, sex, solitude, a trip to Venice, Nikes, drinking water, plastic surgery, child care, dogs, medicine, education, cars, spiritual solace — whatever we think we need. To do this, we enact the role we call “me,” trying to brand ourselves as a person who can and should obtain these things.

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. … Hold that trajectory in mind and let it interact with age, discouragement, greater wisdom and more uncertainty. You will understand what Synecdoche, New York is trying to say about the life of Caden Cotard and the lives in his lives.

This dovetails – sort of – with yesterday’s post, about how the world and other people intrude on our internal narrative.

But for me, Ebert also prompts another question: If we consider ourselves characters in the story of our own lives, does the fact that our primary medium of communication is now visual (i.e. TV, film) change the way we conceive ourselves? In recent years, this blog has often noted how our new capacity to visually log our every waking moment leads to some interesting phenomena – ‘selfies‘ used to illustrate your death, and people taking the same photo that everyone else is taking. In a recent article for the Sunday Times, Camille Paglia wrote that Rhianna has become ‘the director of her own life’ because she uses Instagram to promote an image to the world. I think that applies to everyone, not just Rhianna.

Paglia evokes the same concept as Ebert and Kaufmann – that we split ourselves into different layers. The director, the actor, the audience. The observed and the observer. I am sure that this is not a new concept and that the likes of Freud and Jung and the rest had precisely these interactions mapped out a long time ago. The question is whether technology is changing these interactions, whether the visual and the screen play a greater part in our psychology than they once did… and whether or not that is for the better.

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