Monday, December 15, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

The play's the thing...

Charlie Kaufman has done it again. He wrote (and directed) a movie all about what it's like to live inside my head. The first time he did it was with the movie Adaptation, which tells the story of a screenwriter named "Charlie Kaufman" who is trying to adapt a book about orchids into a Hollywood movie. When I saw Adaptation, I felt like Charlie had been listening to my private thoughts and transcribing them onto the page. It was eerie how much the struggles of the character "Charlie Kaufman" mirrored my own. I wondered if anyone else would appreciate a movie that seemed to be directed at me personally.

I've written myself into my screenplay.

Now, Charlie (the actual person) has come out with another movie reflecting the inner workings of my not-so-spotless mind. It is called Synecdoche, New York and it is about a playwright and director named Caden, played by the brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who creates a play about his own life. But not just any play. The play that Caden creates is an actual, full-scale, real-time depiction of the everyday events of his own life. The play is staged in a massive warehouse which replicates in minute detail the streets, buildings, shops, houses and apartments of Caden's world. Naturally, this replica includes a replica of the warehouse which in turn also replicates Caden's world. And that replica contains another warehouse. And so on.

We're actors. We're the opposite of people.

Of course, the replicas are populated with actors who play the parts of the people in Caden's life, including his wife and daughter and himself. As the play goes on for years and years, these relationships change and grow, both outside and inside the play. Eventually it becomes quite confusing as to who is playing whom. The line between reality and theater becomes blurred to the point of non-existence. Eventually, Caden enters into the world of the play, taking up the part of a minor character. Though, as he puts it: "None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories."

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

In the play Hamlet, the main character, Hamlet, decides to put on a play to ferret out the murderer of his father. Hamlet tells the actors that the purpose of the play is "to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature." For a long time, this was the Holy Grail of not just theater, but art in general. Painting, sculpture, literature, photography, theater, cinema, etc., have all sought to reproduce as faithfully as possible the realities of our world and in so doing reveal life's truth. But reality isn't always the truth.

Truth is for suckers, Johnny Boy.

Plenty of artists have taken a very different route from the 'mirror up to nature' one. Picasso wasn't exactly going for photorealism in Guernica. Waiting for Godot doesn't even attempt to portray the world as we know it. Slaughterhouse Five bounces around from one time period to another and even transports two of its characters to a distant planet. But each of these works manages to convey some essential truths.

Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!

Perhaps the 'mirror' is the key. I have a mirror in my bathroom that is normal on one side and magnified on the other. When you hold the magnified mirror up to nature, are you seeing more of the truth or less of it? And what about those mirrors in your car that say 'objects may be closer than they appear'? Sometimes the mirror is lying.

Half of what he said meant something else, and the other half didn't mean anything at all.

In one of my favorite plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, two minor characters from Hamlet become the leads in a kind of mirror image version of the original play. Instead of focusing on Hamlet and all his tribulations, this play focuses on the two college buddies who have been invited to Elsinore to cheer Hamlet up after his father's death. Although, once they arrive, they realize they have really been called in to spy on Hamlet to find out why he's acting so crazy. Right from the start, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin to notice that the world has stopped making sense. The laws of physics and probability have gone out the window. Logic and reason fail them. They don't know where they are, why they are there, or even which one of them is which. The only person who seems to know what's going on is a character known as The Player, who has been brought in by Hamlet to stage the play-within-the-play that will help Hamlet catch his father's killer. The Player alone seems to realize that they are all caught up in something beyond their understanding, headed for a final act which always ends the same way.

Audiences know what they expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in.

Synecdoche, New York reflects a world where reality becomes theater and theater becomes reality. A playwright mounts a production dramatizing every moment of his life, spanning nearly two decades, consisting of dozens of sets and hundreds of actors and including a play within a play within a play within a play, and on and on, like a never-ending house of mirrors. And in the end, the main character becomes a bit player and the bit player becomes the lead. Because we are all leads in our own stories. Just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...

So, therefore, I am living in Synecdoche, New York. As are we all. We are all mounting productions of our lives and playing our parts on the world stage. And each of these productions is like a mirror that reflects what we think is the truth. Whether we are from Synecdoche or Ilium or Grover's Corner's or Mayberry.