Sat in the cinema the other day, waiting to see Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, I caught an advertisement for Absolut Vodka. In 60 syrupy and platitudinous seconds, we see a sequence of common transactions such as buying a bus ticket or giving money to a busker. Instead of exchanging money, a hug or a gentle peck on the cheek is given for each service or item bought. The range of people and locations is demographically and geographically balanced, in the heavy-handed, focus-group driven sort of way that only expensive advertisements seem able to achieve: good-looking white 20-somethings buying cinema tickets, an elderly Asian man (included, it seems, to represent some notion of kindly serenity in the midst of poverty) hiring out bicycles on a hot dusty road, two motherly Scandinavian-looking women in a market, hugging each other as one hands the other a great big fish. The colour palette of the film is graded in mute, pale tones – the sort that seem intended to convey artsy sensitivity, or, in their washed-out colouring, careworn memories. Accompanying the ad is a wretchedly cloying version of ‘Money Makes the World Go Round’; all cute electronic burbles, sickly sweet female vocals and bloodless, indie-ish guitar riffs. Worst of all, the final icky chorus of the song sounds as if it’s sung by a small child, presumably far too young to consume the gut-rottingly strong spirit the ad is selling.
As the film trailers continued, I thought about how the Absolut advertisement is the just the latest in a line of commercials released over the last few years – including the ‘bouncing balls’ (below) and ‘paint’ ads for Sony Bravia, Ford Mondeo’s floating cars, the rainbow and dance films for Orange, and Barclaycard’s rather more self-consciously bathetic urban waterslide – that form something of an advertising subgenre. Each ad presents a scenario in which we see a number of supposedly ordinary people, in everyday situations, either directly engaged with, or witnessing, some form of extraordinary activity or phenomena; millions of small, coloured balls inexplicably bouncing down the hills of San Francisco; cars floating from balloons above city streets; a household chore that turns into a graceful ballet across sun-dappled lawns; the inhabitants of a local community running a relay race through their streets with rainbow-coloured streamers. Invariably accompanying these ‘magic-realist-lite’ scenarios are emotively epic or gently melancholy songs designed to ramp-up the levels of pathos in the ad. They function as a kind of signal jamming device that helps detach our emotions from the product in question, and reattach our feelings about the brand to some woolly, warm, vague notions of innocent creativity, big ‘life moments’ (birth, marriage, having kids – no death though), community spiritedness and global harmony. Sat in front of the big screen, I slurped on my lemonade and wondered just what it was that these commercials were trying to convey. ‘Don’t worry!’ they seem to be saying. ‘Cars, mobile phones, banks and mass-produced spirits are just like animals, trees and fun, creative, homespun games with your neighbours – they are your friends!’
Eventually the ads ended, I wolfed down the last of my chocolate Maltesers, and settled into my seat to enjoy the main feature. Synecdoche, New York revolves around theatre director Caden Cotard (played by the ever brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man estranged from his artist wife, Adele, and their daughter, Olive, and in ill health. Covered in pustules, his eyesight malfunctioning, and his self-confidence atomized into a million shards of neuroses, Cotard is at the end of his tether when, out of the blue, he receives a MacArthur Fellowship – nicknamed the ‘genius’ grant – and a huge sum of money with which to work on any project he pleases, no strings attached. Given this new lease of life, he decides to embark upon a hugely ambitious theatrical masterpiece, which he intends to be ‘a work of brutal honesty’. Gathering an ever-expanding cast of actors in a vast warehouse in New York, Cotard sets about reconstructing key episodes in his life. He wanders through an increasingly elaborate replica of New York that fills the warehouse (and which, in turn, is itself replicated, like a Russian doll, inside the warehouse), watching his life being replayed over and over, as he gives actors notes on their performances, analyses his mistakes and regrets, and – in a Borgesian twist – ultimately begins to write himself out of his own life, deferring decisions to those actors playing him. If synecdoche is a literary device whereby a part is used to represent the whole, the ‘parts’ in this particular synecdoche – the actors – literally start to become the whole of Cotard’s life.
What, you’re probably wondering, do my idle ruminations on modern commercials have to do with Synecdoche, New York? Well, the first thing that struck me about the film – as with those of his sometime collaborator, the director Michel Gondry – is how much of a similar aesthetic it shares with the magic-realist-lite advertising subgenre, albeit with a far darker twist. As with Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, co-written with Kaufman and artist Pierre Bismuth), The Science of Sleep (2006) and Be Kind Rewind (2008), Synecdoche, New York is a big-budget film that takes everyday characters, in supposedly ordinary environments, and subjects them to some form of pop-surrealist device. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for instance, Gondry tells the story of two lovers whose memories of a failed affair are scrubbed clean by a brain-wiping machine, and in Be Kind Rewind, that of a man whose body becomes magnetized, thus erasing the contents of all the VHS tapes in the beleaguered video rental shop in which he works, resulting in all its employees having to make their own lovably low-fi versions of all the shop’s missing blockbuster films. In Synecdoche, New York we are first shown Cotard’s creatively frustrating life in suburban Schenectady, before his theatrical Gesamkunstwerk is introduced and we enter his world of actors playing actors acting themselves, and the crazily huge New-York-within-New-York theatre set. I don’t mean to suggest that Kaufman and Gondry’s films are ideological peas-in-a-pod with the magic-realism-lite ads. Their films are, by-and-large, old-fashioned stories about love and loss wrapped up in pop-surrealist form. What is curious, however, is just that: why, now, is this kind of pop-surrealism so popular in cinema and commercial films?
The magic-realism-lite advertising subgenre tends to use three modes, often at the same time. The first is grand spectacle (Ford Mondeo cars floating from balloons, for instance), the second a form of low-fi, homespun whimsy (for example, the rainbow streamers in the Orange ad), and the third – usually by way of music – a kind of epic, epiphanic atmosphere. Both Kaufman and Gondry’s films use similar strategies. (Gondry, interestingly, made a name for himself directing television commercials, and a number of highly acclaimed music videos for the likes of Daft Punk, Radiohead and The White Stripes). Their films oscillate between two poles of spectacular visual drama (in Synecdoche, New York, for instance, we see stunning wide-shots of airships floating slowly through the warehouse, across replicas of New York tenements) and sentimental charm (_Be Kind Rewind_ gives us whimsically homemade interpretations of Ghostbusters or Robocop, whilst Synecdoche, New York depicts Cotard’s artistic masterpiece being lovingly constructed by theatre craftsmen, an old-fashioned experimental theatre world in which technicians and actors labour for nearly 20 years with little complaint, as if such hubristic projects were as commonplace as cars floating on balloons or high-rises exploding with paint). They also make strong use of music. Sony Bravia’s ‘bouncing balls’ commercial was given extra emotive heft through its use of José González’ 2003 acoustic cover of ‘Heartbeats’ by The Knife, and the Orange advert, featuring a couple dancing through their garden, ratcheted up the poignancy levels with Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’ (1978). Grammy award-winning composer Jon Brion has supplied the soundtrack to both Eternal Sunshine… (which also made bittersweet use of the upbeat ‘Mr Blue Sky’, 1977, by Electric Light Orchestra) and Synecdoche, New York; his slow, mournful jazz ballad ‘Song for Caden’ shuffles through much of the film’s second half, juxtaposing melancholy torch-song intimacy against the surreal vistas of Cotard’s theatre set, a heartstring-tugging combination that helps maintain a constant sense of the romantic tragedy of Cotard’s epic but heroic failure as artist, father and husband. (This romanticism is further emphasized by the architecture of his warehouse set, which is that of a notably idealized NYC: brownstones, old warehouses and chicly decrepit apartments. This is the New York of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, 1977, or Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001, the kind of fictionalized New York analyzed here in frieze by Steven Stern).
A number of commentators have remarked upon the bizarre similarity between Synecdoche, New York and writer and artist Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder, in which a man receives a vast insurance payout after a freak accident (the equivalent of Cotard’s MacArthur Fellowship windfall), and with the money creates a huge theatrical set in south London where he employs actors and technicians to perpetually reconstruct and re-enact half-remembered vignettes from his life. Kaufman denies having read or even heard of Remainder whilst writing his film, and it’s not for me to say what grist the similarities between the novel and the movie might or might not provide McCarthy for his long-standing interests in repetition, duplication, authenticity and fakery. However, that two works of art so invested in ideas of reconstruction and simulacra should themselves turn out so close to each other is almost too neat to be true. What Synecdoche, New York certainly reminded me of was Alain Resnais’ astonishing 1977 film Providence, (pictured above) in which a dying writer, played by John Gielgud, struggles with both his haemorroids and the plot of his final novel. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that his nocturnal mutterings and cursings are directly linked to the strange, emotionally cold scenarios being played out by Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn and David Warner against the backdrop of an un-remarked-upon terrorist war, in a non-specific European city (one minute it could be Vienna, the next, London) and all with the help of heroic quantities of chilled white wine. (If you’ve ever tried to play the Withnail and I drinking game, in which viewers match the on-screen characters drink-for-drink, then, I am reliably informed, you’ll probably also enjoy Providence.) Aside from the central ideas of paternalism, creative control and personal determinism explored in Providence – Bogarde, Burstyn and Warner turn out to be Gielgud’s children as well as his creative muses – Synecdoche, New York also borrows from Providence the idea of events played out amidst un-remarked-upon social turmoil (Alan Rudolph’s 1985 film Trouble in Mind also uses a similarly unexplained martial law situation as a backdrop to its plot.). As Cotard and his cast spend year-upon-year immersed in their vast recreation of New York, bomb explosions start to be heard in the background and troops begin to fill the ‘real’ New York streets outside the warehouse, as if to emphasize not only the enormous length of time Cotard spends developing his play (at one point an extra laments ‘When are we going to get an audience in here? It’s been 17 years…’), but also his self-absorption: society descends into violent conflict outside, whilst the artist ascends further up the backside of endless self-analysis, his giant theatre set essentially becoming one big therapy session.
Unfortunately, Cotard’s endless self-analysis is just what prevents Synecdoche, New York from ever achieving much beyond a rather pedestrian level of faux-profundity. Early in the film, as we watch his marriage fall apart, and his health deteriorate, Cotard’s abject self-pity is balanced against amusingly disinterested and disdainful hospital specialists, or the shameless money-spinning of his sexually unhinged therapist. Although Kaufman does not go for out-and-out laughs in the same way he did with his screenplays for Being John Malkovitch (1999) and Adaptation (2002), there are some nice moments of levity, one of my favourites being the hilariously pretentious attempt, by his ex-wife’s American lover, at affecting a German accent after they move to Europe to become the toast of Berlin’s art scene. Over the final third of the film, however, as Cotard is surrounded by people eager to please and take part in his life-imitating-life project, Kaufman lets the dramatic tension go slack, leaving the visually impressive set to shore up trite ruminations on self-determination such as ‘There are millions of people in this world … and none of them are extras. They are all leads in their own story.’ The more interesting possibilities offered up by the script – such as the moments when actors start interacting with the actual characters they are supposed to be playing – are passed over in favour of too many repetitious scenes of Cotard agonizing over his personal and creative neuroses, ultimately rendering him a distinctly unsympathetic, cartoonishly tortured character. As a study of creative narcissism, it works all too well – each character is entirely wrapped up in themselves, unable to communicate with those around them, trapped in prisons of over-privileged self-regard. You sense that if you were to have a conversation with Cotard, he’d be the kind of artist who would never ask you any questions about yourself.
The subject of artistic hubris is certainly interesting, as is the idea of a life that begins to imitate art. However, if Kaufman has missed a trick with Synecdoche, New York, it is in tying these threads into a reflection on the mechanisms of spectacle. The film, for instance, glosses over Cotard’s desire to make a huge theatre piece that shows ‘the truth’, and the implicit assumption that a great work of art necessarily needs to be on a grand scale. It misses the chance to use Cotard’s play as a means to look at how such contemporary phenomena as television talent shows, celebrity gossip magazines or behind-the-scenes documentaries create a false sense of media transparency, whilst simultaneously setting up a false sense of accessibility and ‘you too can be famous’, individualist entitlement. Instead, Kaufman remains too much in thrall to Cotard’s old-fashioned auteur perspective, and as such gets stuck paddling around some rather wanly existential ideas about responsibility and destiny. In Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s undeniably fertile imagination seems to be adrift, like cars floating from balloons, or thousands of balls bouncing wildy down the street.