March 30, 2009

The self-critical warning

Is this fantastic or is this terrible? I remember asking myself that as I watched Adaptation for the first time five or six years ago, and I asked myself the same thing in the early stages of Synecdoche, New York: is this fantastic or is this terrible? Again, fantastic won out. What is it about these two Charlie Kaufman films -- the earliest written by him, the second both written and directed -- and this question? It might be to do with their uncomfortably personal nature, their plumbing of both mind and body, but I'm not sure. In any event, this new one might be the ultimate Kaufman film, one that you could read as a self-critical warning about the dangers of self-absorption (even if self-criticism is still self-absorption), with self-absorption as the dominant trait of Kaufman characters from Being John Malkovich to Adaptation to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Synecdoche, New York, with the writer impersonated along the way by John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey and now Philip Seymour Hoffman. His neurosis keeps getting star billing, expanding this time from an extreme, morbid hypochrondia -- familiar from earlier films -- to a paralysing obsession with documenting and staging his life as a theatre project so vast that it needs a replica of New York City to be built as a set, like the Borges story about a map of the world that is as big as the world, a story routinely cited in discussions of the real and the simulated (see the movie's title, obviously). The Kaufman film has always been about the terror of being oneself, of being in this skin, this head, but it's not a terror that causes him to turn away -- instead it holds his unblinking attention. Yet it's a terror laced with sharp, black humour and throwaway gags, like a Woody Allen film with serious metaphysical reach rather than just narcissistic pretensions towards it.

Directing his own material for the first time, Kaufman brings less clarity to his story than Spike Jonze (Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Sunshine) did; we don't get their clean separation between the actual and the imagined but a tangle that puts the film closer to traditional surrealism. This kind of reality/fantasy slip is in the film from the very start, when we realise that timeframes are off, that there's no way of making sense of dates in newspapers and on calendars (and which has produced this weird event around Harold Pinter, from a Freudian slip that reveals Hoffman's character's constant death obsession -- this is a guy who always turns first to the obits), but as the film goes on, we can also see its surrealism as a breakdown of reality growing out of a personal crisis. As in a dream, the actors can seem like Platonic versions of themselves: I always thought there was something sneering and dismissive about Catherine Keener, and here that's all she is. And again as in a dream, there are doubles: Kaufman casts Emily Watson as an alternate Samantha Morton, which is surely a joke designed to appeal to the many who have mistaken these actresses for each other.