Part for the Whole?

The showing of Synecdoche, New York I attended was packed. Half the audience members were people my age and older (the more ancient end of the baby boom); half, as could be expected at the Sunshine Theater on Houston St. in Manhattan, were rather too cool to admit to looking more than, say, twenty-five. All were rapt through the movie’s two hours and four minutes (about thirty-four minutes too long for the plot, I’d say). Yet, when the final word of the movie was voiced (a word predictable from early in the scene), there was a collective sigh of relief.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the movie. In fact, I like it quite a lot. But, like the life of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), it is a mess.

Such a mess, in fact, that it may actually give a message counter to what director/writer Charlie Kaufman intended.

No matter.

Even Kaufman would probably say, “No matter.”

Like the movies he’s known for having written, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, this one seems to be an exploration of the divide/bridge between life and art. It is this area between the two that Kaufman clearly stakes out as his playground—and it surely is tailor made for the creation of sandcastles, moats, mountains, and roads. Or battlefields, as My Uncle Toby constructs in Tristram Shandy.

Laurence Sterne’s novel, first published some 250 years ago, explores the intersection in more ways than continual reworking of one siege. There’s the narrator’s guilt for leaving My Father on the stair with one foot up for some fifty pages. There’s the black page after the death of Reverend Yorick (the stand-in for the author). It’s fun; it makes for one of the best novels in English, one that will survive when most of what we are reading at the moment is long forgotten.

Kaufman’s movie is fun, too. But, as I said, it’s point may not be the one Kaufman intends to make, that art and life are inextricably mixed.

No, it makes another point: Art is not life, and when we confuse the two, we do it at our peril.

Art, ultimately, is entertainment. Life is not. Art removes us from life, even if the remove is one meant simply for allowing us to observe life more accurately.

Art is a rabbit hole that we dive into metaphorically, though Kaufman would have us think that we live there, each of us. Like the professor at Barnard (I can’t recall her name) who used to point at students one by one and say, “Your life’s a novel,” Kaufman wants to imagine each of us as art.

But we aren’t. We’re people. And art, no matter how much we want it to be more, will never be but a part—a part representing the whole…

Err… wait a minute… maybe this is Kaufman’s point. Maybe he does understand that art isn’t life. Maybe that’s why he makes films and not little performance art pieces that don’t even need audiences…

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.

But then, maybe Kaufman doesn’t either. (So there!)

Maybe it doesn’t matter, in either case.

To hell with it. See the film. Perhaps it’s too long, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than most anything else out there right now. And it will be viewed for a long time. Maybe not as long as Tristram Shandy is read, but long enough.