Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Synecdoche, New York and Shakespeare

Shakespeare would love Synecdoche, New York. He wrote about the kind of big issues that Charlie Kaufman has been grappling with in his latest movie - finding meaning in a meaningless universe, the desire against all odds to be the author of our life, how art can never deliver the real thing, Time's bewildering effect on experience and memory, and... I could go on.

The film centres on a theatre director, Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who builds a replica of New York City inside a giant warehouse. He wants to direct his own life, and imagines that by creating this artifice, God-like, he can direct life itself.

This reminds me of Shakespeare's artist-magician, Prospero in The Tempest who came to realise that art can never be a substitute for life.

The movie's title reflects the major themes of art and truth. 'Synecdoche' is a figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole or the whole for a part.

Caden's replica of New York City re-presents the real New York City - a part for the whole, but not even a real part of the whole. The 'synecdoche' here shows art as a doubly inadequate substitution for life. Caden's imitation may be life-sized, but it's not life, only a constructed artifice, a mere simulacrum of a real thing.

Kaufman's film has sent me back to the first book I wrote about Shakespeare that looked at the dramatist's obsession with exposing art's sterility. He's always questioning whether art can ever do more than offer artifice. Imitate life, and it becomes lifeless. How can the artist or writer accommodate the flesh-and-bloodness of human existence, organic process, mutability and time?

Kaufman seems to me to share some of Shakespeare's preoccupations with the relationships between art and truth, identity and memory, loss and desire. And there's something else about Synecdoche, New York that makes me think about Shakespeare.

Kaufman quite often seems to manage to pull off one of the toughest challenges for any creative writer. He can give intellectual ideas an emotional resonance. He strives to avoid the movie cliches of characters' feelings. He knows if you're going to tackle the profound questions in a drama you have to give your characters emotional depth to make your audience ask them too.

Kaufman may not be up there with Shakespeare - who can ever be? - but I'm certainly grateful for a screenwriter who gets me thinking when I leave the cinema.

I've just put up two clips from Synecdoche, New York in a short piece about it on my site for ground-breaking screenwriters.


Jill Dearman said...

I can't wait to see it! I just wrote about the long process of making good art on my blog (on Eric's site too), and Kaufman is a great example of an artist who takes his time -- and it's time well-spent. thanks for this!

Dr Pauline Kiernan said...

Thanks for this Jill. I'll look up your post.
I'm getting more and more interested in what fires Kaufman's imagination.
I keep going back to my Shakespeare's Theory of Drama because there seem to be quite a few parallels between the issues about truth and art that Shakespeare was constantly exploring and what Kaufman seems to be interested in.
Looking forward to reading your post about making good art.