email 12 Nov 2008
Most of the time, a character moves through a story as a single person, changed from the beginning of the story to the end only by the experiences he endures. But there is another type of story being told in recent years in which a player merges into or takes the place of another. Identities can be mixed, renewed or transposed, with possibly a simple, singular flip, or, as is the trend in the films I write of today, with ever evolving complexity which can reach a crescendo of rotating parts, a constant folding of one personality into or under another. The successful enterprise I liken to a soufflé, that dish wherein a light, fluffy cloud of beaten egg whites is delicately yet deftly cut into the heavy mass of the soufflé’s base over and over again until perfectly stirred into a homogeneous casserole which when baked will deliver culinary magic.
The best example I can think of where characters are juxtaposed and layered in this manner is the Lynch masterpiece Mulholland Dr. I’ve written about and discussed this film enough already (previous post). The NY Times reviewer Stephen Holden likened the character and plot development to Russian dolls, which is another way of looking at my soufflé analogy.
Last night, I saw an interesting film called Synecdoche, New York, now playing in theaters. Yes, it is a play on the town name of Schenectady, New York. And exceptionally clever, the title is indeed an analog to the whole film. This movie was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Being John Malkovich, which also fits in this genre of identity-shifting, even gender-shifting films. However, Synecdoche is hardly the masterpiece that is Being John Malkovich.
The film involves a play director named Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Academy-award winner for Best Actor, Capote) who begins to see his rather sad life reflected in the events unfolding around him. To fully realize this (I’d say revelation, but there is certainly never any light bulb going off above his head), he devises a play on a monstrous scale in which his life is re-created. The film is worth seeing, so I don’t want to give too much more away. I recommend seeing a trailer and/or reading a review. But it does escalate into the biggest soufflé attempted on screen, that I’ve witnessed anyway. Definitely replete with Russian dolls. This is a compelling film with an outstanding cast including Catherine Keener, Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest to name a few – really quite an all-star showing.
The problem I found was that even with the constant folding of one character down under another, the constant rotation became the plot, and what actual journey our man was making, what actual story was unfolding — ah-hah! — that’s the problem, perhaps — the story could not unfold because it kept being folded into itself — so what actual story was there, which was not terribly great to begin with — became lost in the film’s own heavy, rotating morass.
I still give this film a marginal thumbs up, conditional on the idea that you think you would want to see such a spectacle. Because it is indeed a spectacle, and stands at the least on that merit. It reminds me of another not-entirely successful film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – co-written by, you guessed it, Charlie Kaufman. This one involves a couple (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, both excellent) who, to quote IMDb, “undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour, but it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.”
I probably should give Sunshine another chance one of these days – something draws me to see it again. It does not get into any long sequences of transposed identities, but does deal with those themes. I am neither recommending it nor dis-recommending it now; look at a synopsis and/or preview to decide for yourself it is your cup of tea. It is well made from a technical/artistic point of view, as are all of these films. The only flaw in any of them is a failure to deliver strong plot elements, or at times enough empathy with the protagonists.
Going back to Synecdoche, I wanted to add that perhaps its failure is that it attempts to glorify a rather ordinary, miserable yet lovable person by way of a sort of grand symphony to his life. I think that stories can be successful in that endeavor, where an ordinary person, an ordinary life can be found to do extraordinary, incredible, brilliant or wonderful things. The sort of miracles in Synecdoche never to me seemed to materialize in that special way, and instead, as I said, the whirling top of Caden’s psychosis collapses under its own weight. I suppose that all I’ve thought about this one, and the effort I am putting forth writing about it, amount to more of a recommendation than my words to the contrary. So, again, a unique film, a grand vision, and if you’ve had it with comic-book tales and want something more to chew on, Synecdoche might work well for you.
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There are more films of this genre. Lynch’s follow up of sorts to Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire, is about a woman who experiences an evolution of characters. Inland Empire is a very great film, but also weightily flawed. I recommend it, but watch a preview or read a review or two first. Then be prepared to watch the entire 3 hour film, and to do it correctly, the 2nd disc as well – another nearly 3 hours of various features including Lynch cooking quinoa while smoking a cigarette (I hope he can shake this habit, for if not he will surely lead to a quick end.). You can make a weekend of it!
And of course the aforementioned Being John Malkovich, an absolutely ingenious creation. And Mulholland Dr., which emerges with such joyful spirit – the perfectly prepared soufflé.
It seems that when I was thinking at lunch time of the films I was going to write about tonight, there was at least one or two more that I am now leaving out. I know that Lynch explored the concept in earlier projects — something of a theme of his. The beautiful “Twin Peaks” (TV series) has these shape-shifting elements, as does Eraserhead. When I remember what I must now be forgetting, I’ll write about that too.