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Synecdoche, New York, Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Sony Pictures Classics, October 24, 2008 (US)

Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, and Catherine Keener

There exists a unique protagonist central to the story of any human existence. The family and friends inherited and loved along the way comprise the remaining cast of characters, but no matter how cherished or profound their essence is to the whole, the story of a single life remains true to the core definition of one: man versus nature, the lonely abyss of life and love revealed. You come into the world as you leave it. Alone.

-from the Library of Inspiration essay, The Sheltering Sky

Not long after the writer playing me wrote those words to sum up a recurring theme of Paul Bowles, I embarked upon a journey of ideas assembled by another favorite writer of mine, Charlie Kaufman. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to be able to discuss with Kaufman (or even his understudy) how his work, like that of Bowles, consistently taps into so many of my own anxieties and fears. It is as if Kaufman’s found a way to drill right into my very own John Malkovichian head.

My house was not on fire as I watched the DVD of Synecdoche, New York, but the lines between reality and fancy blurred on queue as I listened to the following words (that, coincidentally, transported me to the heart of Sahara desert, contemplating a Paul Bowles world view all over again):

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman): There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories.

Each of us is alive and dying, protagonists adrift in our own leading roles surrounded by extras equally adrift in their own leading roles, mere blips on the radar, tics on the clock of existence. And yet, in this bizarre warp of eternity passing, we are all living the same destiny, stricken by the same malady of time: here today, gone tomorrow.

Somehow, despite the grimmest realities, life manages to remain ever bountiful, never failing to explode back into view at any given moment. A stroller rolls by and you catch a glimpse of a shooting star—a baby’s wide eyed wonder—and you contemplate mother and child alive in spring’s green bloom. From branch to branch, roof to roof, trapeze artist squirrels fly through the air with the greatest of ease. A beagle with a cancerous growth, yaps off in the distance. A railroad crossing two blocks north awaits the 5:00 o’clock express when a rush from exits will transform vacant sidewalks into that euphoric daily dance of commuter relief. Billions of variations stretch out beyond doorsteps, every moment of every second, a rushing wave of inexplicable potential, ready to alter courses forever.

Even if, as some believe, the orchestra is in fact conducted by fate, the music itself plays on as it always has, by a band comprised of individuals. The instruments from each musician give charge to the whole. A choice made today that may seem routine—changing lanes, taking a different route home, a nod to a stranger, calling in sick—may actually turn out to be the beginnings of a path that changed nothing short of, well, everything forever. Was it for the better? Worse? When all is said and done, even if the origins remain untraceable, there is no mistaking the reality that every ending is linked to a beginning.

Minister (Mark Lotito): Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out.

A choice made today—to contemplate the big picture—leads to the question of questions. How did we get here? Theories are entwined by faith and a hope that this cannot be all there is. String theory? Were those strings bursting at the seams of Darwinism? For some, it is Adam and Eve and nothing else. Others still have been reincarnated on journeys seeking enlightenment. But as for the future—the future that is always now—all divergent paths and theories in the world cannot change the ultimate course: a millions times over, birth to death, birth to death. Death. That is, if it all isn’t just a Carlos Castaneda dream and our earthly existence is even approaching the vicinity of reality as we know it at all.

The real reason my house was not on fire as I watched the Charlie Kaufman film today was because, in all honesty, it had been torn down years prior, long after the foreclosure notice played end period on my sentence there. I was dead or dreaming when I saw the film but somehow that didn’t stop it from jarring me into thoughts of my surroundings with all those grainy shades of gray. One day, the actor-turned-writer/director playing you wakes up and realizes he can’t keep banging his/your head against an unflinching, unrealistic wall of black and white forever, at least not without it resulting in a rather nasty concussion, and so the shades of gray are born and you begin to appreciate the beauty that lives inside the resulting blur. And who is better than Charlie Kaufman to serve as tour guide here, examining the nuances of the blur, from art to reality to memories to existence to life to…?

It seemed surreal to be thinking about all of this now, here in the six feet under darkness. But as I considered what was even strange about that, I decided there was really nothing strange about it at all.

Not even the silence.