Synecdoche, New York — Idle Fancies, Vain Imaginings, and Longing

Film:

Synecdoche, New York, 2008

Staring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

After his painter wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes their daughter to Berlin, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stages an autobiographical play in a massive New York City warehouse amid a life-size replica of Manhattan. Meanwhile, Caden must contend with the many women in his life — including a box-office worker, an actress and a shrink — in this beguiling directorial debut from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

My Thoughts:

This movie has been in the recommended queue for over a year and I am finally getting to it.  I apologize for the delay, it’s been a crazy year, and I know it’s the type of film that requires due process.  It’s the type of film that makes you think, and makes you feel.  But not comfortable feelings.  Incredibly frustratingly uncomfortable, painful feelings.  I like films like this, that force you to wrestle with this side of life but I do not enjoy films like this.  Let me elucidate that paradox a little.

Film is a medium, and as such it is not always used for entertainment and pleasure, even if that is the predominant trend.  Film can be used as a tool for communication, for meditation, or exploration.  I love it when movies use all the power film has to offer as an art form by working the visuals, and pushing the boundaries to actually show you something rather than tell you.  This movie does that.  However what it shows is frankly unpleasant.  It does it really well, but it’s painful. It helps you to experience the pain and suffering of the main character by getting so lost in him, and his meta existence so as to trick you into feeling that (if you are highly empathetic like myself).  If you like films like Lost in Translation or Magnolia then you will like this movie, but it’s even more extreme.   Ok, with that lengthy introduction let me actually get to the content of the film.

The film begins like a typical independent film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He’s made a lot of them and if you’ve seen even one you have a feel for it.  As it opens, it’s gritty and has that look to it.  I think Kaufman wants to trick the audience into complacency because as it goes on characters start breaking unwritten rules.  They do not react how you expect them to, they do not react in the way society dictates is normal.

What is clear from the beginning is that Caden Cotard is lonely, unhappy, and ill, and throughout the film this state increases. Nobody can help him, even when he asks for it.  His family abandons him.  His doctors shuffle him around not solving the problem.  His therapist just tries to sell him books.

What oppression is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?  – Bahá’u’lláh

Cotard has no clue, and so he pours himself into his art.  Art can be a wonderful thing.  It can uplift the soul.  It can increase knowledge.  But what Cotard does is essentially use his art for his ego.  He wins this prestigious MacArthur genius grant right when his life is falling apart and thinks it can redeem him.  Instead his play becomes him playing God and recreating his life over and over again, getting deeper and deeper into himself and his neuroses and it doesn’t work.  He finds no solace.  He finds no audience.  He finds no answers.

Cast away, O people, the things ye have composed with the pen of your idle fancies and vain imaginings … Idle fancies have debarred men from the Horizon of Certitude, and vain imaginings withheld them from the Choice Sealed Wine. – Bahá’u’lláh

Instead decades go by, he ages as he suffers and as his relationships disintegrate more and more due to his inability to view the world outside of himself and outside of his pain.  He becomes completely self centered.  There is a glimmer of hope near the end when he and Hazel finally work out there issues, and she states what may seem like a throw away line, but I think reaches at the heart of the matter about how it was the first time she’d seen him think about someone other than himself.

And finally the true ending when he is too tired of all his directing and decides to play another role, to step into another person’s life.  It is here that he can see that another has pain, another disappointment, and he can finally find comfort in feeling for another, rather than himself.

Millicent Weems: What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this.
– From the film

And I think this is why I had such a problem with the film, why it did not sit well with me, and that’s because this is a half truth.  It reaches the culmination of understanding that we are all connected, that we are all unified and we need to get over the ego of self, but it only focuses on the negative, on the disintegration.  This is everyone’s experience, but not everyone’s complete experience and because of this it is bleak.

Where is joy? Where is beauty? Where is love? Where is God?  The word was only first mentioned an hour into the film in passing, and then indirectly and derogatorily by Hazel “We send the kids to Christian school.  It’s Derek’s idea, I don’t believe in that stuff”, and then in the end at a funeral when a priest preaches pretty much the exact opposite message that a cleric would.  This is a world without God, without religion (in the true sense of the word), and it shows.  It shows in all the social dysfunction and ill portrayed in the film.  People are amoral.  They abandon each other.  They use one another.  They cause each other suffering. If this is everyone’s experience than what are we all doing wrong for it to be this horrid?

Some people argue that this is the world as it is, and on some level they are right.  People have abandoned the teachings of the great faiths, have stopped fearing God, stopped loving God, and stopped following God and in doing so have created even more pain and suffering.  They have corrupted many forms of religion and turned them into self-serving political machines, or an isolationist club, in the image of themselves instead of God’s so that even labeling oneself religious does not necessarily free you from this Kaufmanesque view of the world.

Instead if we distill the message from the major faiths it is this: Love.  Put others before yourself.  Humble yourself.  Be compassionate.  Show this love through deeds.  Love everyone, even the people you don’t like, nay, especially the people you don’t like because it’s not about you, and it’s not about your opinion. They probably need the love even more so.

We can hardly blame Cotard because he was not shown love so he could not really learn how to love.  He is constantly looking for someone to follow, but has no adequate model.  However, this is why we have the examples of Buddha, of Jesus, of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l Baha.  They show us what true selfless love can be so we can follow there model, so that the world won’t devolve into Synecdoche, New York.

synecdoche |siˈnekdəkē|
noun
a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in Cleveland won by six runs (meaning “Cleveland’s baseball team”).

-from the Apple dictionary.

In this case of this film Caden Cotard represented the whole.  Let’s change that.  Let’s make it one of these great teachers, who shows us how to love, and how to suffer with grace instead of despair.


Groundhog Day — The Day That Never Ends

Film:Groundhog Day Movie Poster

Groundhog Day, 1993

Starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

In this offbeat comedy from director Harold Ramis, self-centered TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is sent to Punxsutawney, Pa., to cover the groundhog’s annual appearance. Loathing the event, Connors unleashes his bitterness on his producer (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman (Chris Elliott). The next day, however, Connors finds he’s doomed to repeat Groundhog Day — again and again — until he learns that his actions can affect the outcome.

My Thoughts:

First I would like to thank a reader for suggesting I review this film.  I decided to wait until Groundhog Day as it is only fitting.  Groundhog Day is an American tradition, and more particularly a Pennsylvanian one at that, so I was not suprised when I looked for the movie poster to find that in French the title was translated as “Un Jour Sans Fin” loosely “The Day without end”.  I liked that title since it more aptly describes the content of the film, but I am glad this film is about and titled  Groundhog Day, since it has now become a semi-annual tradition to watch it (it is that good).

This film addresses many spiritual concepts through the amazing humor of the Bill Murray/Harold Ramis team.  Weatherman Phil Connors starts off as a bitter, frustrated man, one whom even the audience would not sympathize akin to Scrooge (another Bill Murray role interestingly enough).  He has made it known that he hates Punxsutawney and Groundhog Day and instead of holding that in, he unleases his annoyance on everyone from his coworkers to the friendly Bed and Breakfast owner.  He gets his comeuppance though, when he is doomed to relive the day over and over.

I love this settup because it is something we all frequently face.  When we are unhappy or displeased is it really fair or just to try to make everyone else around us miserable as well?  Yet sometimes we do just that.  It is not endearing.  It does not make us truly feel any better because the circumstances that influenced our mood have not changed.  Instead it makes it harder for our fellow people.  And in doing that we lose their sympathy.

Phil Connors did just that in Groundhog Day, so when he woke up to relive the day all over he was stuck with the situation as it was and had to live with it.  There was no choice.  Is that not how life is every day?

At first Phil was disbelieving, and then he was downright depressed.  He tried committing suicide a myriad of ways only to wake up again the morning of Groundhog Day.  Again, this really intrigues me because suicide is a topic so scary, sad, yet fascinating.  The World Religions council against it, but since we all do not truly know what happens after death we can never truly understand the consequences of this action.  In this film it was moot, it did not help at all.  In others, like Wristcutters which I will review in the future, the consequence was to return to a world just like ours except that the soda is always flat and people couldn’t smile.

Phil also tried stealing cars and robbing banks, but that too did not make the day go away.  Finally he set about to capture the heart of his producer Rita.  This was not an easy task considering how awfully he had treated her before.  He had to transform himself.  Again, a spiritual notion, for what is the purpose of religion if not transformation?

At first his attempts to change are superficial.  He tries to learn things about her, like her love of poetry and her favorite ice cream flavor, so that he can charm her but he still is manipulative which is not part of a noble character, which both she and God/the Fates/the Universe can see through.

It is when he began to think of others instead of himself that life began to change.  He would save a boy from falling out of a tree, and tried hard to save an old homeless man from dying.  He cultivated the talent of piano playing, and auctioned himself off for charity.  He apologized to people he had wronged. – things he never would have done the “first” Groundhog Day.

And in the end he did win the girl, and he did finally wake up on February 3rd, and throughout the process he made both his world and the world around him better.

“The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds and through commendable and seemly conduct.” ~Bahá’u’lláh

This is something we can all do.  It isn’t fiction.  It isn’t “just another movie” but an expression of something I think is much more fundamental.  We worry about World Peace, but is this not the path to it?  Each person doing their small part to improve, however meagerly, themselves and in doing so, the world around them.


Your thoughts?

Mean Girls — The Tongue is a Smoldering Fire

Film:Mean Girls Movie Poster

Mean Girls, 2004

Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, and Tina Fey

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) has just returned to the United States with her parents after growing up in Africa. Cady is a teenager, who has been home schooled her whole life. Her first day in class as the new girl will be her first encounter with the public school system. As the new girl, where will she fit in? Cady first makes friends with two geeks (Daniel Franzese and Lizzy Caplan). Then she makes friends with the most popular and beautiful girls in the school, known as `The Plastics’ (Lacey Chabert, Rachel McAdams, and Amanda Seyfried). Cady wants to fit in and now she has friends from two different worlds. To keep them as friends she must do things she has never done before, such as being deceitful, scheming, and finally untrustworthy. She discovers who her real friends are in the end. Douglas Young (the-movie-guy)

My Thoughts:

Mean Girls is a case study in the importance of trustworthiness and loyalty, as well as a warning against the ills of gossip, backbiting, and vanity.  Instead of being preachy, it approaches these topics through the lens of Teen Comedy, showing us the problems these vices can cause.  However, don’t be fooled by it’s glitzy and amusing nature, this film is tackling some heavy issues that all teens, and in fact all people have to struggle with throughout their lives.  And through “coming of age” we can gain some wisdom as to what the more important things are in our lives, but the challenge of gossip by no means ends when you walk out that door with a diploma, and the politics of high school can quickly become the politics of one’s life if left unchecked.   I think that is why the Spiritual Leaders of World, have given us councils, in order to help us navigate these tumultuous waters.  One quote that I find supremely fitting is:

“That seeker must, at all times, put his trust in God, must renounce the peoples of the earth, must detach himself from the world of dust, and cleave unto Him Who is the Lord of Lords. He must neverseek to exalt himself above any one, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vain-glory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.”  ~ Bahá’u’lláh

However you can find similar councils in the words of Jesus or Mohammed, as well as in the writings of modern spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama or Gandhi.  The point is that we all are aware how powerful words can be.  The “tongue” is a weapon, and when those words are recorded (whether on paper, or in the hearts of the people who heard them) they are hard to erase.  It is this power that may have inspired Edward Bulwer-Lytton to coin the maxim “The pen is mightier than the sword”.   This is why I find it so appropriate that in the film the cliche’s insult journal was called a “burn book” as that’s exactly what it did.  Think back to high school and I am sure that there was probably some one who said something that sticks with you today, that may still sting.   If we can take anything away from this film, it is that we should all try to be more careful before we try to “burn” someone.  It the heat of the moment it might seem like what we want to do, but it could cause a scar that lasts a life time. Instead we should all just try to be a little kinder, and a little more compassionate.

Or karma could do it’s thing, and you could be hit by a bus.