When Death of a Salesman opened in 1949 there was a newspaper cartoon of a couple leaving after the show; the husband turns to his wife and says, “I’ll get you for this!” And it’s true: people rarely have a good time watching Death of a Salesman. A play about failure and death and how very frail we all are is depressing; unless we see those qualities as essential to life. We’re unused to seeing our frayed edges and our worry as part of us. They’re meant to exist off-stage (where no-one can see). Synecdoche, New York begins with a production of Death of a Salesman. Both see beauty in our fears for our lives.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theatre director who acts like he’s dying. His wife is leaving him. He’s losing track of time. Unexplained ailments keep afflicting him. He wants to be loved and to put an end to his troubles. But his troubles have no end. They start, stop, and start again. In-between there are successes. But who has these successes if he is – at heart – sick all the time? He decides to start a giant theatre project where he will recreate his entire life on stage; hire an actor to play himself. Maybe if he could see his life from outside… No good, no change. He tries anyway. The movie celebrates his efforts, and the muddled result.
There’s a line from Death of a Salesman that I’ll bet (Synecdoche’s writer/director) Charlie Kaufman has underlined: “Attention must be finally paid to such a person.” God knows there aren’t many movie heroes like the ones Charlie Kaufman writes. Guys in movies aren’t meant to get sick, or go bald, or be bad in bed. Hollywood deals in he-men, not men who worry. But in all Kaufman’s scripts (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), besides their curlicue shape and watercolour reality, the signature touch is human frailty. His characters might come unstuck by their mistakes, but we all share their vulnerability.
Can women understand life as Kaufman sees it more easily than men? Synecdoche has such a large (and illustrious) female cast; there must be something they all see in the writing. Each woman exists (in the movie) to either comfort or humiliate Philip Seymour Hoffman. Catherine Keener is his selfish, brilliant, not-all-bad ex-wife. Samantha Morton is a coquettish object of desire. Hope Davis is a self-help Nazi. Michelle Williams is an actress who literally takes her work to bed. They’re written to try to help us understand Hoffman, but it’s in his baffled search for his daughter that shows him best. Keener takes her away from Hoffman when she’s four, and in a dramatic conceit he keeps track of her through her diary. One of the sweetest, saddest moments in Synecdoche is her last entry: “…One reflects on things past. A game we once played. Pretend we’re faeries. We fight each other and I say, “Now I have to die.” And then you say, “But I’ll miss you.” And I say, “But I have to.”
People ask of the movie: what’s real and what’s fantasy? Morton buys a house that’s permanently on fire. The petals of a rose tattoo fall off. Hoffman stages rehearsals that last for twenty years. Does it matter what’s real? If it does, then take heart: the people are real. Isn’t that the real question? When we ask what’s real, we’re really asking: will you laugh at me for caring? But Synecdoche, New York will only wrong-foot those who mistake Charlie Kaufman’s intentions.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman firsts sees his massive theatre, he says it would be good for staging King Lear. Like Lear, Synecdoche is a loving warning. It says: we’re all vulnerable. We think we know who we are and how we’ll respond in every situation, but we only know what’s gone before; anything truly new is always daunting. If it’s illness: we might panic, give in to fear, succumb. If it’s love: we might doubt the feeling, or allow doubts about ourselves to usurp love. But everyone has these fears. Take heart. You are not alone. Synecdoche, New York ends where we all end, finally. But before it ends, there’s life.