I’m having a small existential crisis. That started with a lamp.
My son, almost 4, decided to lead my salt-rock lamp around the hard-brick floor on it’s cord like a puppy dog. And was unpleasantly surprised when the electrical cord snapped, thereby rendering my lamp useless. A gift from my youngest sister – this lamp actually meant something to me, so to see it snapped on the floor, in a pile of rubble and detritus, made me feel intensely angry. I had been making dinner, for fuck’s sake, my few minutes of non-interuption rudely thwarted at the conclusion of children’s meals placed upon a table. I had a bit of a shit fit (the type that turns you into a red-faced banshee madwoman) and started screaming blue murder and ran out of the house slamming the back door in a hissy. And I eventually found a quiet spot where I sat by myself for 2 hours to calm down. Hoping their father would handle it better than he handled me (which was to hiss at me ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing, it’s only a shitty lamp, shut-the-fuck-up!”) And so on and so forth…
I probably have to give you some background. My sister is 15 years younger than me, and as luck would have it, we didn’t grow up together, in the same house nor the same area. When I was born – in 1969 – my mother was single, her boyfriend had absconded as soon as he had an inkling she was pregnant, and she hid her pregnancy right up until the day she had me. Whereby it was a total shock for her Mother and Father to discover that their daughter was indeed giving birth next to the fireplace, and perhaps not just fat, as they’d hoped. Soon after my birth my maternal grandfather carried us to hospital in a horse and cart. Yes, you read that right too. They still had a horse and cart and yes, while everyone else drove around in Holdens, Fords, Hillman Hunters etc they were still in a horse and cart… I was shipped off to a city hospital, about 200 kms or so away, and put up for adoption after my little heart murmur had subsided…
There’s a whole lot more to that background, but I’m going to nip it in the bud and fast forward 25 years. Or more. That’s when I met my biological family for the first time.
It went well.
We have slowly, gently, carefully and respectfully built up our relationships over the past 20 years (yes, I am now 45 and it is almost to the day the 20th anniversary since I met my older brother and 3 younger sisters for the first time. Yes, you read that right too. My bio-mother had given birth at just-turned 15 to a boy and her parents had tried to pretend he was theirs, and when I came when she was just 21 – well, too much. But I digress, it went well. She’s a lovely lady who keeps to herself mostly, and doesn’t like to cause trouble.
I kept somewhat of a distance over the years because I didn’t want to over-ingratiate myself on my new/old family AND I didn’t want to piss off my existing family because – YES I was lucky enough to grow up with a Mum, Dad and younger brother after all. They were the only family I had known since i was 4 months old. As fucked up as we are, and that’s pretty twisted sometimes (Christmasses were always shit by the end of the day)…
Anyway, fast forward to my age of 45 and my youngest sister got married and it was great. My gift to her was 65 jars of mixed condiments, relish, marmalade, jams and jellies – which she used as ‘name-plates’ on the tables so people would know where to sit. And have a special, home-made gift to take with them. As the wedding guests got progressively drunker there was an all-out battle to secure a jar of relish. Somebody even offered sexual services for a jar of relish. If only I’d been better prepared…
Anyway, to thank me my sister gave me a petite salt lamp that changed colours (rainbow reds, blues, greens) and I loved it. I’d always wanted a salt lamp, and now I had one, made all the more special because my sister gave it to me. But after the destruction of it, David’s insistence that it’s just a ‘cheap piece of shit’ and my beautiful son’s almost genuine ‘sorry’, I was still stewing inside about losing it.
My sister and I had only shared gifts when we first met, and she’d hand-made cards and I never really bonded with her until this year. Partly age difference and my fear of ‘getting too-involved’ meant I kept a respectful distance, maybe too far of a distance, so it took us a long time until we ‘clicked’. Her marriage made that happen, sort of, finally. So this lamp was infinitely special to me, and close to my heart.
Anyway. So today I take my children to a birthday party and they had a great time. The 3 of us did. And we went shopping, and kept a look-out for kangaroos as we were coming home (one day I will explain the horror of road-kill, but not now). And so, quick fast forward to me sitting on the couch at 8:45pm alone again on a Saturday night and back to boiling point about my fucking useless piece of salt rock now the fucking bits have been ripped out of it…
What to do….
Put on a Charlie Kaufman movie.
Synecdoche, New York.
So much emotion and personal carnage wrapped up in one movie that sums up my life in 2 hours, and everyone’s life, and then no-one’s life because it’s all fiction and so way-out as to be the biggest falsehood ever and existentially so meaningful as to exist as the truest expression of loneliness, loss, longing and the willingness to find meaning in existence as I have ever witnessed in just one film. And then I’m eternally grateful to Charlie Kaufmann and infuriated at the same time because I think ‘why did I have to buy this and watch this now?’ ‘Why did he have to make such a painful face-slap that is also the biggest kindness one can bestow?’ ‘Why?’
‘Why didn’t I just watch ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ and just be done with it?’…………..
I watch the burning house and think that house ‘was always going to burn to the ground’ because that’s the stupid thing that people say when houses burn, because there must have been something wrong for a long time to make it burn so. But it burns for the whole film. She (Caden’s flirtation, girlfriend, confidante) buys the house burning, it etches a blackness in her lungs that ultimately means her demise, all the scenes in the burning house leave you wanting fresh air, it really is that dense and consuming.
And Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as Caden Cotard, ageing disgracefully and losing so much, his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) suggesting that we are all ultimately disappointed by people – and I agree – because ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ and i think of what I am doing to compromise my relationships with my children and I am scared. I am breathless. She leaves him, taking their child with her, and before he knows it, Caden’s daughter is 11 and tattooed and engaging in sexual expression with Maria, her mother’s friend, and then, she’s 17 and she’s more tattooed, distant images of her flash across in miniature paintings. He doesn’t see her, he can’t find her, she is completely disembodied, as his ex-wife’s ‘friend’ blocks the way to his daughter. He reads about his little girl’s life in her lost diary, so there’s even a brief similarity to a Harry Potter book I read a few months ago – a diary with links to another person, from another place and time… BUT, in Harry Potter the book is not actually a diary, it is a vortex, it is a means of communicating between a Tom Riddle and an innocent in order to manipulate an outcome. In Synecdoche the pink diary is all Caden has of his growing daughter. No person, just the crudest insight into her most personal thoughts. Which he has no right to read. He learns about her this way, in brief and sharp notes until her tattoos kill her, and as an ageing woman finally, as the flowers on her arm die, they take her too and she sees her father for the first time since she was 4 years-old and forces her father to ask for her forgiveness, and acknowledge his own homosexuality, which he does (and it’s a lie) and she refuses to forgive him and she dies. This is made more painful by their wearing of head-pieces to translate their communication because his daughter now knows German before English, she needs his words translated into a familiar tongue and that is no longer his language.
And all the while he has remarried a woman (Michelle Williams) who starts out optimistic and ends up pessimistic, tarnished and grey by age and disappointment, complaining about the actor that Caden has hired to play him, who touches her inappropriately. They have a daughter he constantly calls by his first daughter’s name, only to pang a damaged heart again and again. She is again 2 dimensional. We see her, we don’t understand her, we don’t know her. I don’t think we even hear her speak. The opposite of his first daughter who we don’t see, we just read in words, briefly scribbled down a page. The forbidden diary. Taboo revealed.
I had trouble remembering to breath….
Then the psychologist whose feet are choking and bruised from the tight straps of her too-tight shoes flirts with him, and shows him her leg, always pointing to one of her self-help books as if she’s some sort of Narcissist who speaks to him through the pages, just to abruptly stop. There’s no help. There’s no real life-lessons there. She has no real means of easing him out of his frequently tense situations that he continues to find himself in. It’s a falsehood. All the while his relationships progress and he has that second child (a girl) to his actress from his first big play – ‘Death of a Salesman’ where the revelatory accomplishment was him (as Director) casting young characters as old people, and the old people watching don’t understand why.
I find my breath again there as I sit on the couch, transfixed by this film that pricks the arm and the heart in ways i don’t think I’ve been hurt before and I hope this is just a once-off because it’s too graphically depicted and too surreal I feel I ‘get it’ all at once. And then I don’t get it. Because it’s just my own self-reflection eating away at me as I watch the demise of a man going from 40-to 80 (the finality of his life) that leaves me pondering my own beginnings. I know on the next screening of this movie that so much more will seep through, like steam, or imagery flashing across my mind, and I hope the shock will be blunted by this first viewing. I wonder if other people were so affected by this film.
Dianne Weist in several scenes has me completely absorbed in her face. Her forgetfulness as a cleaner of the older artist Adele’s apartment, then her gentle assertiveness as she takes over the role of Caden Cotard, Director of this ultimate play that has graduated before the viewer’s eyes to a whole block complete with designers and builders accomplished in altering the theatrical landscape to complete this picture.
I loved it. I hated it. The love scenes were awkward. Emily Mortimer was beautiful and then not, in her brief and abrupt coerciveness of Caden towards the end, and then I remember my own awkwardness and I think this Charlie Kaufmann is an evil genius, I love his movies. They are uncomfortable as they are enlightening. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich are two of my all-time favourites and the idea that we are the main players in our own movies reminds me not to hide so much, and remember to live and remember that longing, loneliness and isolation are a part of it. To find some meaning or sense of belonging is something we all need, in a sense. Love is something we search for outside all of us and it exists inside and yet…
imperfectly. Every single time.
Nothing is as you think it might be. We are the main players in our story. Even when we are the bit players.
The warehouse that constantly develops with the script, that grows in structures more menacing and becomes a city within a block. It becomes decrepit. It follows the script. It changes, it develops, it stays the same in parts. People die, people live. They love and hate, they become absent and leave things. They die in the street. They stay in the same place and leave nothing. We don’t really live like that.
Or do we?
Rest in peace Phillip Seymour Hoffman. You were great. You are sorely missed. You moved me beyond myself and within myself. It was a spectacle, a small revelation, a thing. Charlie Kauffman chose wisely.
This movie jumps in my mind like a disjointed memory of weird events in childhood… even though it is played out in age-sequence of Caden Cotard’s life, it jumps around in my head like my own memories do.
I see my own face reflected in my daughter’s photos and my tears in my son’s eyes and i hope my life doesn’t evolve into a Charlie Kauffman film. I don’t want to be the saddest bit player in the background. I want to be loved and loving and remembered lovingly by them.