A Buddhist Synecdoche?/Kaufman and the Woman Issue

June 14, 2009


burning house

Did you leave the oven on?


It’s been around 5weeks since I saw Synecdoche, New York. There’s really nothing I could say to top Matt’s review back in February after the Glasgow film festival viewing. To put this movie into words is difficult enough in itself. Where to begin? Where to end? It’s like The Waste Land of film. And like Eliot’s poem it begs to be deliberated, to be dissected; as something which simply eludes any kind of monolithic interpretation.

I’ve had no intention of reviewing Synecdoche, I simply haven’t been able to put it fully to the back of my mind (which is impressive as that’s where most things in my mind go.) I’m intrigued by the idea of a Buddhist reading of Synecdoche. There’s a wealth of thematic material and motif throughout the movie which lends itself to this interpretation; most noticeably Hazel’s house which remains continuously ablaze throughout the film, calling to mind the Lotus Sutra’s burning house parable. Buddha relates the story in his final sutra as a means of comparison with humanity living in a state of delusion.  The story goes as thus: A father watches whilst his children play within a burning house. Though he calls countless times over for the children to get out, they are so busy playing with their toys, they do not heed him. In the end, the father must use expedient means, bribing the children, to get them out the house. The crux of the story of course, is that we’re all the complacent, distracted children, born into a ‘burning house’ and stuck in a hamster wheel scenario perpetuated by worldly desires, delusion and attachment. It’s one of the few obvious metaphors I felt could explain Kaufman’s ideology behind the life-long fire In Hazel’s house. A fire which burns non-stop, unnoticed, unheeded by anyone. The fire itself doesn’t kill Hazel, not directly, though it’s the smoke-inhalation which finally takes its toll in older age. She has however, lived a full life by this time. Therefore it’s clear the burning house is purely symbolic, and killing Hazel was never it’s purpose, but rather it’s indicative that the lead characters live to experience and witness birth, death, old age and sickness, the four indisputable truths of life according to buddhist belief.

The buddhist metaphor extends as Caden’s desperate quest is to reflect truth in his theatre piece, yet he chooses to recreate like a mirror image his own world which in itself is a delusion, thus creating constructs within constructs. And while he may understand the reality of existence as innately a state of suffering, he flinches in the face of this truth. Caden is a hyperbolised paradigm of Western society who, on the whole, has a fairly unhealthy relationship with the concept of death. As Caden later points out; “We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t”  This is the falsehood of imagining one’s life as anything but transient.

 As Caden’s own journey draws closer to an end his own sense of self, his ego attachment, disintegrates as he learns “the specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone,” mirroring the Buddhist concept of anatman or ‘no self’.  As Caden becomes ‘everyone’ he is like the individual wave, returning to the ocean, just part of the process of something far bigger. Caden creates a theatrical simulacrum of his own life in the attempt to say something brutally honest, something powerful and true, but ultimately that simulacrum is not just a mirror of his own existence, but a synecdoche of life’s truth itself.

Some other lingering thoughts I’ve had on Synecdoche are regarding gender and in particular the role of the female in the film. There’s a lot of discussion surrounding shifting gender identities in Synecdoche– and indeed in some of Kaufman’s other works- most obviously Being John Malkovich. Caden who is deeply sensitive and emotional, is somewhat emasculated by the strong and influential women surrounding him (even given that they all want to bed him) During sex, he weeps. He is told he ‘smells like he’s menstruating’ and latterly in the film he bestows his directorial authorities upon bit-part actress Millicent and throws himself into playing her role of Ellen, the cleaning lady. The character of Craig in BJM has a less progressional transition but rather, becomes ‘trapped’ inside the vessel body of Maxine’s daughter Emily. Both in one way or another, are rendered female.

Both characters are left by women, and replaced by women (Craig by Lotte for Maxine and later by Maxine for Lotte. Caden by Adele, who replaces him with Maria as second parent to their daughter) I love this kind of deconstruction of essentialism in Kaufman’s work. But pondering over Synecdoche is also the first time I’ve really come to question Kaufman’s positioning of women. Human Nature I’ve never seen and Adaptation some years ago with poor sound quality, so I can’t really comment on either. However, in Synecdoche, BJM and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there’s something similar going on. Take one male protagonist: the bookish, artistic kind with a penchant for casual knitwear and a dispositioning toward disillusionment and the melodramatic. Take a female, at least one, designed to cause said protagonist emotional turmoil. This will be effected by means of her callous behaviour toward male. So in Synecdoche we have Adele who, after barely registering her husband’s progressing state of ill health, leaves with their daughter for Berlin. In BJM there’s Maxine (Catherine Keener steps up to the mark again) the office femme fatale who spurns the advances of an obsessed Craig; that is, until he has the power to channel himself through the body of John Malkovich. She then however falls in love with Lotte, Craig’s wife. And there’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine, ready to turn quiet, sensible Joel’s life upside down with her erratic lifestyle and emotional immaturity.

All in all not the greatest examples for womankind. What’s obvious is that the women in Kaufman’s writing tend to be strong, feisty and dominant in relation to the male protagonists who are weak and passive in comparison. And while there’s nothing wrong with this per se, I do find myself intrigued by the consistent dynamic. Caden has women fawning over him left right and centre. He has two daughters. Men play only a peripheral role until the entrance of Sammy, the actor playing Caden in the play. But Sammy kills himself, essentially erasing this final male presence and persona of Caden. Living out his days as Ellen, directed in his every move and thought through an earpiece by Millicent, Caden has become in the literal sense governed in every way by women. For BJM’s Craig this means being trapped inside the body of a girl with two female parents in Maxine and Lotte. So what does this mean exactly? Well it could all be perfect coincidence. Or it could be that Kaufman has something to say about women. Just what that is I’m unsure. Is it an expression of what Kaufman sees as the threat of female manipulation and control? Or is this conversely, an attempt to invert the phallogocentric? With the deconstruction of any unified meaning in Synecdoche and the disruption of an essentialist identity, is Kaufman consciously dislodging what Irigaray might call a ‘masculine’ language?  If metaphor is patent and metonymy is latent, can ‘synecdoche’ ; while interpretable in so many ways; be also that metonymy Irigaray associates specifically with the feminine?

 Perhaps I’m clutching at straws, perhaps there’s real substance in that line of thought, but it’s really not the kind of theorising a blog post’s going to cover. What I do believe is that in Synecdoche, Kaufman has created something over which people will talk for a very long time and the endless possibilities for interpretation are truly exciting.


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