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Most films are instantly forgotten. I don’t mean this in the gently figurative sense—that most films are not remembered. I mean that most films, in their onrush of vague and barely chosen or badly chosen pictures trying to tell a story, are forgotten frame by frame as we watch them. Like so much of what we see through our inner cameras—tree #241 of the day; red light, green light; mustache, mustache—the brain edits ceaselessly and discriminatingly, ridding the inner tape of any particular trace of most of these repetitions. And when the repetitions come in film—car chase; love scene; mustache—the only means by which the flailing filmmaker can manage to make an impression is through enlargement: bigger car chase, bigger (or longer, or uncut) love scene; and of course, bigger mustache.
The other night I saw the newish film Synecdoche, New York. It was instantly memorable, more so than any other movie I’ve seen of late. This is saying something different from “it was worth remembering.” The organizing intelligence behind the writing and filming, Charlie Kaufman, is conspicuous and real. That isn’t surprising, considering the fineness of some of the films to which he has contributed. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation were both scrupulously and vividly coherent, meaning they were held together by a great attentiveness to metaphor—a literalizing of metaphor. We all sometimes want to forget the painful parts of our pasts, feel they can stand in the way of our presents, thus Kaufman created a story in which one literally does that–forgets, so that one can continue living (and, in Eternal Sunshine, loving). The creative process can present, to the inner “I” that does the work (as opposed the the bag of bones that grumbles at breakfast) the sense of such otherness as to seem like another, separate self entirely, and thus in Adaptation that figuration becomes a second figure, a literalization of that condition.
If those two films took on, in turn, the difficulty of loving and of making, the new one folds those two concerns into the larger trouble of living. Which is to say of dying. The film is more memorable than watchable. There is much for the mind to do after the movie but less for the heart to do while there. The beautiful parallels between the two creative products of the two artists at the center of the film–a painter who works very small, and a theater director who, in the hope of finally realizing his ambitions, decides to work big, enormously so–are a huge pleasure to have in one’s head after the fact.
While watching, though, I felt, and am left feeling, a grimness, not over the foreclosed natures of the people on screen, but over the aridity of the emotional climate that Kaufman otherwise imposes on an idea of being. The human here seems strangled by the uniting metaphor—that we each live in a world of our own devising that is unvisitable, uninhabitable, by others, all of whom become, in our little dioramas, projections of our wants.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”