SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
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:
Conversation — October 2, 2015, 8:26 am
“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”
Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.
Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.
Average duration of a Japanese prime minister’s tenure since August 1993, in months:
Brain shrinkage has no effect on cognition.
An Indianapolis fertility doctor was accused of using his own sperm to artificially inseminate patients, and a Delaware man pleaded guilty to fatally stabbing his former psychiatrist.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”