For her first Cinema 1544 presentation, Lindsay Cameron chose to start with a pretty simple short film. Aristotle, in his Politics, considers royalty (i.e. a benevolent kingship with the interests of the people at heart) to be the best of all possible governments, while he considers tyranny (i.e. a kingship with only its own interest at heart) to be the worst of all possible governments. The short, Le Royaume, portrays a monarchy of the second sort.
Rather than dive right into it, I think that a good deal of opening remarks are in order. Synecdoche (a pun on Schenectady, where the story is partially set) is the sort of ambiguous film where people are often tempted to say that the viewer ought to interpret it as they will. So be it. But off the bat, I want to give you my interpretation, because I think there are little clues hidden throughout the film that may point in one particular direction.
The film starts by being aggressively achronological – scenes which seem to be intended to be taken as a sequence from a single morning have date clues (newspapers, TV broadcasts, etc.) which cover several months. Our main character Caden Cotard, a lowly theater director putting on a production of Death of a Salesman, is soon to be left by his wife, and again his perception of time does not square with others’. He claims that they have only been gone a few weeks when others say over a year. The film is telling us that something is terribly wrong from the start.
But later scenes may give some clue as to what it is – the therapist’s slip more than anything. When his therapist mentions a child prodigy’s suicide, Caden asks, “Why did he kill himself?”, she replies, “I don’t know, why did you?” “What?” “I said, ‘Why would you?’ ” Is Caden in fact dead the whole time? I think so. Toward the end of the film, Caden cedes the production of his magnum opus to another character, and she goes all Greek chorus on us:
Caden Cotard is a man already dead, living in a half-world between stasis and antistasis. Time is concentrated and chronology confused for him. Up until recently he has strived valiantly to make sense of his situation, but now he has turned to stone.
I don’t think this is mere metaphor. The entire film is bizarre and metaphorical itself – I think this is no additional layer but rather an explanation.
Adding to this, let’s look at our character’s name – Cotard. The Cotard Delusion is a psychiatric disorder wherein the sufferer is convinced that they are already dead. Of course, in the film Caden has no such delusion – so why the name? Why else if not a deliberate irony? Rather than having delusions of being dead, Caden Cotard has one extremely long delusion of being alive.
And that’s pretty much the film. But we can cover the plot points anyway. After his wife and daughter bail to Europe he eventually picks up with the Schenectady box office manager Hazel. Hazel isn’t exactly making a great decision here, but she does spur him on.
Her decision-making skills are brought into question in one of the films more enduring acts of hammer-on-the-head symbolism, when she purchases a house that is actually on fire. “I like it. I do! I’m – I’m just really concerned about dying in the fire,” she says to the realtor. “It’s a big decision – how one prefers to die,” the realtor responds, and she’s right. She will eventually die in this house as an old woman (of smoke inhalation!), after prophesying that “The end is built into the beginning.”
Caden and Hazel break up relatively quickly, but his fortunes take a very unexpected twist – he is granted a MacArthur Genius Award, quite a startling selection considering he’s a struggling small-town theater director. But, you know, dead and making it all up in his head so maybe not so stunning after all. So while his estranged wife becomes more and more famous for making smaller and smaller paintings, Caden decides to use his Genius Award to make the largest play ever – and languishes in obscurity.
He rents out an immense warehouse in New York’s theater district and begins to build a model city (including the warehouse, naturally) and to stage a “play” which recounts scenes from his own life. With no audience. And it runs for (at least) 17 years as the “stage” just becomes more and more complex like some synecdochal Winchester House. Basically the whole thing is just Caden trying to figure his life out.
And that life is relatively miserable. He picks up with an actress in the production while Hazel gets married and has a family – but her husband eventually leaves her and she comes running to Caden looking for a job. Meanwhile Caden has to go through the deaths of his parents and of his daughter, who had grown up to be a German stripper and was killed of blood poisoning stemming from her copious tattoos. Finally Caden reunites with Hazel immediately before her death, retires from directing to take a part in his own play, complete with in-ear cues from the new director, and before too long (and on command, no less) dies.
As I said, it’s a difficult movie. And while there is that temptation to say that you get out what you bring in, there’s more to it than that – for the simple fact that Charlie Kaufman is hands-down the best screenwriter of our era. Is that even in question? Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and now Synecdoche pretty much cement him in the pantheon. Can anybody in the last 20 years claim even remotely such a list of innovative and creative scripts? Krzysztof Kieslowski maybe? Tom Tykwer is back in the distance somewhere, worthy of mention but not on the same level. Even Tom Stoppard’s resume (Brazil, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Shakespeare in Love, an uncredited Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) doesn’t really measure up. The Coen brothers do their own screenplays. That’s the answer. They are the only writers I can think of that measure up.
I mean, take this:
Dear diary, I’m afraid I’m gravely ill. It is perhaps times like these that one reflects on things past. An article of clothing from when I was young. A green jacket. I walk with my father. A game we once played. Pretend we’re faeries. I’m a girl faerie. My name is Laura Lee. And you’re a boy faerie. Your name is Tita Lee. Pretend, when we’re faeries we fight each other, and I say “Stop hitting me I’ll die!” And you hit me again and I say, “Now I have to die.” And then you say, “But I’ll miss you.” And I say, “But I have to. And you’ll have to wait a million years to see me again. And I’ll be put in a box, and all I’ll need is a tiny glass of water and lots of tiny pieces of pizza and the box will have wings like an airplane.” And you’ll ask, “Where will it take you?” “Home.” I say.
I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. 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.
And convince me that this movie is just obscure. It’s not. It’s profound depth wrapped in obscurity, and that’s different.