Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Speaking of movies filmed in my neighborhood (well, sort of speaking, in the sense of speaking a while ago in my last blog post, now cobwebby), tonight I went for the second time to see the movie Synecdoche, New York, which I admired all the more for being able to watch the edges of the frame, the extras who the film insists are not extras but heroes of an unimaginable performance art piece that swirls around them, centerlessness implying gleaming centers every which where. My friends and I, somewhat embarrassingly, were the only ones in the audience laughing at the movie's dark, cruel, humane jokes - everyone else seemed vaguely shell-shocked by the miserablist palette of decay and soily bodies. But I absolutely adored it.
It's a drastically swervy story, setting out to explore depression, disease and deterioration and then veering off into manic creation, existentialism as an excuse for endless recreation of the present, trying to slice greater and greater chips off the fact of the passage of time. Thus the act of reenactment becomes pretext for more reenacting, which is to say the present builds the future. The film keeps lurching forward in its timeline, starting in 2005 and then silently bypassing our actual late 2008 to graze plausibly along into furrows of the near future.
A character at one point says there is such a thing as fate, it is what is happening. So why not let it keep happening? Who should let the present get in the way of telling a story? (Screenwriting last month, my collaborator and I spent a while discussing whether to set our story in the presumably similar futures of 2009 or 2010; either way, the date will presumably be past should our script ever be filmed. But how ambitious can we reasonably be?) On the other hand, the hero of Synecdoche New York, a theater director mounting an unconventional revival of "Death of a Salesman" featuring twentysomething actors in old-person makeup -- funny-tragic, see? -- by defending his casting choice as "a decision." Because decisions are what artists do that make them artists, you know? If this is a story about loneliness begetting art as a quixotic race against impermanence, the secret problem is all about deciding: which way won't we get caught? which way won't they catch us? (who are they?) Characters undertake the most important actions for reasons they barely understand; meanwhile the actors in the movie are handed constant, obsessive notes detailing their motivation.
I was reminded of the novel "Remainder" by Tom McCarthy which I read last summer, a similar story about a person who uses an unexpected windfall of capital to recreate the past - or, more precisely, the feeling of the present as it recedes. The narrator tries to copy exactly the material of a memory which he can only recall partially and out of context. It becomes a quest to find the perfect building that can be retrofitted to resemble the memory, the actors who will resurrect the event. Yet McCarthy veers a different way, not into the painful self-consciousness of recreation but the aggression underlying this desire to control, to be creative. The narrator of Remainder turns quickly from Proustian apartments to more exciting recreations of chaos and overstimulation. He orders reenactments of gangster murders reported in the newspaper, then a crime that has never even occurred. The endless possibility for decision making becomes an excuse for a childlike id to run amok, to make present.
By contrast, Synecdoche, NY seems far more concerned (qua the title) with the metonymic juxtaposition of elements (children and their future adult selves, for instance, placed side by side in montage) than with any metaphorical work of transforming or distorting reality to be something else. The violence is all inward, and yet beyond the stage, the film suggests that the world at large is falling apart. The truth is only that how it feels right now is a feeling that is followed by another feeling that occurs at the next moment - the film turns repeated to the clock and intones "Now it is 7:43, now it is 7:44."
I wrote a poem recently called "Post Meridiem" that dealt precisely with this problem, trying to think rigorously about the nature of time intervals through the clarification of a bounded absence of, notationally, thirteen minutes. I was thinking about the waiting that takes place while events occur, impermanences but not impermanences that are galling, rather those that reassure. Don't worry, it will come back, it will leave again and come back again. It is not only loss you will face but the loss of loss and then, even so, bearing with it a new unbearable business dealing with desire, with love, with history. A short time can be no different than a long time. Time simply passing is epic, is the epic.
I hadn't made the connection at the time when I was writing this, but "Synecdoche" and the movement of waking up, 7:43 becoming 7:44, prompted me to recall my visit several years ago to Walter De Maria's Lightning Field in New Mexico. The epic art piece distributes over a huge plain in perfect geometric rows a series of pencil-shaped vertical lightning rods, jabbing out of the dry desert earth. The effect, though, is not only to discipline space, but time - walking through the array, step by step, the spires pull into alignment, forming an asterisk of intersecting corridors. Another step, then it is a phalanx of poles once more, a flowchart of obstacles. One more step, one more eclipse, one more decentering.
The secret advice given to pilgrims who visit the Lightning Field is to wake up before dawn and wander the array in the waning darkness. Despite the artwork's ominous title there is little risk of being caught the lightning that buffets the plain almost daily; the weather stabilizes at night. One must be outside, in any case, at the precise moment when the sun breaches the horizon. It is just then, for no more than a minute (now it is 7:43, now it is 7:44?) that the tapered tips of De Maria's poles catch the sunlight at the perfect angle and glow brightly, briefly. Then, the effect dissolves, the day finds its own equilibrium, for a while. This is art located not where it is alone but also when it is. It will happen again, just exactly so, after another day, twenty-four hours exactly. Give or take a minute or two.