What was once before you, an exciting and mysterious future is now behind you. Lived, understood, disappointing. You realise you are not special. You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.
Some years after the rock critic Lester Bangs passed away, his contemporary and close friend, Nick Tosches, described Bangs with great candour: “He was a romantic in the gravest, saddest, best and most ridiculous sense of that worn-out word.” In Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film, Almost Famous, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captured Tosches sentiment in his performance as Bangs, the same sentiment he built a career on for over twenty years. Forever embracing challenging roles, Hoffman transformed himself into miserable and often creepy characters. Underneath the mask of the character though, he was always able to summon the saddest and best of the romantic, allowing audiences to empathise with even the most troubled character. With the recent passing of one of the truly great actors of our time, and under the circumstances of his death, there is one performance that resonates more powerfully than ever: his role as Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York (2008).
In many ways Hoffman’s performance in Synecdoche, New York is an unusual one, most notably for the sheer amount of screen time he has in the film. Usually cast in a supporting role, Synecdoche, New York sees Hoffman in nearly every shot of the films 120 minute running time, tracing Cotard’s life from middle age to death. Even in his Oscar winning performance as Truman Capote, he never had as much screen time as he does here. Perhaps now, this is part of the film’s great allure: we will repeatedly get to see Cotard’s life played out on our screen; and in a way, we get to watch an imagined Hoffman live out the years he sadly no longer has.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one. Whoever is alone, will stay alone; will sit, read, write long letters to the evening and wander the boulevards up and down restlessly where the dry leaves are blowing.
Synecdoche, New York (2008) begins with this poem written and read on the radio by a professor of literature as we watch Hoffman’s Caden Cotard awaken slowly on the first day of autumn. Cotard is a theatre director, and as the film progresses, we come to understand him as a perfectionist. The film situates Cotard’s perfectionism in his quest to create art that truly imitates his life – a life he describes to his actors as the “murky, cowardly depths of my lonely, fucked-up being”. After finishing a restaging of ‘Death of a Salesman,’ Cotard receives a MacArthur “Genius” Grant at which point he decides to dedicate his life to creating a theatre spectacle – a “pure and truthful play”.
Synecdoche, New York, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, was critically underappreciated upon its release. It’s somewhat puzzling that Hoffman never received award recognition for his performance as Cotard. The film is positioned diegetically somewhere between a Rivette film, concerning the interplay between theatre, film and life, and John Williams’ novel, Stoner. Like Stoner’s protagonist, William Stoner, Cotard is a lonely man, perhaps more solipsistic than Stoner (Cotard has a doppelganger that follows him for twenty years), but equally alone and ill fated. Similarly, Cotard goes through life experiencing nothing but pain and grief. Anyone who begins to get close abandons him. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), takes Olive, his estranged four-year-old daughter, to Berlin with her and simply never returns. Years later, in a heartbreaking scene, Cotard confronts an unresponsive, rose-tattooed Olive as she dances naked in a glass window for money. Her mother’s friend lies to Olive, telling her that Cotard left her and Adele because he was a homosexual. Likewise, a second marriage and child to actress Claire (Michelle Williams) ends abruptly when Cotard’s play never gets an audience. And the timing never really seems right with his true love, Hazel (Samantha Morton).
Hoffman delivers an entirely physical performance as Cotard. Mixing the grotesqueness of a character like Sandy (Along Came Polly), with the warmth of a Lancaster Dodd (The Master), and throwing in the artistic and social anxiety of a Truman Capote (Capote), Hoffman plays the character of Cotard with an overwhelming delicacy, delivering one of the strangest, and most haunting performances of his career. For most of the film Hoffman wears prosthetics and makeup to show his ageing, so quite literally, underneath the mask, the bleeding loneliness of Hoffman’s Cotard seeps through.
Synecdoche, New York concerns itself with questions about the role of art in the everyday, and if art truly has the capability to save us from ourselves. Fittingly, this is perhaps the point that resonates most deeply with Hoffman’s passing. Fearing for his health, Cotard dedicates his life to creating a truthful piece of theatre. As he continually tries to perfect an art that imitates life, he employs actors to play those around him, who in turn themselves, become characters in the piece. The lines between art and life become increasingly blurred and the piece slowly consumes him. Those most dear to him disappear or die. In the final, haunting sequence of the film, Cotard realises the set has been abandoned as everyone has given up on his vision. He walks through a deserted lot, watching not leaves, but rubbish blowing in the boulevards, taking audio cues from an actor playing him in the piece. And just before receiving his final cue, Cotard comes up with an idea he thinks will finally allow him to tell his story. But it’s too late – life has silently slipped away.
Despite his many attempts, Cotard never comes up with a title for his play. Ranging from, “The Flawed Light of Love and Grief,” to “Infectious Diseases in Cattle,” he never comes up a fitting title to express his life’s work. This same conundrum now spills over to Hoffman’s career: there is no one title that can adequately express his unique oeuvre. Like Cotard in Synecdoche, New York, it’s perhaps best left for his work to speak for itself. To those of us who didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman, what we are left with in the wake of his untimely death is a body of work that will forever live on our screens and in our memories. His films now serve as our own synecdoche of his life, a life that will forever imitate his art.
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