Neuro-Tourism In Charlie Kaufman's MoviesS

The movie we're most eager to see this spring may well be Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Will it be science fiction? We don't know yet. But we do know it'll be mind-bending, and judging from the synopses we've read, it'll explore a theme dear to Kaufman's heart: physical locations as reflections for places in the mind. Spoilers ahead.

Kaufman reportedly wrote Synecdoche for long-time collaborator Spike Jonze, but ended up directing it himself. IMDB has a pretty detailed synopsis, and a columnist for the L.A. Times got a leaked draft back in 2006.

In a nutshell, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theater director who's directed Death of a Salesman in the small town of Schenectady, NY. He gets a MacArthur grant to do a Broadway production, and wants to create a work of "brutal realism and honesty." So he gathers a cast in a warehouse in New York's theater district and directs them in a "celebration of the mundane," living out their lives in a scale model of New York itself. (Hence "Synecdoche.")

The city model inside the warehouse gets bigger and more detailed, and meanwhile, Hoffman's character is dying of some mysterious disease that shuts down his autonomic functions one by one. (And that's where it starts to sound science ficitonal.) A lot of the movie deals with the women in Hoffman's life, including his painter ex-wife (Catherine Keener), his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife's friend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his current wife (Michelle Williams), his mentally disabled second daughter, and his self-promoting therapist (Hope Davis).

As the movie goes on, years pass and Hoffman is still in his sprawling scale model of New York. Reality gets more and more blurred with fantasy, especially as the actor Hoffman has hired to play him does too good a job and becomes almost indistinguishable from the real Hoffman. The cast and crew of the play becomes full of dopplegangers. Hoffman's only hope may be a celebrated theater actress who joins the cast.

So in other words, the mini-New York in Synecdoche becomes an altered state of mind for Hoffman, and a metaphor for his shrinking world. Just like the way that places become states of mind in some of Kaufman's other films:

  • In Being John Malkovich, a hidden trap door in an office building turns out to lead into the mind of a famous actor. You can walk inside and spend a while experiencing Malkovich's life. Or, if you're Malkovich himself, you just get a trippy experience. It's like the mind of Malkovich is just an extension of the workplace, another office.

  • In Adaptation, the Florida swamp becomes the gateway to an altered state of mind. It's the place where you find the mind-altering orchids that turn a New Yorker writer into a murdering freakazoid. The swamp is also the place where the identities of the two Kaufmans start to blur together.

  • And then there's the Montauk Long Island Railroad station where Clem and Joel remeet after erasing their memories in Eternal Sunshine, as if they can re-access the mental space of their relationship by going back to that location. Not only that, but most of the film consists Joel traveling to different locations in his memory, revisiting places and experiences as they're rewritten. The film's horror comes from the fact that we travel back to the same locations over and over again, but they're changing — and in one case being demolished around us.

  • Okay, this one is a bit of a stretch. But in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris is able to access a whole other side of his personality, that of CIA killer and total bad-ass, only by going to Europe. Europe becomes a whole other hemisphere of Barris' mind.