Time’s Effect on The Body in Synecdoche, New York: Connecting Contemporary Film to Contemporary Art

Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York follows aging theater director Caden Cotard in his vain attempt to produce his magnum opus that mimics his life in a way that is too close for comfort. In the film, time is accelerated in a surreal way; within the two hours that the viewer experiences the film, Caden has aged 50 years. Although events take place chronologically, they are sped up and interwoven in a way that is often confusing. Throughout the course of the film, Caden is also constantly reminded of how the passing of time is taking its effect on his body; how humans age and how their health declines culminating in their deaths. Caden becomes riddled with various physical ailments as the film goes on, and his mental health suffers as he faces various personal problems. The overarching theme of the film implies the inevitability of time and death serve as a synecdoche for life. As humans, the sum of our life ends in our death, but death is only part of our life.

The theme of time is present from the very first moment of the film when Caden wakes up to his alarm clock radio. It shows the time as seven forty-four a.m. and plays a talk show about autumn as a prominent theme in literature because it represents the beginning of death. These few opening minutes set the tone for the entire film: Caden himself is entering the autumn of his life. From this cue, there are a myriad of references to Caden’s obsession with time, with aging, and with particularly dying. Viewers are made hyperaware to the passing of time as the film leaps forward so quickly, which makes them mindful of not only Caden’s impending death at the end of the film, but their own death as well.

A related work that raises viewers’ consciousness of time is Fèlix González-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers) from 1987-1990. The piece consists of two identical clocks that initially keep time together, but eventually desynchronize when one falls out of time and stops before the other. Using the clocks as representations of people, González-Torres shows how we as humans have a limited amount of time, and will eventually run out of time and die before our loved ones or vice versa. Caden experiences this himself in Synecdoche, New York.  The irony of Caden’s death is while he spends the whole film preoccupied with the fear of his death and tries to evade it, he is one of the last people in the warehouse alive at the end of the film. Time takes its effect on every significant person in Caden’s life, and eventually Caden himself.

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Félix González-Torres, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990

The way in which the body is explored in Synecdoche, New York is in relation to time: how the body changes when it ages, how death can be accelerated by illness. Within the minutes that set the tone of the film, Caden receives a magazine in the mail called Attending Your Illness, and his daughter Olive watches a t.v. show about viruses and illness. He also sees a myriad of doctors throughout the film, from a dentist, to an ophthalmologist, to his shrink to whom he laments he has various ailments and worries he won’t do anything worthwhile with his life before he dies. Caden’s last name is a reference to the Cotard delusion in which patients believe that they are already dead or their internal organs are failing. Caden worries his body is in critical condition due to his age, and that time will slip away from him and he will die before accomplishing his goals.

Viewers watch Caden age and his health fail over the course of 50 years in the film. Connected in theme is Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, an ongoing portrait photography project documenting his wife and her sisters from 1975, covering the breadth of over 40 years. When viewing the photographs in succession, time is evident on the sisters’ bodies: wrinkles form around their eyes and mouths, their hair grows gray. The inevitability of the sister’s death looms in the back of the viewers’ minds. What will happen when one of the sisters dies? Will Nixon end the project and choose to show his representation of the sisters as a complete unit? Or will he continue to photograph them with the deceased sister’s absence, just as life itself will go on for the rest of the sisters? In Synecdoche, New York, viewers watch time’s effect on Caden as he ages just as in The Brown Sisters project, however they also see the ultimate effect of time on Caden: his death.

Caden spends the entirety of the film worrying about the consequences of time on his body: his aging, his illness, his death. He tells his cast and crew, “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.” Caden knows he will die because it is his fate as a human being, and the thought consumes him, yet he does not want to accept his fate. Hazel buys a house eternally on fire conscious she will die of smoke inhalation, but accepts this because she will die regardless. While this may seem somewhat bleak, it sums the entirety of the film. We all are, indeed, hurtling towards death, but it is simply how time works on the human body, and an unavoidable part of life.

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Un-individualized Individualism: My thoughts on the 2017 Whitney Biennial

This year’s Whitney Biennial boasts a theme of “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society,” with work that focuses on race, immigration, and activism. However, what has been dominating the media in regards to the Biennial is the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s 2016 Open Casket, the painting depicting the dead, brutalized body of Emmett Till. While the aim for the Biennial is to promote self and the individual within society, some of the works included in the show this year do the opposite. Instead of exploring the individual, certain artists use tropes and generalizations to convey their meanings on issues like race.

Open Casket is problematic mostly because Schutz is a well-to-do white woman commenting on an issue in which she has no place. She claims that through this painting, she was attempting to understand the feelings of Emmett Till’s mother after the murder of her son, Schutz being a mother herself. However, her rationalization is not a strong enough argument for the painting. By using the image of a severely beaten and disfigured Till, Schutz is using him as a spectacle to symbolize black death from white brutality, an epidemic that is currently happening in the United States. Appropriating Till essentially turns him into a stand-in for any other black body that has been the victim of white brutality. Open Casket dehumanizes and commodifies Emmett Till and his murder by making him a trope.

Even certain works by black artists do not rise to the occasion to tell the stories and experiences of specific black people, rather rely on generalizations and cliches having to do with the black experience. In the wall text accompanying the work of Deana Lawson, it describes the work as “subvert[ing] the ways in which portrayals of Black bodies are often subjected to biased perceptions of Black personhood in American culture.” Yet, Lawson’s images are in fact staged compositions comprised of strangers on the streets. They fall back on stereotypes often attributed to working to lower-middle class black folk,

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Deana Lawson, Signs, 2016.

such as Signs from 2016. The photograph depicts a group of young black men against a blank black background. All of the men are shirtless, wear loose pants low on their hips to expose the waistband of their underwear, sport tattoos, and hold their hands above their hands above their heads or obscure their face to show various gestures. The young men featured in Signs may or may not be affiliated with gang activity, but it is obvious that the work intends for the viewer to conjure a backstory for these men on the premise that their hand signals could be gang signs. If Lawson’s work is meant to turn black stereotypes on their head, then why would she employ those exact stereotypes she wishes to disrupt? Similarly, there is a lack of relationship between using complete strangers staged in scenes that appear to be everyday moments between friends and family. By creating these vague, unspecific portraits, Lawson in fact encourages the viewer to project their own ideas onto the subjects. In a museum like the Whitney, this means the average viewer is an upper-middle to upper class white person, therefore their own ideas of these subjects will most likely fall back prejudices. In this way, the subjects of Lawson’s photographs are commodified in the same way Emmett Till is in Open Casket, and in a way that is the opposite of Lawson’s intentions for the work and the Whitney’s theme for this year’s Biennial.

For a show that boasts diversity and individuality through the races and genders of the artists featured, and through those exact themes that are supposedly shown through the work, the 2017 Whitney Biennial in fact falls somewhat flat. Although there is great work to be seen, some of the work does not live up to the radical ways of conjuring the self that the Whitney boasts it does this year.