Not Coming to a Theater Near You   2008 in Review

Strangely Close: Synecdoche, New York and Mister Lonely by Adam Balz

“Aren’t there special regulations for hypocrites?” the actor Skat says in The Seventh Seal, clutching at the top of the Tree of Life. “There are no special regulations for actors,” says Death, putting his saw to the trunk.

—Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern

Suddenly an actress appears, asking to be cast as a real-life maid named Ellen Bascomb. She is Millicent Weems, and she has experience, yes, but she also speaks to the director like a professional, discussing openly how she knows to build her character’s dimensions.

I played Berte the cleaning lady in Hedda Gabler at the Roundabout.

Great, okay.

And, uh, Misses Dobson in Scrub-a-Dub at the Pantages.

You’re weirdly close to what I visualize for this character.

Millicent: (pause)
Glad to be weirdly close.

She gets the job as Ellen and then, within only a few scenes, becomes Caden himself, sporting the director’s trademark sweater-vest and glasses while remaining, beneath that, Millicent Weems. She takes full control over his cherished play, now decades in production, though the boundary between drama and reality has already become increasingly blurred: What happens in Caden Cotard’s messy life become fodder for his own work, then becomes influenced by that work, until both become inseparably joined and totally indistinguishable. When Caden’s wife or lover, actors or crew, react as they do, we are left to wonder if it’s their true self coming through, or only what’s written for them in the script. In fact, Millicent herself may only be Ellen taking on a new vocational task—cleaning up the chaos that has been Caden’s monster, a beast hidden inside Charlie Kaufman’s own.

Dianne Wiest appears about a half-hour from the film’s conclusion, if not less, and delivers many of her lines in the slow and tempered coo for which she’s become famous. And while her performance is not the film’s most outstanding—that honor goes to Samantha Morton as Hazel, Caden’s lover and assistant whose house is literally on fire—it’s the one that has haunted me the most, not only from the entire film but also from all of the performances from 2008, and for no explicable reason whatsoever.

Perhaps it’s because Millicent seems at times to be Death—and not just death as a personified, Bergmanesque figure but also as a metaphorical end to creativity, a curtain-fall to ideas, an appropriate interpretation considering the arrogant self-promotion Caden Cotard engages in while continuously revising his play. In the last scene of Kaufman’s film, Caden walks the streets of his own manufactured New York City—the streets surrounding a replica of the abandoned warehouse in which he’s plotted his work—streets now littered with the bodies of men and women we take to be a part of his crew. The mood and visions are apocalyptic, as though Caden’s survived a widespread plague, and he soon comes upon a bench where he sits beside a woman we know we’ve never seen before, at least not in her present state. And as he rests his head against her shoulder and delivers a line we've heard him say before, Millicent delivers her final line—the final line—and we recognize once again the distorted boundary between what is real and what isn’t by admitting once again that we no longer recognize either at all. It is here, at this ultimate note, that Millicent and Ellen and Caden all end.

Marilyn Monroe lives in a house that is, metaphorically, on fire. An impersonator who has found refuge on an island populated by others like her—there is an Abe Lincoln, a Queen of England, a James Dean, a Pope John Paul II, three Stooges, and so on—she is married to a Charlie Chaplin, and together they have a young daughter, their own, a Shirley Temple. And while Marilyn, as portrayed by Samantha Morton, is exquisitely multilayered and often heartbreaking, it’s Denis Lavant’s performance as the Chaplin impersonator who dominates Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely.

Korine’s Chaplin is abusive, self-destructive, and vulgar, often seen preying on the other women around him, including a very young and very innocent Little Red Riding Hood. At dinner one evening he fondles the leg of the woman sitting next to him, and later he leaves Marilyn out in the blazing sun, stealing away to be with someone else; she returns to their collective home burned and in pain, unable to perform in the troupe’s opening-night performance. When she brings a Michael Jackson impersonator to the island with her, Chaplin fears that the two are having an affair, and in one of the film’s more uncomfortable moments—and there are many—he tests her fidelity while lying beside her in bed.

It’s not coincidence that these two performances, my favorite of the year, were supporting roles based around stage and screen, though I'm at a loss to explain why this is. 2008 saw a surge in impersonators: Jay Leno stocked his nightly broadcasts with Obama and Clinton stand-ins while Tina Fey was doing the best Sarah Palin around; at Saturday Night Live, Fey’s alma matter, Kristen Wiig strengthened her reputation as the show’s great and reliable new star with her own skilled send-ups of public figures like Nancy Pelosi and Suze Ormann.

But unlike these performances, Wiest and Lavant’s are profoundly enduring. Where Fey and Wiig’s imitations will last only until the next election, when a new cast of men and women will appear in the public conscience, needing their own late-night facsimiles, Kaufman’s Millicent and Korine’s Chaplin are impostures of our own selves: Our hunger to be famous, to know even a sliver of the celebrity owned outright by others, and a desire to be in control of any work of art, whether it’s an unusual play funded by a genius grant or a film sprung from the genius of a lowly-looking screenwriter, no matter how strangely close we may be to our own chosen roles.



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