Hall of mirrors
by Christos Tombras
In Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film Synecdoche, New York Caden Cotard, the main character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theatre director working on a grandiose production that will capture life as it really is. Cotard’s project, autobiographical in its essence, would aim to represent each and every important moment in the life of its creator, Cotard himself, by painstakingly recreating it to be performed on stage in all its details. The theatrical performance would, thus, be a kind of detailed commentary on its director’s life, a narrative within a narrative, a meta-narrative of sorts, that would reveal the true essence of something.
As soon as the pre-production begins, in the film, the project turns out as an increasingly convoluted and all-encompassing scale model, an ever-enlarging and yet detailed structure that includes the original material, i.e. Cotard’s life, staged key moments of this life, a meta-reflection whereby the staged scenes are treated as material themselves and are presented in secondary stages alongside the originals, reflections of all this, and so on and so forth.
In short, an ever-expanding world-within-a-world fractal, a true synecdoche of New York itself.
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In 2007, Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, had his own ambitious and audacious idea. Originally conceived as a biopic of Lev Landau, one of the most important nuclear physicists of the Soviet era, Khrzhanovsky’s project involved the creation of a more or less accurate replica of Landau’s research institute in post-war USSR. It would be staffed with scores of actors who would be living on site, walking, talking and acting as if they were indeed Soviet scientists, artists, visionaries, operatives, cold-war agents, support workers, cleaners, in post-war USSR. Their families would be living on site as well.
The DAU institute was finally built in a former Dynamo stadium in Ukraine, and with its 12,000 sq.m. became the largest film set in Europe. According to some sources, more than 300,000 (!) people were auditioned; and with the exception of four important leading actors who would represent Lev Landau, his wife, their son and the actual director of Landau’s Institute back in the day, every other person participating in the project, some 400 supporting actors and 10,000 extras, would be performing under their own actual names. Film crews would be operating on a 24/7 basis, using technology that would allow them to be as unintrusive as possible, and collecting material as if they were shooting a precise documentary. Shooting lasted for 3 years, between 2008 and 2011, and 700 hours of material were captured in total. So far a total of 15 films have been finalised, the longest of which runs for 6 hours.
The DAU Institute was conceived as a model that would allow Khrzhanovsky to study complex human interactions under his reconstructed version of the Soviet regime. The whole project was unanimously described as impossible to describe.
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The idea of a creator who dreams of capturing an aspect of the world by creating and studying an appropriate and to some extent faithful replica of it is not new in art. James Joyce used the device in Ulysses. “I always write about Dublin,” he said at some point, “because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” Limiting ourselves to cinema, we also can readily think of Felini’s 8 ½, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, even Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side of the Wind.
Cotard’s project in Kaufman’s film, was going to be a doomed one. For one, there was no theatrical stage big enough to accommodate the original, plus its stage reflection, plus the reflection of its stage reflection, plus a reflection of that reflection, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, in a confusing and disorienting hall of mirrors.
Crucially, in Cotard’s project absolutely everyone was implicated and affected by it. The director himself, Cotard, but also the actor who would play Cotard in the staged performance, and the actor who would play the actor who played Cotard, etc. etc. In contrast to Khrzhanovsky’s DAU, where the institute was conceived as a kind of historical miniature, a petri dish facilitating a social experiment, in Kaufman’s vision, the experiment involved the experimenters themselves, affected them and was affected by them, to the extent that at the end it was not clear who writes the script and who plays the lines, as if they all existed, half-acting and half-acted, in some Schrödinger’s box, along-side the cat.
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There can be no true, and complete history of the world, Kaufman is telling us, because there is no place one can stand on to speak about what we see. We are always a part of the reflection, a part of the picture we try to capture. While we can pretend that this is just a glitch, an insignificant restriction of our conceptual and observational devices, the unavoidable fact dawns on us at moments, that our structure is incomplete. In fact, it is destined – doomed if you prefer – to be incomplete, just like Gödel’s theorem illustrates – albeit in a different field. All systems of statements are inconsistent and incomplete, in that they will unavoidably contain self-referential statements which can neither be proved nor disproved within the scope of said systems. It’s not a glitch, though, it’s structural.
Or, as software developers have long been known to claim, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.