Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman and Guy Debord

When one anticipates the ending of things, is one’s orientation towards them thinking, or is it something else—dreading, wishing, playing, perhaps even (like the child in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”) mimicking the ending in order to subsume endings within the remit of mental continuation, and fantasize that one will outlast one’s own death? To think of an ending to things would be, at least, to act as though one believes it within the remit of one’s power. This is one of the bases by which psychoanalysis distinguishes between the death drive and suicidal ideation; the latter fully absorbed within the realm of ideas and fantasies, the former a structural truth that conditions thinking and fantasizing as such. Phillipe Sollers described Guy Debord’s suicide as “a revolutionary act,” but it’s exactly that kind of macho posturing that gives revolutionary acts a bad name. A revolutionary act would end things; Guy Debord’s suicide ended only his thinking about ending things. (One presumes.) A revolutionary act in which things were ended would of course be preceded by a thinking of that act, but the thinking and the acting are not the same. This isn’t a complaint against Debord, whose alcoholic shamelessness I continue to admire, even as my patience with the broey campus Adornians who introduced him to me have receded to naught.

This weekend, Danny and I watched i’m thinking of ending things, Charlie Kaufman’s movie adaptation of the novel by Iain Reid. I was excited in advance because it was billed somewhere as a horror movie (which it isn’t), and because the same people who loathed Synecdoche, New York described it as “self-indulgent.” As the kind of Hegelian who tends to think that revolutionary acts emerge more quickly from self-indulgence than from thinking, and especially from the thinking of the type of movie critic who just enjoys popcorn trash, you know?, I was excited. (I love popcorn trash, but then I do not review movies for a newspaper, and if I did I would try to take the job seriously.) And Synecdoche, New York is, I think, a truly brilliant movie—more revolutionary and more act-like than Guy Debord’s suicide, at any rate, and with similar apparent aims. The conceit is a little more complicated than I can be bothered to recite, but basically Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an earnestly mediocre director of regional theater, who wins a MacArthur and decides to produce an enormous and immersive theatrical experience in which every element of his life, and much of the first half of the movie, is re-enacted by other actors. This play of his expands to engulf the entire city, which appears to be undergoing a civil war of some kind, and eventually the world ends, almost everyone is killed, and Hoffman dies after many years of unresolved loneliness, every part of his life an unfired shotgun on Chekhov’s wall. 

Synecdoche, New York ends by bringing the diegetic and metadiegetic chronologies into a single, perfect circle: the film cuts to black at the exact moment of Hoffman’s death, upon which he has meditated for several minutes, but which neither he nor the audience has “thought” in the usual sense. Even if he anticipates his death, the death that arrives is unlike that which is anticipatable—the movie ends, we do not see the body. This particular device is not what makes Synecdoche, New York any good—god knows, it is as old as cinema and, abstractly, as old as Plato—but it is interesting, in so far as it is an attempt by Kaufman to solve a quite particular problem: how does one end a narrative which has already demonstrated a refusal to end or evening a more-or-less realist narrative opening? One’s refusal to think of ending things, after all, does not prevent things from ending; any and every revolutionary act can be made to sound fatuous as long as it is only a thinking, but in so far as revolutions are, at some degree of historical abstraction, a fairly regular and reliable occurrence, the belief that things will never end—because one refuses to think of their ending—is going to be no more successful a prophylaxis against the event of ending. 

Synecdoche, New York is useful in one sense that, in fact, has nothing to do with how the movie itself ends, and everything to do with the construction of an endless form (endless in the sense that the form of a shape is endless, not an immortal being) within its narrative frame. The idea of an eternally expansive play—a literalization of “all the world’s a stage,” I guess—in which we can all be cast, in all our mediocrity, to play some other mediocrity, mimic their mediocre patterns of life, quirks and habits, and follow them to mediocre deaths that are not even our own—this is perhaps a familiar assault on the sanctity of the bourgeois ego, but it is beautifully and scrappily executed by Hoffman, and even more by Tom Noonan, who plays the actor Hoffman recruits to play himself, and who ultimately is not only more likable than the original, but unlike the original seems to understand both the value and the limitations of his project. Viewers of Synecdoche, New York are subjected to a system whose function is quite independent of the movie’s own narrative, which achieves independence enough that it makes sense to say that its multi-dimension geometry encompasses even the act of viewing, and thinking about viewing.

(Since I rewatched Synecdoche, New York earlier this year, I have had magnetized to my fridge door a phrase I scribbled while watching: “I must create a geometrical system with relative independence from diegesis and its own capacity for self-replication.” This idea has been the guiding thread of my major writing project over the last year, details of which I’ve promised not to talk too much about for a little while, but about which some kind of inkling remains: is there such a system? And if so, is it good enough, does it kill enough, will it make enough live or reanimate enough?)

Anyway, this all to say that i’m thinking of ending things has a different approach to Synecdoche, New York, and I think it’s worth naming, because reviewers keep conflating the two. Spoilers imminently ahead. The novel upon which the movie is based has a single, conceptually self-reliant twist: the girl who has been narrating to us is a fiction, being remembered by an elderly janitor who is also remembering himself as a young man. Upon such a revelation, which one might characterize as a highly thought-about ending, much can be hung: details can be transformed into proleptic clues, meaning assured as a metaphysical scheme, a theory of everything. In the movie, on the other hand, the possibility (x character equals y character; Edward Norton is Tyler Durden) is perhaps implied, but it is not exhibited, and, even if true, the ending does not explain the surfeit of details in the foregoing—does not explain the “not varnish” behind the ice cream parlor, or the final sequence in which our hero accepts a Nobel prize in comically-stagey geriatric make-up. Even if it could be made to, one would have to insert the ending into the foregoing and turn the key just so. This is what happens in Mulholland Drive, in which everything can be made to make a singular kind of diegetic sense (but not Inland Empire, in which it can’t). The ending of i’m thinking about ending things swerves away from ending things, preferring instead to imagine keeping things misty, unthought, and unthinkable. 

For this reason, I think Synecdoche, New York is the far better movie, a movie that stages the question of how to think of ending things while refusing to let that question be all that matters. The new movie refuses the strong conceptual close of the novel, but nonetheless requires that an ending—even if it does not end—be the keyhole through which the whole is viewable. I also far prefer Inland Empire to Mulholland Drive. As I find myself called to the revolutionary act that would not name itself until after it has been enacted, that would not think of its ending, but only of its world-building, its systematicity, its durability. This is also how I understand the difference between communism and anarchism.