Art Can’t Save Us: Revisiting Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Synecdoche, New York’

Philip Seymour Hoffman was, for years, an unwitting talisman for me. When I first moved to New York, it felt like I saw him everywhere. Mostly in and around Washington Square Park, where he was often walking alone, looking unkempt. Though I should talk, because really I wasn’t all that together myself. I was one of those people who sit on park benches, waiting for life to start. I am one of those people who moved to New York thinking that the ability to say I lived here would function as a kind of bridge over some gap in my soul, and then got here and found it wasn’t that simple. I clung to things as flimsy as seeing Hoffman everywhere as a sign that my life was gaining in meaning and purpose. I clung and I stared and once or twice I drove myself to believe I saw some flicker of recognition in his eyes. I had seen every movie he’d ever been in and I had a fantasy that if I got to a point in my life where someone truly great like Hoffman saw me, I’d be OK. I would have won whatever battle it was I moved here to fight.

It’s embarrassing to confess it now, in the wake of his death on Sunday, that silly fantasy. But I do so anyway because I think there’s an allegory in it. We see these great artists, and we think it means we know them. We spend most of our lives hoping that one day they’ll see us back, because we think it would mean something to them. And as it turns out, meaning isn’t so easily come by, not for anyone, not for anyone at all.

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There’s been the usual digging for meaning going on in the press after Hoffman’s death, of course, a lot of it as useless as such things always are. Many of the tributes that have popped up since yesterday have focused on the way that Hoffman was prone to playing losers and villains. Some have tried to draw a connection between that and the luridly reported way he died, suggesting that on some level he died for his art. I have a few quibbles with that emerging story about all of this. After years of reading and thinking about the lives of artists, and in particular those artists who self-destruct, my belief is that people don’t really die because of their art. They die in spite of it.

After all, the Hoffman movie I personally can’t quit thinking about since I heard the news, yesterday, is 2008’s under-appreciated Synecdoche, New York. Like other Charlie Kaufman films, it is a story about people who very much doubt that what they are doing is very meaningful. In it, Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, who is just such a “loser,” I guess, in the minds of those intent on labeling lives in this way. His marriage is falling apart and he is just a regional theatre director, doomed to forever restage Death of a Salesman, because that is what middlebrow upstate audiences want to see. But in the midst of this personal and professional turmoil, Cotard wins a MacArthur Genius Grant.

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In another kind of movie that award would be a pure vindication of its recipient. But thus laureled, Cotard is suddenly charged with making a theatre piece that is true and honest and real. And what plot the film possesses centers around the beautiful impossibility of that task. We do not get attempt and triumph, or even attempt and failure; we get three hours of Hoffman wandering into burning houses and followed by a wannabe doppelganger and watching the flower tattoos of his estranged daughter wither and die. The pageant is gorgeous but it is not linear. All along, Cotard keeps working on the play, but no warehouse is big enough, no performance genuine enough, no set elaborate enough. And the moment he thinks he’s found the way to finally achieve his impossible, monumental task, he dies. The entire film is an argument about the limitations of art, and in particular against the idea that is will save us from everything, everything.

We have this giant, outsized faith that people like Cotard, and also Hoffman, know what they are doing because they are great artists. That belief is so misplaced. Many people compared Hoffman, this weekend, to David Foster Wallace, because Wallace too was 46 when he died and seemed to still have his best work ahead of him. The comparison is apt for other reasons, though. Like Wallace, Hoffman was one of those great artists you watch and you think: I see it now, I see there’s a point to things, even if it’s elusive and maddening and the kind of point you can barely see for what it is, at the time. And when even the greatest geniuses lose their grip, it just goes to show you: there’s a way in which we’re all spending our lives on park benches, waiting for something to happen in the houses that are metaphorically burning down around us, no matter how great our talents. Understanding that may be the last gift we get from Hoffman’s great career.