Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death hit the news and went viral on February 2nd. Ever since then, his popularity seems to be skyrocketing. All over the world, journalists, bloggers, and fans have been reinventing his acting, revisiting his addiction, analyzing the details of his life, and (de)mystifying his death. Hoffman’s death seems to follow the familiar cultural pattern of over-analyzing, romanticizing, glorifying, and resurrecting the sad destruction of the famous.
The common obsession with death is almost a sort of a metaphor of Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of The Author,” where “the author” stands for “the artist”—Hoffman’s film characters and real-life image are no longer his own, so now it is up to the reader/audience to give meaning to him. What is the reason for the stardom of the deaths of the famous?
It is the same cultural phenomenon, filled with myth and half-truths, that keeps poring over death. Van Gogh committed suicide because of his failure to sell his art (further enhanced by the mystical image of him cutting his ear and giving it to a prostitute). Jimi Henedrix choked on his own vomit. Elliott Smith stabbed himself twice in the heart. Kurt Cobain killed himself because he could not cope with fame or because he was destined to be part of the “27 Club.” John Lennon was shot by the guy who read too much “The Catcher in The Rye.” And just to add contrast, Elvis Presley is still alive. Whether truth or fiction, common culture seems to disregard common sense—the quirkier the death, the more meaningful and profound.
On a more cynical note, the death of a famous person is the best advertising. Especially with musicians where posthumous albums have become the norm—Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse are just two of the more recent examples. You can almost start hoping they will show up at the next Grammys.
But musicians need to be in the spotlight in order to perform. The advertising aspect of death, however, can work even for a recluse writer—like it did for J.D. Salinger. After he escaped his fame in a small town in New Hampshire and refused to give interviews or publish books, the myth of his public image became more and more obscure only to reach its climax with his death in 2010.
Right after his death, his book sales on Amazon increased significantly. Not surprisingly, a documentary about him followed (a surprisingly unsuccessful one). And in 2015, J.D. Salinger will start releasing new writings posthumously.
J.D. Salinger’s conscious decision to be a recluse was abolished by the superstar Dead J.D. Salinger.
Humans seem to need the posthumous famous because in a way it denies their demise. The posthumous albums of Jimi Hendrix make him seem less dead. But isn’t the popular metaphor of the immortality of the artist an expression of the vulnerability of one’s own death? As Ernest Becker argues in his book “The Denial of Death,” the human inability to cope with the terror of death conjures up the social lies such as monuments and commemorations that make death seem less inevitable, imminent, and irreversible. Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall, who is preoccupied with death, also mentions “The Denial of Death.”
Of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s wide scope of characters, no one is more aware and preoccupied with his own imminent death than Caden Cotard, the lead character of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. It is one of the most original, poignant, and profound films about the misery of the artist, the complex relationship between art and life, and mortality. Hoffman’s real-life battles may be eerily reminiscent of Caden Cotard’s struggles as an artist in Synecdoche, New York, a movie where art and life can no longer be told apart.
From the very beginning of the film, Caden Cotard wakes up to the sound of the radio and a literature professor explaining the metaphor of the fall (the season)—“the beginning of the end […] when things start to die.” Caden says to himself “I don’t feel well,” checks the mailbox where he gets a magazine about “attending to your illness” and a newspaper that announces the death of Harold Pinter and a new flu in Turkey.
Caden Cotard bleeds from the head when a water stream hits him in an absurd accident. Later a doctor tells him something is wrong with his pupils, he gets a gum surgery and inexplicable twitches. Death lurks everywhere and Caden is desperately trying to escape it.
Maybe culture is trying to escape Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death in a similar way. All the journalistic “angles” try to make meaning of his death—he was a victim of drug laws, comedian Russel Brand said; his death resonates with other recovering addicts, New York Times wrote yesterday (a link to neither of the two articles can be found here and here). But as Charlie Kaufman has said, such journalistic angles only distort the facts.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is simply a reminder about our own vulnerability and mortality. As his character Caden put it,
Regardless of how this particular thing works itself out, I will be dying. And so are you. And so everyone here. And that’s what I wanna explore. We’re all hurtling towards death. Yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing that we’re gonna die. And each of us is really believing we won’t.
Enjoy the outstanding scene from Synecdoche, New York in low quality: