”It is only a man’s own fundamental thoughts that have truth and life in them. For it is these that he really and completely understands. To read the thoughts of others is like taking the remains of someone else’s meal, like putting on the discarded clothes of a stranger.”
“Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
“The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped.”
“Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Note: Spoilers abound, inevitably.
Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, states its intentions immediately. The first image we see is, appropriately, an alarm clock; the red, digitally displayed numbers rooting this single, frozen moment in time. It is morning, and clock’s radio fills the room with the voice of a local public radio host. As Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) rises and shines, the voice begins discussing the coming of autumn with a poet whose own outlook on the season is a bleak summation of the inevitability of stasis and death. Routine survives this morbid interruption; Caden joins his wife, a painter of postage-stamp sized portraits named Adele (Catherine Keener), and their young, neurotic young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) in the kitchen for a quick breakfast and review of the day’s news before heading to the final rehearsal of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, a new production of which Caden is directing for his local theater company in Schenectady, New York.
Soon, everything falls apart; After a mechanical failure on stage ruins Caden’s rehearsal, he returns home to discover that the family’s long-planned trip to Berlin for Adele’s gallery debut no longer includes him. Adele’s rejection of Caden tears the man wide open, creating a rift in time and space that sends Synecdoche spiraling into the realms of Kaufmania. Caden is immediately buoyed in Adele’s absence by a small piece of paper informing him that he has won a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called Genius Grant), and this unexpected gift allows him the freedom to begin a piece of theater that will consume the rest of his life; A real-time, life-sized simulacrum of “the truth” of his own existence, an ever-expanding synecdoche of New York City, harbored inside a giant urban warehouse. Caden will spend the rest of his days directing what is, essentially, life itself; like an omnipotent deity, he creates a universe of doubles (actors play characters from his own life), of buildings within buildings, of walls built around other walls, until the production becomes a self-sustaining world and Caden himself takes a lesser role, that of his ex-wife’s maid, and receives direction from his own double for every move he makes. By submitting to the will of his own creation, Caden finally understands the artistic vision he was never able to articulate. And just in time for us to never know what it was.
The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Confronts The Past In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York
Synecdoche, New York is one of the most ambitious movies I have ever seen, a film that spins between interconnected ideas like a dysfunctional satellite, constantly orbiting the story’s central themes and ideas but, like its protagonist, always going further and further off the rails until the path no longer matters. It simply drifts tenderly into nothingness. If anything, Synecdoche is to life itself what Adaptation was to screenwriting, what Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind was to love; Somehow, Kaufman has found a way to build thematically upon his previous stories in order to create an entire world, this time embodying a burning desire to bend everything, our dreams and creations, the expectations and the love of other people, to the will of the artist.
It’s hard not to emapthize with and even embrace this fantasy; The world feels more and more out of control, our lives constantly being framed by the forces of history and punditry, everything being shaped and remembered as the opinions of others. Memory has become about storage space, we all have a voice to the point where nothing seems real anymore. Where is authority? Who is authoring experience? What are we supposed to make of the world, of our lives, in a post-post-modern world? The idea of directly authoring life, of maufacturing it into the stuff of theater, filling it will drama and truth, well, I can understand the impulse.
Synecdoche is a film predicated on the power of loneliness and longing, the deep and inarticulate desire to connect to life, to the universe, and it is this desire that delivers the film’s dramatic thrust. Each emotional misfire, be it feeling overwhelmed by loss during sex, say, or humbling oneself in the face of a great untruth in order to receive forgiveness from a long, lost loved one (and have to have that forgiveness revoked), provides a new layer of meaning, another box within a box, a matroyshka of tears and triumph.
There are a few missteps along the way; a few quirky ideas thrown in that never really enhance the meaning of Caden’s journey (the most nonsensical of them is a burning house occupied by Caden’s true love, one that never burns out or ever fully catches fire, a metaphor for their relationship), but for each of those, there are ten great ideas that pay off spectacularly (my favorite being a great moment that manages to quote both The Last Temptation Of Christ and Paris, Texas in one fell swoop). But the device that will probably send audiences to opposite sides of the fence on this film will be Kaufman’s unique use of cinematic time, announced immediately (the aforementioned alarm clock) and completely unmoored by the twenty minute mark. What I can say is that instead of being a nonsensical choice or a device, coming to understand Kaufman’s use of time in Synecdoche is one of the film’s principle pleasures, and it infuses the film’s pessimism with a tender mortality, everything ticking and tocking in leaps and bounds, years sweeping by in a single edit, a phone call placed in desperation arriving years too late to make any impact on everything hurtling past and narry a wink from the Director. Time becomes an empty, meaningless frame of reference; life may indeed be too short, but it seems to happen all at once.
Life On The Inside: Synecdoche, New York
The cumulative effect of this temporal disorientation is to harmonize our empathy with Caden, whose need to say something big, to create ART and tell the TRUTH about MANKIND, stands in direct contrast to his own lack of self-understanding and his inability to comprehend the needs and desires of the people around him. Because we are unhinged by Kaufman’s manufactured time, we see Caden as Caden sees the world. In this sense, art does not imitate life, art precludes life from happening at all. Instead, the film suggests that life itself is there for the creating, not through biological reproduction, but through living and experiencing time as something of an intangible feeling, a jump cut from one moment to the next. Living is itself the work that creates meaning.
Caden creates art by manufacturing a facsimile of life, a bricks and mortar kingdom over which his opinions and ideas are sacrosanct, but that is what makes his entire enterprise artificial, the synecdoche of the title; the part is never an adequate substitute for the whole. Detached from the moorings of authentic human experience, of the stuff of real life, Caden creates a world of doubles, of reproductions, a giant ship in a bottle that carries none of the majesty of the thing itself. In Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman has avoided the same fate by perfectly articulating the tension between the desire to create something profound and the way in which such a creation will never transcend our experience of the real thing; Art can’t transcend life, but only describe a small part of it. The articulation of a thing can never be greater than the thing itself. What Caden never learns, Charlie Kaufman must already know, which is comfort enough that maybe, just maybe, somewhere, he is smiling.