Making the Movie

2Nov/088

Synecdoche, New York Explained

Synecdoche, New York is the first movie to be directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Perhaps intuiting it may be his only film (because of a finely-tuned sense of mortality, not because of the quality of his directing, which is superb), he decided to throw in enough ideas and images for an entire oeuvre. The film had a lot to say, but it did so in an oblique, opaque manner that has left audiences baffled. Well, never fear. I'm going to do my best to unpack it.

First of all, Kaufman has said in interviews that the movie is meant to mean whatever you take away from it. We all know this can be a cop-out answer, but I'm going to take him at face value and say -- okay, if he could've told us what he meant in words, he wouldn't've had to make the movie. Right? Continue reading about Synecdoche, New York (mostly spoilers)...The emperor may have no clothes, but his nudity is, nonetheless, profound.

I think what I personally walked away from Synecdoche with is an appreciation of certain hard-to-pin down emotions -- the movie dwells on a combination of nostalgia and ennui (two feelings for which English borrows names from other languages). My favorite part was the final funeral scene, which seemed to be a funeral for the aspirations of mankind. I liked the strange relationship Caden has with Hazel. And of course, there are so many weird-yet-perfect little moments.

What's It All About, Charlie?

But nevermind what I took out of it or what you took out it. What were we supposed to take out of it?

Well, there's the obvious stuff. Kaufman as much as comes out and tells you the movie is about facing one's own mortality. Repeatedly. In Caden's director speech when he first starts his MacArthur grant piece, in the dialogue exchange between Sammy and Caden regarding what the play is about -- or even at the beginning with all of Caden's illnesses, his version of Death of a Salesman (with youthful actors), his therapist's suggestion of suicide.

The Uncanny Uncanned

Yeah, you say, but what about the other weird stuff? The burning house and the living tattoo and the green poop? Here's where I can provide insight but I really truly believe there is no purely rational explanation. Do I think Kaufman made a dramatic mistake by cluttering the movie with too many tangential ideas? Yes.

(But this was not his greatest dramatic mistake. His greatest dramatic mistake was hinging the emotional climax on a character, Ellen, whom we only meet -- and then indirectly -- at the beginning of the last act.)

I think most of the other crazy ideas salted into the story are fun or fascinating when pulled out as individual strands. I don't think relating them together is fruitful -- because I've been trying to do so for more than a year.

More than a year? Before I get into the nitty gritty, let me just explain that the reason I've had so much time to think about it is that I got a copy of the script back when. Yes, I'm a huge Kaufman fan -- I read everything of his I can -- but even I can admit that his scripts tend to improve from early drafts to shooting drafts. This early copy of Being John Malkovich lacks the focus that it later gained under director Spike Jonez. I have an early copy of Adaptation that features a swamp monster in the climax. Eternal Sunshine was improved by focusing more on Joel and Clementine's relationship. In Synecdoche, my favorite scene, the funeral recreation, was apparently hastily rewritten before shooting.

So anyways, before the movie even started shooting, I sat down eagerly with the copy of the screenplay (Master White, March 12, 2007) and read it cover-to-cover. And then I said, "What the smurf did I just read?"

Charlie KaufmanI flipped through again to see if I missed something, couldn't see anything and decided to wait. I thought seeing it as a movie would explain it. And seeing it on screen does make Kaufman's vision clearer, but I still believe it is a confusing vision. Jon Brion's score, for example, gives us a great idea of the emotions that Kaufman wants to bring out of certain ambiguous scenes (and, like all Brion scores, sometimes it just fights against any recognizable sensibility). In the way Synecdoche has been realized on screen, it is completely clear that Kaufman is intentionally using the strategies of Absurdist Theater and Surrealism. (Though Absurdist Theater and Surrealism are often even more opaque.)

So what we're looking at, if I had to put it in the bestiary, is a chimera of a mid-life crisis drama with absurd and surreal elements1. We're accustomed to seeing the absurd and surreal in Kaufman's stories, but we're also accustomed to much more overt humor and a much clearer central narrative to latch onto.

The Strands of the Story

The central narrative, muddy as it is, seems to be this: Theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is abandoned by his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener), who also takes his daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). He is consoled by Hazel (Samantha Morton), the woman who runs the box office at a Schenectady, New York regional theater where Caden has mounted a production of Arthur Miller's classic play The Death of a Salesman2. He tries to start a relationship with Hazel, but can't get over his rejection by Adele. Getting a letter in the mail from the MacArthur Foundation announcing he has won a so-called 'genius grant,' he decides to mount a theater production in New York City that will be the sort of magnum opus that will give him a feeling of having done something with his life. (His lack of accomplishment was a criticism leveled by Adele before she left him.)

The production begins with open-ended rehearsals in a warehouse with a huge cast of actors, two of whom are portraying Caden and Hazel. In this way, Caden is able to direct his own life. This set-up is complicated when the actress playing Hazel, Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), and Caden start a relationship, and when the actor playing Caden, Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) and the real Hazel start a relationship. And when a replacement Hazel (Emily Watson) and Caden start a relationship. Eventually Caden starts playing a secondary character in his own drama.

This strand of narrative is a classic Kaufman premise. It's wacky; it's metaphysical. He could've made a great (and funnier) movie just along these lines and I imagine early conceptions, based just on the punning title, were something like that.

About the Title

Synecdoche, in case you're wondering, is a literary trope where "in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword)" [American Heritage Dictionary]. So you can see that Caden (and Kaufman) is trying to set up a micro-world that reflects the whole world and vice-versa. It's an ambitious and ultimately impossible task.

Diving Deeper

Still here? Still want to try to understand this movie on Charlie Kaufman's terms and not your own?

Everything that is not part of the main plot, I contend, is surrealist/absurdist window dressing. The imagery of surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí is personal and often compared to dream imagery. It is Freudian in the sense that it relates to impulses -- desires, fears -- that are not usually understood rationally. Surrealism is about presenting these images that evoke irrational responses, often through metaphor or unlikely juxtaposition.

Absurdism is more of a worldview, but it shares the basis in irrationality. An absurdist recognizes the humor and irony of human behavior. The absurdism of playwrights like Samuel Beckett (whose Krapp's Last Tape gets namechecked in Synecdoche) is bleak and existential and exceptionally unsatisfying from a storytelling standpoint. Caveat lector.

So let's start at the top. Both Caden and his daughter Olive are excreting what looks like paint. This is perhaps symbolic of the poisoning influence of Adele, a painter. With Olive (a name that is also a color of paint), it could be symbolic of, or foreshadow, the poisoning she will get from Adele's friend Maria, who literally poisons her through tattoos (an injected form of paint) and figuratively poisons her by telling lies about Caden.

The stool issue is just one of a series of maladies that Caden contracts in the first act of the film (arthritis, sycosis, seizures). This is an extreme (surreal?) exaggeration of the onset of old age and the malfunctioning of the body that comes with it. A sign that we are not supposed to consider it realistically is that it largely disappears as the movie goes on3. [See also note in comments below about Cotard's disease.]

There are some odd temporal shifts that are much more clear in the script. It starts with the dates on the newspapers in the beginning, but Caden seems to experience time slower than others throughout the film. I think Kaufman could've made this timelessness more clear by having Philip Seymour Hoffman forgo old age makeup, but I understand why he didn't. Since the story is told with one foot in reality, as time passes Caden must visibly age. Kaufman says in the Creative Screenwriting screening interview that this is part of the theme (or the horror) that time is always slipping away from you.

Flaming Domiciles

The house that is on fire is the most effective of the surreal images in the film, in my opinion. It is completely understandable on a gut level but hard to formulate in words. Here is one surface explanation: Hazel will buy into her American dream of a Christian husband and two kids and a house even if it is in flames. This sort of suffocating life eventually leads to death by smoke inhalation.

But like I say, it is better to imagine that these are symbols that have personal meaning to Kaufman. This one, especially, seems like it could have been taken from a dream. It certainly says something about the Hazel character. It may, in some way, reflect the way Caden sees her: dangerous, unstable.

There was an additional symbolic element related to Hazel that was cut from the film due to time and budget concerns: Squishy the dog. After opening night of the play, when Hazel is driving home after being rejected by Caden, she comes across a dog that has been run over, pancaked in the middle. She takes it home to let it die but miraculously it survives (even to the end of the film).

It's too bad it was cut, because this is actually one of the few hopeful symbols. The dog goes on living despite the overwhelming odds against it.

Sammy Barnathan

All through the first part of the movie, Sammy Barnathan can be seen stalking Caden. He seems to be a spectre of death, and indeed he later will be. But he is also a twin of sorts to Caden, a shadow. Again, more complicated than can be neatly fit into some symbolic schema.

At the audition, he offers to show Caden how he truly is, which is irresistible to Caden. Kaufman has said, in one of his few pronouncements, that Caden is 'seeking truth' with his MacArthur Grant theater piece. But Caden doesn't like what Sammy reveals about his character. And the ultimate truth Sammy shows him is that Caden would have committed suicide on the roof if he hadn't been stopped4.

And what about this whole doubling and tripling of characters (embodied best by the characters of Caden, Sammy and Millicent)? It seems to be in some sense an embodiment of the Fregoli delusion, a psychological state where a single person is thought to be two or more different people and has historically been tied to a 'paranoia that actors are invading ones life.' We know Kaufman is familiar with this arcana from the realm of psychology because he wrote a play, "Anomalisa," under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli.

Olive

Caden has at least one other child, but it is Olive whom he most cares about. Her rejection of him is a powerful scene, and one that merits some discussion. His only previous encounter with the adult Olive has been in a masturbation booth, an overtly incestuous set-up, and made more disturbing by the fact he was unable to communicate across the glass barrier.

Now he finds her in a hospital, dying. Many have said the worst thing that can happen to a parent is to see one's child die. Kauffman takes it one step further. Olive forces him to confess to a homosexual affair he did not have5 and beg for forgiveness. When he does so, she doesn't forgive him. This humiliation was devastating to me, as a viewer, and seemed unusually cruel of Kauffman the author/God to inflict upon his protagonist.

As for the flower petals coming off the tattoos, this seems to me a brilliant yet straightforward visual symbol for death. I have talked about how the tattoos are in some sense representative of the way Maria (and Adele) have poisoned Olive with lies about Caden. But the wilting of the tattoos does not, when coupled with her rejection of Caden with her dying breath, indicate this poison left Olive's system.

The child Olive's fear of pipes pumping water (and arteries pumping blood) seems to me more like a direct lift from something Kauffman actually observed a kid saying rather than a foreshadowing of the blood poisoning from the tattoos or something else. Again, any of this imagery could've been further developed and planted with greater frequency throughout the film if Kauffman had a clear point he meant it to make, rather than just fleeting reflections of his feelings.

Micro-worlds

A tattoo, synecdochically, might stand for the body it is on, or for all art. The world within the world that Caden creates with his theater piece is just the most obvious example of synecdoche in Synecdoche. Adele's paintings are tiny representations that provide a contrast to Caden's use of theater to represent.

There is also the odd way the book by Caden's therapist seems to be both within and outside the world of the movie...

Getting Better by Madeline Gravis

The therapist (Hope Davis) is also a complicated figure. The book that she sells to Caden, a book that is precisely about him (shades of Stranger Than Fiction), seems to be in some way tied to Olive's diary, which also magically continues to give insight into Caden's life as he ages. The therapist suggests that Caden has considered (or already has?) committed suicide, planting the idea that Sammy later brings to fruition. The scene on the plane where the book runs out of words after Caden rebuffs Madeleine is interesting. Up until then, you could call the book just another example of synecdoche, where Caden's personal journey stands for the story within its pages or vice versa.

Without the insight of his daughter's diary or Madeline's self-help tome, Caden's quest to learn about himself hits a brick wall. Perhaps it would've made dramatic sense to have this crisis yield the MacArthur Grant play as a solution. But we will get no such tidy plotting. Madeline's books in fact continue to appear throughout the film.

In the apocalyptic version of world, late in the film after Caden has given up control of his artistic vision to Millicent Weems, the street is littered with copies of his former therapist's books. He doesn't stop to read them. Are they props, or has he given up on trying to learn about himself through therapy?

Grand Conclusions

As frustrating as it can be, Synecdoche, New York is almost precisely the film Kauffman wanted to make. He was forced to cut some lines and some images (e.g. Squishy the dog), but compared to his other scripts (with the possible exception of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, early drafts of which I haven't read), of all his screen stories, it changed the least from early draft to screen. It is repetitive in its pessimism about the human condition, but full of very truthful and personal moments and some wildly imaginative surreal imagery.

Throughout this essay, I have compared Synechdoche, New York to many other films. To conclude, I'd like to make a comparison to just one more, Federico Fellini's masterpiece, the semi-autobiographical and surreal 8 1/2. I'm not saying Synechdoche rises to the same level. There are what I consider flaws on a purely dramatic/structural level. But then again, Kauffman is smart enough to have recognized these anomalies and difficulties and yet left them 'uncorrected.' Why?

Because the character of Caden is as personal to him as the character Guido was to Fellini. Caden's fear of illness, rejection by loved ones and death are exactly Kauffman's fears, regardless of how many strange symbolic images or references to Absurdist theater plays are cloaking it. The movie's opacity is frustrating for audiences, accustomed as we are to having the dramatist hold our hand and lead us into a strange world. But Kauffman has said in interviews that he is proud that his film has very few establishing shots to help the audience know when and where they are. He set out to make a rather uncompromising examination of mortality, filtered through his own crazy kaleidoscope, and he has succeeded, on these terms, enormously.

1. Kaufman, in his Creative Screenwriting Screening Interview, says the project originated as a horror movie focusing on real horrors, like the fact we're all going to die.
2. In the script draft I have, the play is Eqqus. We must allow that this may have been changed not because Kaufman wanted it to be, but because of rights issues. Still, he could've chosen another classic modern play that didn't have 'death' in the title.
3. In the script draft I have, Hazel has a line: "You divorce your wife and marry me and I make you happy for the very first time in your life and all your symptoms disappear?"
4. Kauffman's play "Hope Leaves the Theater" has characters who break the fourth wall and announce that it was the last thing Kaufman wrote before he committed suicide, gently mocking but perhaps exposing Kaufman's fascination with the myth of the tortured, self-annihilating writer (Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace etc.).
5. Jeff Goldsmith presses Kauffman on this point in the Creative Screenwriting screening interview. Kauffman says there are two characters named Erich in the story, but implies that it is not true that Caden ever had a gay affair. Goldsmith points out that Olive has been fed many lies by Maria. If that is the case, there is little point in making it so difficult to recognize as one of Maria's lies (and what seems like a bad gay joke). It distracts too much from what is otherwise a powerful scene.

MORE:
The WIRED Charlie Kaufman interview
Creative Screenwriting screening interview
Charlie Kaufman interview at Lincoln Center
Jay Fernandez praises the script for Synechdoche, New York
Roger Ebert's insightful review and his reasons for choosing Synecdoche as his #1 of the decade



About J. Ott

John Ott is a writer, filmmaker and technology geek. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Very nice essay.
    I personally loved this movie regardless its meaning. It just got to me in a lot of ways.
    But still, you haven't mentioned the fact that we never see the REAL world. I mean, we're always in Hangar 2, which means there's got to be a Hangar 1 somewhere out there… And what's up with all those hints of a war going on?

  2. I just watched the movie for the first time, and I immediately went to the internet to find out some answers to the questions I had running through my mind. Your essay is wonderful. It provides quite a bit of research, back stories that a casual Kaufman fan would never know.

    This story is universal. It builds up in each of us and screams to be told from time to time, but we are too ashamed to admit we feel so helpless, insignificant and ignorant. So we repress it and push it down inside of us as far as we can so that we can back burner the dreaded feelings for as long as possible.

    The movie tries to the immeasurable void of darkness and despair that sometimes consumes us to our core into a workable medium. These transformative feelings have no shape, have no boundaries, yet Kaufman is able to visually show us a reflection of ourselves. He wrestles these unexplainable bunches of feeling and emotions for two hours on-screen, and just like us, he can't quite pin down this beast that resides in all of us. Absurdity and surrealism are the only tools to convey such a powerful message.

    Other ideas I think he especially focused on were the ideas of fate, our inability to truly feel empathy/sympathy for anyone but ourselves, solipsism, and quite obviously, the relativity of time.

    The Robert Frost poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," popped into my head immediately when the movie finished. Just like this movie, it is simple and profound all at the same time.

    Nature's first green is gold,
    Her hardest hue to hold.
    Her early leafs a flower;
    But only so an hour.
    Then leaf subsides to leaf.
    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down to day.
    Nothing gold can stay.

  3. This might be one of the worst movies I've ever seen in my life…

  4. Great to see some analysis of this great film on the net!

    Here are some of my thoughts having whatched it 5/6 times!:

    I think the house on fire represents her fears as a 36 year old woman of dying alone….

    Has anyone logged the number of scenes in which Sammy appears in the background before he is formally introduced? I reckon at least 10!
    I think the only reason the Sammy character commits suicide is that he has fallen in love with Hazel but realises he’s only a secondary character to Caden, so kills himself. I can’t understand why they rebuild the Berlin scene though? Are they recreating scenes form earlier in Cadens life? Or have they rebuilt Berlin as well as synedachy/new york?!

    You don’t mention the war/apocalyptic overtones at the end? I reckon Caden’s set/warehouses are now so vast that they have consumed the earth’s resources and people break in and run riot and the world is effectively destroyed!
    I am OK with the “ellen” character. The monologue that Caden hears while he is driving the buggy is all about how “you are everyone and everyone is you”. This allows him to make the connection with Ellen who he has never met, as a fellow member of the (perishing) human race.

    The bits I still don’t get are the cleaning lady character…How does caden become edeles cleaner? Does the real cleaner just not turn up and he is given the keys by the old lady? Or did sammy set it up?

    I’d have to say the funeral recreation scene is my least favourite scene! Its the first scene millicent has taken over the artistic vision and seems deliberately overwrought? Kind of like in adaptation where donald’s twin takes over writing and it turns into a more conventional Hollywood thriller? Also which funeral are they recreating? Hazel’s? And WHY DOES CADEN HAVE A FULL HEAD OF HARI IN THIS SCENE?(this really annoyed me….)

    Anyway what an amazing film..so many things to take from it..-lyrics I think by MrKaufman?

    I’m just a little person
    One person in a sea
    Of many little people
    Who are not aware of me

    I do my little job
    And live my little life
    Eat my little meals
    Miss my little kid and wife

    And somewhere, maybe someday
    Maybe somewhere far away
    I’ll find a second little person
    Who will look at me and say

    “I know you
    You’re the one I’ve waited for
    Let’s have some fun.”

  5. First off, I enjoyed reading your analysis of the piece!

    There were a few things that struck me as interesting but I haven’t been able to decipher completely I would love it if you would give your insights.

    Age
    In Caden’s first play he lets old people play young people. The question of age comes up silently a few times throughout the movie. He is always old, and his girl is always young. His daughter seems to become older faster than he does.

    Ellen
    His final choice of letting Ellen direct him is interesting because we start to see that Caden is coming to terms with the fact that he wants to no longer see the truth. He was always surrounded by death. He chose to ignore the fact that Hazel is not perfect for him (shown by the burning house) and follows her. This results in only death. When Ellen portrays him he likes what he sees, she is interesting and quite renewing. The funeral scene is the only scene in the whole movie that is out of place. It is created by the person that Caden wants to be, even when she is playing him.

    Ending

    I did not understand why all the people were dead at the end. Was it because of Ellens mis-directing or did they all take the role of Caden upon themselves and die. Everybody seems to die around Caden. Yet we see only his death as important ” there are 15 million people out there and each one is a main character” (this is probably incorrectly quoted but you know what I mean. This is a lie the play only ends when Caden dies not when any other character does.

    I would love to hear a response send it here please! Casesbach AT hotmail DOT com

  6. I have a couple comments (this is how I headed this before I started writing. I suppose what I mean to say now is, I have a couple paragraphs :)
    Caution: this is not neat or tidy. at all

    First of all, in my theory of Synecdoche, the Absurdism/Surrealism is explained in rational terms by the suggestion that Caden has actually killed himself (his therapist asks him “is that why you killed yourself?” and then rephrases it – also his therapist is his own self-evaluating consciousness, similar to the relationship displayed in Eternal Sunshine when Dr. Howard explains to a panicked and dreaming Joel “I’m you”). Caden remembers (falsely) having been stopped in his attempt at suicide, but the character who appears to show him as he truly is, ‘explains’ the fallacy to him by actually succeeding, and becoming a symbol of the fragmented state in which Caden now, well, lives.

    In my analysis, Caden is actually manifesting his own ailments in order to cope with the fact that not only is death inevitable, but it has already occurred to him. I think the last scene with Olive is a reality only to Caden, manifested by the fear remaining about Maria and Adele’s influence and his lack of effect on his child before he died. When the entire world-within-a-world and so on becomes apocalyptic as Caden himself dies, I think its a clue that all of it was an aspect his post-mortem self.
    The necessary acceptance of death – necessary to the character Caden, as well as to evolution of the story interpreted in this manner – becomes possible in the final scene, when Caden, trying through the whole film to mend and understand the things that went wrong in his life (thus requiring such a reflection of it), realizes that his life was not about him at all. He was not a main character in the selfish sense that led him through so many obstacles. He was just one of many, each a reflection, and each equally valuable.

  7. Final note/reiteration:

    In this interpretation, I think the story is resolved when Caden (which is a Welsh name meaning ‘itself’) realizes that he was Man, as it is expressed where Man means all of humanity, and that this quality existed in every person in his life.

    You’re welcome to e-mail me if you find this at all interesting
    Thank you for writing your piece. I really enjoyed it

    everythinghasmeaning@hotmail.com

  8. We’re watching the whole movie from Caden’s perspective. That, for me, explains most of the surreal stuff. When the house is on fire (without burning up) it’s a symbol of his own panic. Etc.


Leave a comment


No trackbacks yet.