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?”
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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