"Despite its slippery way with time and space and narrative and Mr. Kaufman’s controlled grasp of the medium, Synecdoche, New York is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies." -- Manohla Dargis, New York Times
"In Synecdoche, Kaufman has been afforded a privilege he doesn’t deserve; his unimaginative imagery never comes close to the magnificence that visionary director John Moore creates in the turbulent tableaux of Max Payne." -- Armond White, New York Press
The days that followed my seeing Synecdoche, New York were filled with introspection, self-analysis, and a heavy dose of depression. (That is, after the first day, which was spent nursing a doubleplusungood hangover from drinking my body weight in bourbon.) After learning about Cotard's syndrome, I found myself thinking about Jung and the process of individuation, so I began pulling books off my shelf.
Some years ago, I became obsessed with Jungian philosophy after reading William Gaddis' The Recognitions (to my mind the greatest novel ever written), particularly his ideas about alchemy (which he saw as a metaphor for the process of individuation and the transformation of the self) and synchronicity. Re-reading some of these texts made me wonder if Kaufman was at all influenced by Jung, for Caden's attempts at self-discovery seem to align perfectly with the famed Swiss psychiatrist's theories on personality integration.
Briefly, Jung believed that the world is little more than a projection of the self, and that everything we experience reveals pieces of who we are. Jung felt that analysis of both our waking and dream states is necessary in the quest for meaning, and Kaufman presents Caden's existence as a blending of the two. From middle-age onwards, our quest for meaning and self-realization -- the completion and integration of the personality -- becomes the top priority. It's a deeply introspective period when we try to find meaning in both our life and our death. Failure to find such meaning can lead to pathological aging, which is exactly what Caden experiences through the onset of physiological symptoms of all sorts. (Symptoms which, interestingly enough, disappear after Caden begins his Über-project.)
There are four stages to the individuation process, all of which Caden goes through:
- Becoming conscious of the shadow. The shadow possesses those characteristics of the ego that we tend to push aside -- our dark places, our weaknesses, fears, hidden desires, etc. The shadow normally appears in dreams, but in Synecdoche he exits in Caden's construct of reality in the form of Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), who has been observing Caden for over twenty years. Yet instead of integrating the shadow into his persona, Caden lets it run loose, where it eventually becomes more him than him (in that Sammy begins a successful affair with Hazel, something Caden could never do.) Sammy's death can, perhaps, be seen as Caden finally coming to terms with his shadow, though killing it might not have been the wisest choice.
- Becoming conscious of the anima/animus. Jung believes it is critical that we locate traits of the opposite gender within us. For men, that requires an acceptance of the anima, or female psychological tendencies. Once again we see it manifesting itself not in Caden's persona, but in his "real" world. It begins with several occurrences of people mistaking Caden for a woman, which is odd as there's nothing visible/audible that should cause that confusion. Then, like Sammy, Caden's anima appears as Millicent Weems/Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest), though this time Caden takes it one step further than the shadow and actually trades places with her. This leads to the third stage:
- Becoming conscious of the archetypal spirit. In our waning years, Jung believes we begin to take on "mana personalities", which are associated with the archetypes of the wise-old man and the earth mother. Yet in Caden's case, he hasn't let go of the anima, for though he is now an old man, he takes on a female role, and assumes the identity of the cleaning woman Ellen Bascomb.
- The final stage of the individuation process is self-realization, which requires the proper relationship between the ego and the self. One could argue either way as to whether or not Caden successfully reaches this stage. For whereas he has learned a bit more about life and love (albeit too late), his failure to live has left him an empty shell who functions only on orders spoken to him by his anima. (Get up, eat, say thank you, etc.) Even his death has to come via prompting -- it's a stage direction, neither peaceful nor harmonious. (This is another of the film's great tragedies that caused me all sorts of unrest.)
The individuation process is about the uniting of opposites -- good and evil, masculine and feminine, matter and spirit, body and psyche. There's no question that Caden undertakes the journey, but he fails to become an individual, both literally and psychologically. Caden treats his life (both the conscious and unconscious elements) like a stage play, yet his attempt at directing from an omniscient position robs him of (in alchemical terms) the prima materia required for one to be a person.
As for synchronicity, the film is full of seemingly inexplicable but meaningful coincidences -- phrases repeated, mirroring actions, etc. Jung believed that synchronicity occurs when the order of things is not as usual, when "a causality which presupposes space and time for its continuance can no longer be said to exist and becomes altogether unthinkable." Events in the mind become indiscernible from those in the real world. Is this not what Kaufman presents to us, from the very first scene? There is a patterning of events that are joined not by time, but by meaning alone. Yet Caden suffers from an inability to determine the meaning behind these events, and their connection to both his unconscious psyche and the outer world. To do so requires what Jung called a consolidated ego, something Caden clearly doesn't possess.
Critical Reaction, Reactionary Critics, and Reactions to Reactions
From the moment the end credits began rolling, I knew that critics would be fiercely divided. At the press screening I attended, I overheard more negative reactions than positive. An online critic (and I use that term loosely) who I often see at screenings was seriously whining on the way out (to nobody in particular) "How am I supposed to synopsize this?" It was then that I made a mad dash for the elevator -- I had to get away from these people.
The critical response has been, for the most part, love it or hate it. There weren't many fair to middling reviews, and there was just as much passion for it as there was against. I've already commented on Rex Reed's insane bit of scribbling about the film, and there's a choice quote from Armond White's slightly-less-insane-but-just-barely review above, which goes on to refer to fans of the film as "nerds and fashion-sheep." Reading through the negative reviews, I find the same criticisms over and over -- humorless, pretentious, overly-ambitious, depressing -- combined with an unwillingness to, well, search for meaning behind the images. (The perpetually burning house triggered a flippant dismissal from many.) But how to explain the outright hostility towards the film? (Yes, Keith, I'm looking at you.) Could it be that that the film hits too close to home, or causes, against one's will, reflection on his or her own existence?
Synecdoche, New York is about nothing but subjectivity, so it seems only natural for that to be reflected in a critical response. This is why I so admire Manohla Dargis' and Roger Ebert's takes on the film. Both are unabashedly subjective, yet still function as wonderful pieces of film criticism. There were a few negative comments left on this site about Manohla's review, which I felt were unjust. As I said in my first part of the review, the film questions what it means to be a person, and the way in which we experience ourselves in relation to the world around us. How can this be ignored when creating an honest response to it? One can certainly approach the film with a feigned objectivity, but it smacks of disingenuousness. (cf. Anthony Lane's negative review.)
Eternal Dualism of the Unenlightened Mind
Oh yes, I was going to write about the film's debt to Buddhism and relative reality, overcoming dualism, maya (illusion), and being and non-being. Maybe a part 3? (One day, perhaps....)