Why couldn't the world that concerns us be a fiction? And if somebody asked, "but to be a fiction there surely belongs an author?" -- couldn't one answer simply, why? Doesn't this "belongs" perhaps belong to the fiction, too? -Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Over the coming weeks/months I imagine there will be a handful of thought provoking and intellectually satiating essays on Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. Everything post (-modernism, -structuralism -hoc ergo propter hoc) and meta (-narrative, -physics, -textuality) about the film will be collected, inspected and dissected. Brilliant analyses of the film's complete disregard for space, time, and causal determinism will flow like Night Train from a hobo's bladder.
This will not be one of them.
I've already written briefly about the psycho (-logical, -tropic, -leptic, -somatic) effects the film had on me, but each time I attempt to pen a review of the film, I find myself producing little more than an extended monologue cum therapy session. Nobody needs that. Yet for all the alcohol consumed and tears shed (not to mention the sleepless nights) I feel as if an abreaction is necessary, if only for catharsis.
[Note: spoilers follow.]
Let me get the easy stuff out of the way. Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman's meditation on (amongst other things) death, failure, despair, heartache, the dualism of art and life, and the process of individuation is nothing short of a masterpiece. With traces of Jungian and Buddhist philosophy throughout, it's clearly a deeply personal, subjective work that somehow maintains a healthy objectivity, and avoids the expected narcissism from a work of this nature.
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 40-something playwright living in Schenectady, NY with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their daughter Olive. A loveless marriage, illnesses (real and/or imagined), and a sense of artistic dissatisfaction are the perfect ingredients for a mid-life meltdown. A MacArthur genius grant affords him the luxury to create his masterpiece, a work of brutal honesty that, in his words, delves into the depths of his lonely, fucked-up being. In a massive warehouse, Caden reconstructs his life and the people in it, which includes this reconstruction itself and so on and so on. It's all very Kaufmanesque -- there are Doppelgangers with their own Doppelgangers, a playful sense of the surreal, and an ever increasing blurring and merging of art and real life. Yet beneath the surface lies a complexity of ideas that practically demands repeated viewings.
I missed it the first time, but the opening scene -- a single day in Caden's domestic life situated around a head wound-- begins on September 14 and ends on December 31st. There are six or seven date changes within the scene, the first of many instances where the linearity of events is divorced from the progression (or regression) of time. (The calendar on the following day reads March 2006.) More than just a statement on the compression of time as we get older (something I've experienced quite dramatically since turning 40), this acausal ordering principle is indicative of a disharmony in Caden's fragmented, dualistic existence.
The grant Caden receives is the ideal opportunity for him to stop mounting productions of other playwright's works and create something that he can proudly leave behind. Yet seventeen years of rehearsals yields nothing but unconnected, unhappy fragments, both real and imagined. (Caden gives his actors tiny slips of paper with scene ideas -- You lost your job, You were raped yesterday, etc.) Caught up in redirecting his life (up to and including the very moment), he fails to live any of it. Years fly by without him realizing. His daughter growing up, a second marriage, another child -- all of it exists merely as material for his opus, as the blur between art and reality grows thicker. An unexamined life might not be worth living, but what if the examining replaces the actual living?
The choices we make in our lives -- from seemingly insignificant matters to life-altering moments -- are at the heart of Kaufman's screenplay, and death is no exception. When Hazel (Samantha Morton) expresses concerns about moving into a house permanently on fire, the realtor nonchalantly says that's it's a big decision how one prefers to die. There are at least half-a-dozen characters in the film who shuffle off this mortal coil, yet Caden, so encumbered by his life's work, can't even die without direction.
Obsession with death is nothing new in cinema, but Kaufman's take on it is particularly bleak. For Bergman, death is often tied to man's relationship with god (or lack thereof), whereas Woody Allen uses comedy as a defense mechanism for his fears. In Synecdoche, New York, death is anything but peaceful -- there's decay, disease, infection, and agonizing pain. Bodies literally break down, such that coffins have to be stuffed with cotton balls to keep bones from rattling around. Kaufman legitimizes all of our worst fears about dying.
The emotional gut-punch the film inflicted wasn't about mere self-identification. While it's true that there are some parallels between Caden's life and my own (and one could easily argue that I'm becoming as schlubby as Hoffman), the personal resonance comes from a place of heightened profundity. (Not all of which I'm willing to share here.) Sure, I'm plagued with worries of illness, growing older, and not having accomplished anything significant, but that's not where the film hit me hardest. A forgotten chapter from my childhood, one I'd not thought of in ages, came rushing back during my post-screening alcohol binge, something that no work of art has ever done.
Between the ages of nine and eleven I believed that my life, my entire existence, was part of some grand staged work, and that an unseen audience was observing me at all times. (Mind you, this is decades before the cultural obsession with "reality" media.) It wasn't frightening, nor did it seem invasive, but it did, at times, dictate my behavior, in that I would be conscious of how I did things -- eat, dress, shower, interact with people, etc. -- given that I believed I was on stage, as it were. Caden seems to suffer from the same delusion, and the recreation of his world within a soundstage is an attempt at making manifest this belief. Late in the film, Caden is told that "there is no one watching you, and there never was." The devastation of that blow is not from a shattered ego, narcissistic complex, or a difficulty accepting his insignificance in the grand scheme of things -- Caden has never been one to think highly of himself -- but from his too-late realization of how to live, of simply how to be a person. Hazel's death awakens him to the importance of living in (and through) each moment, and his decision to change the play to cover but a single day in his life is the very definition of tragic. (And it nearly destroyed me.)
Kaufman's chosen surname for Caden is ironically apt. Cotard's Syndrome is the belief that one is dead, decaying, or does not even exist. While it may seem that this is exactly what Caden is suffering from, my second viewing of the film made me think the exact opposite. Caden wants nothing but to exist, but it's the world that seems unwilling to acknowledge or recognize him. Several times in the film he's mistaken for dead, a homosexual, or a woman. (There's a ton of Jung tied up in all this, but I'll save that for second part of the post.)
Synecdoche, New York questions exactly what it means to be a person, and the far reaching effects of the choices we make. Like Adele's miniature paintings, which require magnifying glasses in order to see their rich detail, so too does Kaufman's film. On the surface it's a grand, complicated, sprawling affair (like Caden's art -- built to scale) but the essence and meaning of it all is buried in the details. Take of it what you will.
As the priest says towards the end of the film, "everybody has their misery, but fuck everybody."
[The second, far more objective half of this piece will address Jung, synchronicity, the process of individuation, Buddhism, and, in Kaufmanesque fashion, both the critical reaction as well as the critical reaction to the critical reaction to the film.]