Life Itself | Synecdoche, New York Retrospective at 15

In ‘The Oval Portrait,’ Edgar Allan Poe writes of the discovery of a haunted painting in an,old château. The fable goes that its author worked ceaselessly to portray his beloved as realistically as possible, working day and night to realise his magnum opus. The woman sat patient for what must have seemed like centuries, waiting for him to finish. But time slipped away from him; life and death ran their course while the construction of the portrait seemed to reach no end. 

“This is indeed Life itself!” he proclaims, satisfied with his completed work. But when he looks up from his tools, he finds his lover dead. His triumphant words now take on double meaning. The broader the painter’s vision, the narrower his perspective – a gaze that never averted, but inevitably lost focus. And in this new world that the artist created for himself, the bigger it became, the more it consumed and side-lined its referent (life and love). 

‘07:45’: an alarm clock flips in the opening shot of Synecdoche, New York. We’ve just faded in from a peculiar grey, the same grey we will fade out to at the end. Philip Seymour Hoffman wakes up as Caden Cotard, a theatre director living in Schenectady, New York, with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and 4-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). When we meet them, Caden is opening with a new interpretation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Meanwhile, Adele is an artist in her own right, working on a series of miniature paintings (specifically, portraits of the people she knows) about to be shipped to an exhibition in Berlin. 

After Adele leaves him for a new life with Olive and her lover Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Caden receives a MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Grant”) to pursue a new project. Next to embarking on a series of new relationships over time, he decides to use the funds to create his grand masterwork of realism: an all-encompassing play staged in a warehouse the size of a plane hangar – a play of life itself, in which the cast ‘act’ out their mundane lives to the minutest detail, but which becomes increasingly focused on a simulation of Caden’s own experiences (Caden even casts his stalker Sammy to play himself). In a diner with his new partner/production assistant Hazel (Samantha Morton), he proffers, ‘I want all of us, players and patrons alike, to soak in the communal bath of it; the mikveh, as the Jews call it. Because we’re all in the same water, after all.’ 


This is of course a self-serving conceit: what the artist wants his lover to hear. Years later, after Caden fails an attempt to reconnect with Olive and almost kills himself seeing Hazel now happily married with kids, he consolidates his power with brute honesty. To the vast panoply of actors rehearsing his play, he proclaims, ‘‘I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal…’ then later invokes God as the source of his ‘notes’ (see image below). Anger now shapes the work, the truth distorted under Caden’s paradoxical directive. Instead of The Truman Show’s credible paint-plywood sky, a series of arch girders support the grey roof of the endless theatre warehouse, coldly enframing the totalising nature of his life’s work. This is strictly Caden’s bathwater. 

Writing here for the 15th anniversary of its release, this marked my fourth watch of the film, my second favourite of Charlie Kaufman’s films after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. On each re-watch is the refreshing reminder that the film – despite all of its entanglements and subversions of conventional mechanics – resists some of Kaufman’s more tiresome proclivities. Chiefly, from Being John Malkovich to his 2020 debut novel Antkind, he likes to give us an ingenious premise, populated by a set of slightly-cracked individuals, then to run it through a frantic pace and series of set pieces designed to evoke a mental breakdown. Consider the winding forays into John Malkovich’s cerebral canals, the lovers running through collapsing memories, the voices of everyone you meet played by Tom Noonan…

Rather than sheer freneticism (which Synecdoche still bears prominently), Kaufman allows his abstruse kookiness to develop more beautifully into a startling emotional gush of the universal truths of love, death, and inadequacy. In the cross-cut of several side-plots – Caden’s ‘building’ of the play, his fraught sexual relationships, his fading connection with Olive, the symbolic antagonism with Adele’s career – each achieves poignant culmination through deeply imaginative visuals and the verbal clarity of someone embracing death as a return to the nothingness from which we emerged, a fact Caden cannot accept even at the very end. In one of Kaufman’s more overt metaphors, Caden enters a sealed-off building through a tear in the plastic tarp; images of a womb-like re-entry, the same pale grey we see first and last. 

Caden’s death is a return. 

That said, the film still invokes the fabric of an anxious spiral and decline. Centralising the expression of Caden’s breakdown into corporal maladies and mishaps, Kaufman invites us to a series of morbidly-executed schlemiel gags. A faucet bursts and gashes Caden’s forehead; his ‘pupils don’t work’; his joints are stiff; his stool might be bloody (his urine definitely is!); lesions like epidermal tapeworms have started appearing on his forearms; pustules are swelling from his cheek; a rash is developing on his right leg; he undergoes gum surgery, after which he suffers a seizure in bed; his neurosis develops into restless leg syndrome; suicide becomes an increasingly enticing option. 

Moreover, Caden doesn’t notice that time for him has become dilated (a week has suddenly been a year; Caden maintains Olive is 4 but Adele’s girlfriend claims she’s almost 12). One day, an actor asks Caden, ‘when are we going to get an audience in here? It’s been 17 years,’ spotlighting his ignorance of a time beyond himself (we certainly had no idea it was this long; by watching the film, am I inside Caden’s head?). ‘Death comes faster than you think,’ a stranger warns as Caden sighs from a German breathing apparatus. Kaufman implies that Caden’s self-absorption causes him to misconstrue the pace of time: the relativity of speed and perception between that of a giant and an ant. 

Like the painter in ‘The Oval Portrait,’ – who allows for a method that no longer just represents but occludes the original real-life subject (the subject of ‘Life’ itself) – Caden is consumed by the ever-expanding construction of his master-work, itself not just a reconstitution of his ego but a distraction from death. The work turns as uncanny as it is unwieldy, feigning the painful consequences of real-life decisions – the facsimiles of a universe of cause and effect – while Life itself, literally and figuratively, dies away. Civil unrest grows on the street and wayward refugees need the hangar for shelter, but are refused entry by Caden. Later, Caden announces his first working title, ‘Simulacrum’, then incorporates this societal distress into the play. It’s a deliberately cheap joke on Kaufman’s part, but it also signifies the committed segregation of the world from the artwork (of this film, even), only for it then to absorb its referent and take on a life of its own. 

And whereas Life stood as the original referent, events within the space of the warehouse also became incorporated (or, replicated) within the play. That reality which we saw represented before the project’s inception is no longer re-visited: when we see the warehouse later, it’s actually a smaller warehouse within the original (see image below). In this tangle, the recursive quality of life is revealed – its truth, Caden must think. 

Kaufman’s subsequent directorial efforts have delved even further into personal relationships and his signature brand of existentialist dread. But unlike Synecdoche, New York, none have been quite as interested in a meditation on the nature of art itself, here beginning with its eponymous conceit. Merriam-Webster defines ‘synecdoche’ as ‘a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole.’ Examples: ‘hand in marriage,’ or referring to your car as ‘wheels.’ Further, ‘synecdoche’ typically breaks off into either ‘microcosm’ or ‘macrocosm,’ the previous examples illustrating the former. In other words, ‘synecdoche’ denotes a representation of a general whole. A person denoting the world, a city denoting the mind… 

Appropriately, this brings us to the main conflict between Caden and Adele. While his artistic impulse is ‘maximalist’ – to make everything giant and ‘complicated’ – his wife settles in her workshop with the opposite principle: ‘minimalist’ paintings smaller than postage stamps (see images below). Her work requires ultra-small brushes and magnifying lenses, the latter also needed to view them in a gallery. Her subjects? The people in her life. It is the difference between one who looks outward and one who looks inward. Adele recognises that the world of the artwork requires no great expanse: just work, focus, and devotion to the subject at hand. It does not require a subsumption of the world around her. In fact, just as much as her work is of the world, it is also for it. We see her work exhibited at various points in the film, while Caden’s play is never even completed. 

To be sure, Adele also lets reality slip from her fingers. From what we eventually find out, Adele has spent a life torn between her daughter’s neglect and the nurturing of a free spirit. A newspaper reports that, at age 12, Olive has become the youngest person in history to get a full-sleeve tattoo. Much later, these tattoos become infected and kill her, dying in a hospital bed next to Maria, her perverse childhood groomer and formerly her mother’s lover. Moreover, Adele dies of a lung cancer that she ignored throughout her life. But with her, there is the sense of a life fully ‘lived’. With Caden, he builds as if constantly preparing for life – rehearsing for a play yet to premiere. 

On the one hand, there is truth to Caden’s method. Anxiety and dread manifest in precisely the way he constructs his stage-set; the world becomes far bigger than it actually is. In his essay on Proust’s masterpiece (referenced here in a key close-up), Walter Benjamin writes, ‘[In Search of Lost Time] is the result of an unconstruable synthesis in which the absorption of a mystic, the art of a prose writer, the verve of a satirist, the erudition of a scholar, and the self-consciousness of a monomaniac have combined in an autobiographical work.’ Caden assumes this credo of all-encompassing inclusion to depict his ‘lonely, fucked-up being,’ adding and altering things as he goes. 

But crucially, it also seems that Caden’s growing ‘complications’ are the result of a specific source of his anxiety: of his wife besting him in every way. She finds her identity, her method, her sexuality, her maxim for living in the film. When she leaves him, he finds a lump. 

Maximalism/Minimalism: the principle difference between Caden and Adele’s work. 

For someone who was about to make his first directorial feature, we can glean a certain irony and self-critique in Kaufman’s treatment of the story. Kaufman would previously frequent the sets of the films whose scripts bore his name, watching other directors work his material. (I can just imagine him like the hunched Nicolas Cage in the opening to Adaptation, studying the goings and workings of the American film set). From those experiences, Kaufman must have observed the communal entirety of how a film is put together, contradicted by the presence of a central figurehead (the director). 

At the 2011 BAFTA Screenwriter’s Lecture, he admits his attraction to being a director: ‘I do feel like I wanted to take the step to direct things as well. Not because of dissatisfaction with [my previous movies]… I like the idea of it: of having that kind of control,’ a sentence that might appeal to Caden’s frustrated dictatorial impulses. At odds with this power and control is the (minimalist) impulse of the artist that dares to quietly ink 120 pages of a screenplay. One can see how frustration grows when the artist’s original intentions are inevitably subsumed by the industrial scale and logic of even the smallest film production. 

15 years after the film’s release, one sees not only Kaufman’s influence on other filmmakers, but also what marks him as a singular artist. For me, his films are distinguished by their committed embrace of an absurdist (dream) logic that never compromises itself with a possible explanation; such a director is rare. Most films refrain from absurdismin general.

And more ambitious films like Beau is Afraid (heavily inspired by Synecdoche) flirt with it up to a point, betraying themselves by suggesting practical explanations for their characters’ crazy escapades (they were on drugs; or, don’t worry it was all in their head). 

Kaufman’s absurdism is essential to the character of his films: the resulting imagery informs the shades of both his humour and his deeper inclinations. Hazel is looking to buy the house she’s always wanted, a yellow oddity that’s constantly on fire and just about breathable inside amidst the growing smoke (the gag delivered like a serious line: “I like it, I do, I’m just really concerned about dying in the fire”). The marriage counsellor (Hope Davis) insists on wearing shoes which are too tight, despite the fact that they are creating grotesque sores on her feet. Caden’s face randomly appears on bus-stop ads and as the protagonist of a cartoon show that Olive is watching. 

Caden’s anxiety makes him perceive a world that seems to be on edge. A connective tissue is formed between how he feels and how the world seems to be: a thing in pain. And that pain comes from a confronting with death; which one either accepts, or packs as much as they can into a life before the final call. Just as Caden expresses his anxiety gigantically, Kaufman’s absurdist gags demonstrate how anxiety and neurosis transform the world into something uglier and crazier; into a mirror. Caden’s recursive horror is that his life doesn’t growor develop, only simulates and (re)simulates. He refuses to admit most anomalies (Sammy jumped off the balcony, but he didn’t) but wishes for a narrative harmony that life could never grant him. 

Kaufman’s films are never short of a plethora of jokes that mask the core of a dark philosophy. However, the combination of this pessimism with an eventual outpouring of something warmer is what comforts us with the truth. It’s possible that Caden, by striving to complete the play, seeks a respite from the tragedy of death; if something keeps growing, how can it die? But, as he’s told by an ear-piece at the very end, at some point our clocks do not complete a full circle. We must accept getting smaller and smaller; death is life itself. Until, ‘you are here at 07:43. Now you are here at 07:44. Now you are – gone.’

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