SPOILER WARNING : This column is an analysis of Synecdoche, New York and contains heavy spoilers.
I saw Charlie Kaufman‘s sublime film Synecdoche, New York for the third time at this year’s Ebertfest. I was interested to overhear the post-screening conversations outside the Virginia Theater after the screening, because I’ve always connected strongly to Kaufman’s work, and to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche in particular (take that bit of knowledge and make of my personality what you will).
I always find it surprising to hear people say they don’t “get” Kaufman’s work in general or find Synecdoche in particular too confusing or dark or weird or whatever. Maybe I possess just the right bizarre mix of dark fatalism and ruthlessly hopeful optimism that I find in Kaufman’s writing that allows me to connect with it in the way I do.
It was certainly interesting here at Ebertfest to have a chance to talk (however briefly) with Kaufman one-on-one in a non-interview context about the very personal nature of writing the kind of work he does, and how it can feel weird to have other people connect with what you, as a writer, put on the page from your darkest, most personal soul-space. Many (I won’t go quite so far as to say “all”) of the best writers are dark and neurotic, somewhat asocial and prone to bouts of azure mood swings, while at the same time having enough ego and exhibitionism to be willing to expose their nakedness on the page for others to judge. Certainly the most honest writers are willing to delve into their darkness as well as their light, and that’s true of some of my own favorite writers, Kaufman among them.
I explored that soul-searching kind of writing with my 1,000 Monkeys pieces over the last year, and when I wrote those essays, I was rather surprised at the response they generated from some of my readers, much of it very different from the kind of responses I tend to get to columns or reviews I write about film. I got many emails from folks who responded strongly to what I was writing during that time, or who thought it was brave of me to write so honestly about such painful things. It didn’t feel brave, to be honest; it was just all that was in me at the time to write, a voice that needed a pathway to get out, and I found it cathartic to do so … writing is one of the ways in which I’ve always processed feelings that are difficult to dissecct, though I’d never written quite so publicly about them.
Watching Synecdoche again after the year I’ve just gone through made me see the film differently than on my previous two viewings; while I’ve always responded emotionally to Kaufman’s writing in the film, this time I connected to it much more personally. The film itself (and, by the way, many of the films in this year’s Ebertfest slate) has a lot in it about the fears we all face as human beings with a finite amount of time in which to live out our existence, and how we choose to live our lives. Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a man beset by fear: fear of health problems, which are present both symbolically and actually throughout the story; fear of living and making decisions; fear of dying without having lived a life of particular “meaning,” without leaving a mark that says “I was here.”
Caden, like many of us, fears not living up to the expectations he sets for himself, or that he thinks others have of him; most of all, Caden fears himself and all that he thinks he lacks, his own emptiness. He tries desperately to define himself through his messed-up relationships with the various women in the film, including his daughter Olive, never quite succeeding in finding happiness or real fulfillment in any of them, while also trying to define himself through his work — something that anyone who writes or directs or paints or otherwise tries create art out of his or her own twisted lens of existence, can relate to.
Does the endlessly expanding set within a set within a set Caden builds for the play within a play within a play that never seems to end in some way represent Caden’s need to fill his soul, and the futility he finds in that effort? Kaufman, I expect, would simply shrug and say, “What does it mean to you?”
I was struck anew, in rewatching Synedoche, by how much deeply philosophical pondering Kaufman interweaves throughout his work. He’s really as much a philosopher as he is a writer of screenplays, though perhaps his work will never be seen as purely philosophical because he puts it on a movie screen instead of in an academic tome intended for other academics to ponder and pontificate about. Kaufman instead dares to explore his philosophy, his most deeply personal fears and qualms about himself and his own existence, into screenplays that will be made into movies that maybe people will pay to watch while eating a jumbo bucket of popcorn at the mutliplex, or more likely their local arthouse theater.
For all that Kaufman will say in interviews, as he did in the post-screening Q&A for Synecdoche at Ebertfest, that he’s never written any of his characters, even in Adaptation, to specifically reflect himself, I believe he’s interwoven bits and pieces of himself throughout all of his characters, all of his work, in ways both subtle and obvious. Don’t we all, as writers, do this to one degree or another? Even how we view and write about film is personal, if we’re reaching at all beyond the surface or the snark to really discover why and how we relate to it. What we we think about this or that film, the way in which we write about them, can’t help but reflect back pieces of who we are and what’s most important to us not just as critics, but as people struggling to live out an existence that feels meaningful to any degree.
In Synecdoche, even the smallest interactions between Caden and other people are layered with deeper meaning, as in a scene early in the film when Caden is talking to Adele, his wife, about the play he’s directing, Death of a Salesman, and how he put in too many lighting cues. “I don’t know why I made it so complicated,” he says, more to himself than to her. “It’s what you do, Caden,” Adele responds. Those five words tell us so much about the relationship between Caden and his wife, and foreshadow all the unspoken reasons why she wants to leave him and move on with her life, guilt-free. Caden is complicated, but he also complicates his life by the choices he makes and by how he interacts with others.
The burning house that Hazel moves into has always been a confusing aspect of the film. Why is the house constantly burning but never burning down? What’s the deeper meaning there? Kaufman puts it all out there in Hazel’s exchange with the realtor: “I like it, I really do,” Hazel says. “But I’m really concerned about dying in the fire.” The realtor shoots right back at her, “It’s a big decision, how one prefers to die.” And of course, Hazel buys and lives in the house and in the end finally dies of smoke inhalation. How often is it the things we think we can live with, the compromises we make, that ultimately serve to undo us? Which is really the heart of what the film is all about — how one prefers to live, how one prefers to die. The chances we take, the choices we make, what we do with the time we have.
This theme of death and dying is echoed throughout the film by funerals, by the death of Olive, who cannot forgive her father (or can he not forgive himself?), by the swan-diving suicide of Sammy, Caden’s doppleganger for the play within a play who, incidentally, becomes Caden’s competition for the love and attention of Hazel (is Sammy real, or just an aspect of Caden’s self?) and by a few words in a scene where Madeline, Caden’s therapist, tells him about a four-year-old who authored a best-selling book called “Little Winky” and then committed suicide at the age of five. “Why did he kill himself?” Caden asks. “Why did you?” she responds.
The minister’s speech near the end of the film really ripped at me on this viewing, more so that it ever has, and it felt to me that Kaufman had put all his philosophical ideas that he’s interwoven into the film into this one speech. Listen to the words that open the scene:
“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out.”
This is one of the greatest truths of life, is it not? Every choice we make, even those that seem insignficant at the time, impacts the trajectory our path will take. How we view others, how we interact with them, where we live, what we do for a living, where we work, where we go out to dinner, whether we marry this person or that one, whether we have children or don’t … we never know how each of those choices will impact the rest of our story, and we can never get a “do-over.”
In Synecdoche, Caden creates this endlessly expanding play within a play, all these pieces of himself acting and reacting against each other in a series of choices and interactions that, finally, take us to the end of his path, with Millicent/Ellen, the feminine aspect of Caden himself, whispering directions in his ear. As Hazel, his one true love, dies at last of smoke inhalation, as the play within a play within a play falls apart, sets tumbling to pieces and bodies everywhere, Caden collapses at last in the arms of Ellen’s mother.
He knows, at last, what to do with the play; there are no extras, everyone on the planet is the lead in their own story, and at the end, all Caden wants is this: “… someone to see me, someone to look at me with kindness. For me to be the most special person in the world to just one person.”
To be the most special person in the world to just one person. Isn’t that, at its heart, what it’s all about?
Fade to black.
– by Kim Voynar
April 28 , 2010