Friday, April 15, 2011
Synecdoche, New York
John and Ben, thanks for your comments on the list. Looking at your top 10 John, I realize I haven't seen most of them. I saw Mister Lonely but don't remember it too well. I probably watched it too late at night. I forgot about In Bruges. That was awesome. I should have edited my list better and accounted for things I have watched since I made it.
Ben, I saw Wendy and Lucy and really liked it. My old girlfriend loved it and I hate her now, so I still have lingering resentments towards anything she likes. Petty, I know...but what can you do. Love is cruel like that. Also, I haven’t seen the film Candy, but I read the book. Pretty intense.
Because you asked for it:
Synecdoche, New York is seemingly indescribable at first. It’s daunting to watch as it is, let alone to write about. It defies simple categorization, brief synopsis, and unifying analysis. It isn’t meant to be placed in a box and wrapped up neatly without anything missing or left over. It’s supposed to be baffling and undecipherable, at least to some degree. It’s like all truly great works of art in that it cannot be summed up in one description but needs to be analyzed and argued over for centuries. And even then it won’t be fully realized. There in lies it’s majesty. It’s a great puzzle that can be put together numerous ways and yet it always eludes completion. But I think it is worth trying to put together even if it never produces a whole.
I got an A on the paper I wrote on the film a few years back. My professor himself was so bewildered by the film that he said he would at least give me a B+ for trying to write about it. I don’t know why I was so ambitious to write about it. Maybe because I wanted to try and make sense of it so that I could express why it was such a masterpiece. Maybe because I wanted to watch it five or six times and the paper gave me a good excuse to do so. Reading this paper again, I think it kind of sucks. It’s amazing how much you develop as a writer even in just two years. Oh well, there are some decent ideas in there, but I would probably do a better job writing it today. Please, go easy on me. Oh and the thing is 11 pages but it still only scratches the surface. Enjoy or cringe (I think this is the unedited version so there are probably mistakes):
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) explores the cinematic space of subjective reality by entering Caden Cotard’s mind. Kaufman progresses the film from an objective world of the everyday into a subjective world of the surreal. He does this to portray reality realistically as a manifestation of the subject’s consciousness but also to engage the viewer on a fantastical level. The transformation of an objective world into a subjective one is done to juxtapose the two differing representations of reality and also to produce the Freudian concept of “the uncanny” in the us, the audience. It is this sense of the uncanny that gives the film its haunting and horrifying resonance.
The subjective, for the sake of the film, will be defined as reality that is “perceived” by the subject. It takes into account the fantasias, exaggerations, dreams, and nightmares of the subject. Conversely, the objective will be defined as reality that is independent of the mind. It presents the world of the everyday and distances us from the inner workings of the subject(s). Film is generally an objective medium. What one character experiences can be experienced by any other character, and typically there is no consideration for changing perspectives or subjectivity. This lack of subjectivity is ultimately unrealistic. Film often presents an objective, privileged position or space that can never be attained by any subject outside of it. We, as subjects, only experience reality as our consciousness dictates. We cannot experience the objective but can only imagine it as something outside ourselves, yet film is largely concerned with presenting this imagined objectivity. In an interview, Charlie Kaufman discusses objectivity in film: “The whole idea of literal realism [in film]...it’s all a contrivance and a convention that we accept...but, when you break them down, they don’t look like real life, even those that are pretending to” (Kaufman). The importance of subjective reality is overlooked in films that rely on the objective as a dominating perspective or experience. However, subjectivity is essential to understanding reality. “Subjectivity is a real property of experience; it is sui generis and irreducible to other kinds of properties; it is essentially and exclusively a first-person phenomenon, and it is the key to understanding consciousness” (Biro, 115). Indeed, in an interview about the film, Kaufman hints at the importance of subjectivity in film. When discussing Synecdoche, New York, he states: “It’s an exploration of the inner world through trying to understand what’s happening outside of yourself, which is what I think we do. We constantly put the exterior world into stories that come from inside us. That’s how we organize things. That’s what we try to do to make sense of this very confusing existence we have. Again, we think this is reality: the projection of ourselves onto the outside world, all of it in fact, down to what we see. I think it’s really interesting that visually the world doesn’t exist. It only exists as our brain’s interpretation” (Kaufman). This notion of the existence of the world as “our brain’s interpretation” is key to understanding the space represented by Synecdoche, New York.
In Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman progresses the narrative and cinematic space from an objective world in which the subject is a part into a world that is entirely subjective. Kaufman does this by shifting the film’s perspective from outside Caden’s mind to entirely within Caden’s mind and imagination. The juxtaposition of the objective in the beginning of the film with the subjective in the latter portion of the film is partly utilized by Kaufman to highlight the difference between the two. Ultimately, he wants the viewer to judge which is more realistic. However, the distinctions between the objective and the subjective are not obvious. Kaufman deliberately blends the objective and subjective so that the viewer is unsure of which is which. Even in the beginning of the film, Kaufman deliberately mixes subjective scenes with objective ones to give a sense of unease and also to foreshadow the film’s eventual abandonment of all objective reality. The objective reality in the beginning of the film is established by several initial scenes in the film. These scenes, for the most part, exist outside the world of Caden’s mind. We can essentially characterize these scenes as the commonplace or everyday; they are not influenced by Caden’s perspective. For instance, in the opening of the film Caden wakes up, gets the mail, and eats breakfast; all of this is objectively possible and seemingly prosaic. Kaufman emphasizes the banality of these chores by making days pass by impossibly quick. Caden looks at his paper the first time and sees that the date is October 17th. He then looks at milk carton with the date October 20th and exclaims that the milk has expired. Following this, a man on the radio shouts, “Happy Halloween Schnectedy,” and Caden looks at his paper again only to reveal the date as November 2nd. Kaufman does this to show Caden’s mornings as routine; Caden does the same thing everyday, and changing the dates is a way to exaggerate this routine. Kaufman also does this to give the viewer Caden’s perspective of this routine. Kaufman introduces this subjective reality subtly to show the viewer that Caden’s perspective is essential to the film and that it will often manifest itself as the surreal. The viewer knows that it is Caden’s perspective because this date change is objectively impossible. However, the film does not yet fully enter Caden’s mind; instead, it remains grounded in the objective, at least initially. The objective is further shown when Caden goes to work and the viewer is introduced to Hazel. When Caden is rehearsing his play something goes wrong, but it seems like a common problem when working on a set; it’s objectively possible that the set might malfunction; reality has not become distorted yet. Likewise, when Caden first talks to Hazel in the film, their conversation is flirtatious but not out of the ordinary; it seems like an objectively realistic conversation. These scenes, in which the ordinary occurs, are the objective in the film. They introduce the world outside of Caden’s mind so that when we do enter Caden’s mind, it is all the more glaring and surreal.
The subjective is melded into the beginning of the film in several scenes, but these subjective scenes merely give Caden’s perceptions and are grounded in objectivity. Examples of these subjective scenes are those when Caden visits doctors. Every scene in which Caden visits a doctor is subjective; we see Caden’s perceptions of the doctors and the events. The first visit Caden makes to a doctor, after the faucet hits his head, displays Caden’s perception of the doctor. Caden’s fear of death and hypochondria influence his perception of the doctor. Caden imagines that the doctor can give him no answers but only issue him another examination. The remainder of his visits to doctors are similar. Caden visits an opthemologist who inaccurately tells him that “the eyes are part of the brain, afterall” and who also issues another examination. These scenes where doctors give no answers but only offer more questions are products of Caden’s fear of illness and death. The doctors are excessively callous and ambiguous because Caden perceives them as such. However, after this visits to the doctor, we are returned to the objective, such as with Caden’s car ride with Adele and Olive or his work on Death of a Salesmen.
Eventually, the film becomes completely subjective. The film is no longer grounded in objectivity but exists solely within the mind of Caden Cotard. When this occurs, Kaufman essentially ceases to direct the film as an objective narrative but lets Caden’s mind dictate the rest of the film as a subjective narrative. Thus, we are exposed to whims of Caden’s mind; we see his dreams, nightmares, fantasies, and distorted perceptions. When this transformation occurs is difficult to decipher because Kaufman never tells the viewer when the perspectives change. It is up to the viewer to distinguish between the two. However, one way of deciphering between the objective and the subjective is through Caden’s art. In the beginning of the film, there is an audience for his play, but there is no audience for his theatre piece in the warehouse. We know that Caden’s Death of a Salesman production exists objectively because there is an audience, and we know the theatre piece in the warehouse exists within Caden’s mind because no audience can possibly see it. Thus, once Caden begins the production in the warehouse, we have entered Caden’s mind. Possibly, the last objective event occurs when Caden receives the MacArthur Grant. After this, the film enters into Caden’s mind and we see the world solely through his perspective without any objective grounding or framing. Because the subsequent film takes place within Caden’s mind, it is impossible to differentiate between what is real and what is fantasy. If we view the Grant as the last objective event in the film, then we can say that Caden does use the money to try and make a theatre piece that is true to life. Beyond that, we cannot say what Caden actually does or what actually happens. We can only say that the rest of the film is subject to his perceptions of reality.
One way Kaufman shows that the remainder of the film exists within Caden’s mind is through the impossible. Kaufman allows events to occur that are objectively impossible but subjectively possible. The warehouse Caden rents to make his theatre piece is impossibly large. Caden builds a life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse in New York City. This replica has its own warehouse with another life-size replica of the first replica and this goes on ad infinitum. This is obviously impossible. The only way it is possible is if it exists in Caden’s mind. Thus, the warehouse and the entire theatre piece Caden creates in it, including the actors, are figments of Caden’s imagination, but that does not make them unreal. Kaufman deliberately makes the scenes within the warehouse realistic. He does this by making the sets realistic and by having many of the actors be real people from the objective scenes in the beginning of the film. By treating the world in Caden’s mind as if it were the objective world and creating a cinematic space out of it, Kaufman argues that the subjective is just as real as the objective.
Furthermore, Kaufman uses the impossible in Caden’s perception of his daughter, Olive. After Adele and Olive leave Caden for Berlin, he never sees either of them again. We know this because Caden’s association with them after this becomes increasingly impossible. Firstly, Caden reads Olive’s diary and receives constant updates on her life through this. Olive left the diary behind when she went to Berlin; thus, everything Caden reads in it is imagined. When Caden reads it, he imagines horrible things are happening to Olive. The imagination has the power to torment because it is limitless in possibility. So, first Caden imagines Olive is covered in tattoos and is an erotic dancer. In his imagination, he fantasizes about visiting her as she dances. We know this is imagined because Caden sees an advertisement for Olive’s dancing while still in New York City. However, this is the New York City of Caden’s mind, so it is subjectively possible that Berlin is merely a part of this perceived city. Because the City contains Caden’s entire perceived reality, he can visit Olive without actually visiting her. When he sees her dancing, he screams to her and pounds on the glass that separates them, but she does not respond. This scene has the symbolism and horror of a nightmare. Symbolically, the glass represents the fact that he can not see her again; her tattooed body and indifference to his cries represent her imagined self in Caden’s mind; Caden’s cries to her represent his horror at not being able to reach her. Ultimately, the nightmare is that Caden sees Olive but cannot reach her. Similarly, when Caden visits Olive’s death bed, the scene has the same nightmare qualities. Symbolically, the language barrier that exists between them again represents Caden’s inability to reach Olive; he can talk to her but only through translation. Likewise, Olive’s misperception about Caden abandoning her to become a homosexual represents the imagined perception Caden thinks Olive has of him. Because he has been able to reach her, his horror is that she thinks he has abandoned her and will not forgive him. The fact that the tattoos kill Olive only strengthens the idea that it is a nightmare. Since the tattoos represent Caden’s terror over what he imagines has been done to Olive, his terror ultimately kills her in his mind. Thus, Caden’s entire relationship with Olive after she leaves Berlin is imagined; his scenes with her are merely nightmares. Kaufman does not tell us that they are nightmares because we are solely within Caden’s mind; therefore, Kaufman cannot use the objective to navigate us. We are simply observers to Caden’s reality.
Because Caden never sees Olive or Adele again, Caden’s fantasies about cleaning Adele’s apartment also never occur objectively. Subsequently, the character Ellen does not exist objectively. Kaufman himself suggests this in an interview when he says, “Ellen doesn’t exist except as a figment of Caden’s imagination” (Kaufman). Indeed, Ellen is an adopted role imagined by Caden so that he can fantasize a relationship between he and Adele. In Caden’s mind he knows he cannot see Adele again, so he creates the alternate persona of Ellen as a means to be closer to Adele, even if just fantastically. We know Caden’s visit to Adele’s apartment is fantasy because we never see her in the apartment. When Caden initially enters her apartment, the shower is still running and the coffee is still hot. Adele should still be there, but she is not because Caden can’t even imagine meeting her again; he can only imagine cleaning up after her. The idea that Caden cleans up after Adele recalls the scene from earlier in the film when Caden is scrubbing his house after Adele leaves him. In that scene Caden cleans so he can remove Adele from the objective world (i.e. the house), and when he cleans her apartment, he is trying to remove her from his subjective world (i.e. his memory).
Along with the impossible, Kaufman also portrays subjectivity through memory. Some subjective scenes use the memory of objective ones to show that Caden’s memory is creating a fantasy. For instance, Olive’s voice as an older German woman is the same voice Caden hears on the radio at the beginning of the film. Caden uses the memory of the voice to imagine what Olive’s voice would sound like as an adult. Likewise, some characters in Caden’s warehouse, such as Hazel and Claire, are based on Caden’s memories. For instance, Hazel becomes a part of Caden’s theatre piece but only as her remembered self. Throughout the film, Caden calls Hazel’s house and she has the same message on her answering machine because Caden remembers it. As a character in his fantasy world, Caden tries to make her realistic by imagining her aging appearance. However, since he only has the memory of her being young, he overcompensates and she ages too quickly. Still, she only exists within his memory. Caden tells her, “you’ve been part of me forever.” In fact, the memory of her has been part of him forever; Caden just uses the memory of her to construct her in his present reality. Similarly, in the last scene of the film, Caden uses his memory to construct his own death. When Caden emerges from Adele’s apartment and walks through deserted, smoke-filled streets, this directly recalls a vision Caden had of his death in the beginning of the film. When Caden watches television in Adele’s art room, a commercial about cancer forces him to confront his death. He does so by seeing a vision of himself on television as an old man walking through deserted, smoke-filled streets. Thus, when Caden’s death does come, his perception of it recalls the memory of his vision. Correspondingly, the woman that sits with Caden as he dies is the woman from the cancer commercial he sees in the aforementioned scene. The memory of the woman remains with Caden, and he imagines her being with him so he doesn’t have to die alone.
Ultimately, Kaufman lets the film enter Caden’s mind to create a realistic depiction of the subjective. In Caden’s mind, we receive a comprehensive view of subjective reality. In this reality dreams, nightmares, visions, and memories all coalesce into one narrative. The subjective view may seem disjointed, confusing, and unexplained, but that is the way it exists within the mind. In the mind, there are no objective answers but merely perceptions; Kaufman lets the perceptions unfold on screen without giving any objective explanation. We cannot escape our subjective realities no matter how hard we try to imagine a world outside our minds. By keeping us in Caden’s mind and never returning to the objective, Kaufman reinforces this idea.
Kaufman juxtaposes the objective and the subjective to show that they are both real and also to produce an “uncanny” feeling within us. The beginning of the film is grounded in objectivity partly because Kaufman knows the subsequent transition into the the subjective will frighten us. For Freud “the uncanny” is something that is “familiar” but unfamiliar; this ambivalence produces fright in us (Freud, 217). Freud states that “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced...” (221). Kaufman “effaces” “the distinction between imagination and reality” by leaving the objective world for a subjective one and by not lucidly communicating this transition. In the beginning of the film, Kaufman keeps the film grounded in the objective despite entering the subjective occasionally emerging. However, as soon the film is no longer grounded in the objective, we are faced with a world that is familiar, because it looks like the objective world, but is also unfamiliar, because it is objectively impossible. This frightening feeling we experience from our ambivalence is the uncanny. Freud also described the uncanny as a touching upon the unconscious; the uncanny can communicate repressed desires. Lacan similarly discussed the uncanny as a feeling of anxiety that communicates “the Real,” or the impossible realm of lack that is without signification (Lacan). Whether the uncanny produces fear or anxiety in us or suggests what is repressed or what cannot be signified within us, Kaufman wants us to feel all of this so that we confront our own subjectivity. This “uncanny” feeling reminds us that we too cannot escape our distinct subjectivity and that Caden’s problem of trying to understand the world objectively despite being stuck in his own mind is our problem too.
Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York embraces the subjective in a way that is entirely realistic. Through entering Caden’s mind, we are subjected to all of his dreams, fantasies, and perceptions. They may not all exist objectively, but they do exist within his mind. Since reality is a subjective experience, what happens in our minds is entirely real. What happens objectively and subjectively are equally real; primacy should not be given to either one. Indeed, when Kaufman shifts the narrative from an objective reality to Caden’s distinct subjective reality, he does this to emphasize the similarities and differences between the objective and subjective but also to force us to challenge our own perceptions of reality. Our reality is entirely defined by us. We can never know the world outside ourselves. Can we come to terms with this or will we destroy ourselves in pursuit of the outside like Caden?
So there it is. My attempt to make sense of the movie, with a lot of things left out (including how beautiful acted, directed, shot, and written it is). You don’t have to buy the Freudian/Lacanian bullshit. That was merely added to make the paper seem more academic. I do think SNY is best viewed as film that embraces the subjective human experience just like Fellini’s 8 1/2. It may not always make sense, but neither does the mind. My advice is to just go with the film and let it take you were it does. When I first saw the film, I was devastated by it. I remember sitting in the theater feeling like an anvil had just come down upon me. But after numerous subsequent viewings, I still feel melancholic watching it, but now I’m too busy being in awe of its beauty and intelligence. It really is one of the most beautiful and brilliant films I have ever seen. It definitely is the horror film that Kaufman intended it to be. But it is so much more than that. There hasn’t been a film that has articulated the crisis of our existence this brilliantly since The Seventh Seal.
It’s also important to remember that Kaufman is a fan of Samuel Beckett. I think this film is meant to be surreal, absurd, bizarre, and sometimes incomprehensible in the tradition of Beckett’s theater. It doesn’t always have to be lucid, but it can still be beautiful.
Ultimately, SNY rewards multiple viewings. I’ve seen it nearly ten times, and I still catch something new each time I see it. After so many viewings, I still feel as if I’m nowhere near touching upon its meaning or greatness. I probably never will. The word "masterpiece" is an understatement.