Infectious diseases in cattle: questions about Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

I didn't exactly enjoy viewing Synecdoche: New York, but I immediately felt the need to watch it again, mostly to try to catch more of the important details that writer/director Charlie Kaufman sneaks in on the edge of the screen.  Mostly, the film left me with several questions:

1) Why is it that so many films feature loser older male protagonists these days?  What is Caden Cotard?  The artist as big baby?  Was anyone else bothered by his whiny, simpering "I'm so lonely--woe is me" schtick?   

2) Writer/director Kaufman does strive for a literary density in his films.  Originally a comedy writer, Kaufman seem to get increasingly despairing in his recent movies, and in its attempt to convey one theatrical director's decline from age 40 to 80, Synecdoche is as bleak as they get.  I think Kaufman's portrait of life is slanted too far to the negative, but one has got to admire his stubborn refusal to give the viewer any kind of release from Caden Cotard's gradual doom. Synecdoche's characteristic scene: a funeral. Hoffman's characteristic pose in the movie: head bent forward, veins bulging on his forehead, about to weep.   Why is it he gets to live another forty years when he seems ready to die in scene one?  

3) What is the deal with Hazel's burning house?  A combustible living room makes for great mise en scene, but what does it mean?  

4) In the Olive-as-tattooed-nude-dancer scene, did Kaufman mean to evoke Paris, Texas (1984)?

5) Insofar as Caden's first wife Adele (Catherine Keener) dumps him for a woman (the extra-despicable Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh)), were we supposed to think of Meryl Streep's character doing the same to Woody Allen in Manhattan (1979)?  Is it just me or does much of Kaufman's world resemble a more Kafkaesque Woody Allen movie?  

6) Did anyone else notice that the movie's Groundhog Day first shot of a clock radio depicts the same time (7:45) as a clock drawn on a brick wall at the very end of the film?  

5) What are we to make of the Sammy Barnathan character (Tom Noonan) who spies on Caden for twenty years (even taking notes) before taking on his role in the nameless play project ?  Is he meant to evoke paparazzi, the side of one's two selves who looks on and judges, or the artistic self-consciousness of Caden?  When Sammy looks on to take notes on Caden's grey stool in the bathroom, why doesn't Caden mind?

6) I find it odd how Caden leads such a woebegone life, and yet he carries on several affairs in the course of the film, even marrying Michelle Williams' character.  His creative line of work makes his romantic life at times resemble Guido's in 8 1/2, yet heaven forbid if Kaufman ever lets Caden enjoy himself.  If Caden's character were to somehow reflect Kaufman's life as a successful award-winning screenplay-writer and director, does Kaufman feel obliged to punish his fictional double?  In a sense, Synecdoche, New York is a film about playing God, but, as if in atonement for this arrogant premise, Kaufman makes sure his creator-character gets punished on a scene-by-scene basis. Does Kaufman feel guilty?

7) I liked the warehouse within the warehouse set design as Caden's play project develops and expands with Dark City-esque complexity and surrealism.  As all of the extras stand immobile in the street, did Kaufman mean to evoke The Truman Show?  Or was he implying that all of our lives increasingly resemble second-rate melodramas, signifying nothing?  I especially liked the idea of one's autobiographical creation starting to catch up with and overwhelm the reality of one's life.  The film in a sense depicts the ultimate artist's nightmare--getting subsumed in one's duplicate selves like Charles Foster Kane's reflected hall of mirrors as he walks through Xanadu.  And yet, Caden's theatrical project looks like fun, for Caden anyway.

8) Finally, towards the end, Dianne West takes over the movie, guiding Caden in his final footsteps in a dystopian post-apocalyptic movie landscape by speaking into a device in his ear.  Is this Kaufman's way of asserting that God is better played by a woman? 


Richard Bellamy said…
"Is it just me or does much of Kaufman's world resemble a more Kafkaesque Woody Allen movie?"

Very well said! In the same way Woody Allen's movies became rather whiny - this movie is definitely whiny though the Kafkaesque elements are intriguing. But Kaufman didn't develop the "Synecdoche, New York" conceit in the way I had hoped from the preview that it would. I had expected the development of a Truman Show-like microcosm that plays out like a minature version of the larger world - but the film is all about preparations for a show that never happens. I wanted to see the "show."

"Was anyone else bothered by his whiny, simpering "I'm so lonely--woe is me" schtick?"

Yes. Definitely. This kind of character needs to be shelved.

"A combustible living room makes for great mise en scene, but what does it mean?"

It made for an irritating image. I guess it's supposed to represent the precarious nature of all human endeavors; but it was a very heavy-handed metaphor. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had some similarly heavy-handed and irritating metaphors, but that film had a structure and worked a lot better as a film than this mess.

I can't answer all your questions, but your questions are very understandable.
Speaking as someone who adored Synecdoche, New York, let me take a stab some of these:

1. I wasn't bothered by Caden's hyper-despairing persona. He is, in a sense, a comical character, perhaps even a caricature of a particular stripe of morbid, miserable, pretentious artist. (Which is how Kaufman seems to characterize himself.) I recognized in Caden impulses that I struggle with regarding despair, arrogance, and lack of empathy. Even through Caden is essentially unsympathetic, and he is not a clearly drawn character, I responded to him strongly because I've been to the emotional / psychological place that Caden dwells, and Kaufman conveys that place quite masterfully. I recognize that Caden is a "big baby," but it didn't make me loathe the film. It made me realize that Kaufman understands what it is to be a big baby and why this attitude is so toxic to a fulfilling life. Much of the divergent reaction to this film seems to stem from personal resonance with its themes and emotional states. Perhaps more than any film I've seen in recent memory, it's a "Your Mileage May Vary" experience.

2. You're right: Caden is acting like he's already dead at the age of forty. Which is sort of the point of the film, in my understanding. My reading is that Caden's morbid sensibilities--his morose approach to his art, his hypochondria, his emotional inertness--are meant to convey (often humorously) a state of living that is wasteful and detrimental to satisfaction. It's telling that Caden is named after a mental disorder (Cotard's Syndrome) wherein a person believes themselves to be dead or dying. Caden is occasionally mistaken for someone who is already dead (or a woman, or a homosexual). ("Why would a five-year-old kill themselves?" "I don't know, why did you?") Many other details in the film suggest that Caden's difficulty in accepting death is hampering every aspect of his existence, especially his interpersonal relationships. Given that the film is so tough on Caden for holding onto this outlook--indeed, Milicent/Ellen's earpiece monologue to him in the final scenes is essentially the authorial voice pronouncing the story's (read: his life's) moral to him (us)--I don't read the film's depiction of life as "negative". Just the opposite. While Synecdoche is a melancholy film that deals bluntly with mortality, I felt that Kaufman's message was ultimately quite positive and instructive. Caden did have forty year more to live, and how did he live them?: obsessed with death, with creating matryoshka sub-worlds that would help him unlock an understanding of his own life (and life as a phenomenon). He didn't take the time to actually live, and most significantly for his personal relationships, he never tumbled to the fact that his problems were not particularly unique or grand, but the same problems faced by everyone.

3. The burning house seems to be a point of departure for a lot of people. It's certainly not inconsistent with Kaufman's recurrent straight-faced use of surreal iconography. (Remember, the "half-floor" in Malkovich?) Whether you find it "too much" seems to be matter of taste.

As for what the burning house "means", well, that's the rub, isn't it? I believe Kaufman has said in an interview that Hazel's house, like most surreal elements in his films, has many meanings that depend on the viewer. However, Kaufman did point out that the real estate agent gives voice to one of obvious meanings: Hazel is locking herself into a particular life (complete with husband pre-installed in the basement) and a particular death. ("It's an important decision, how one chooses to die.") I think one of the primary "reasons" for the house is to draw a distinction between Caden and Hazel. Hazel is comfortable choosing a path and sticking with it, and more importantly with having her looming death constantly in her face. (On her last night alive, Hazel notes, "The end is built into the beginning.") For me, this calls to mind not just a broad acceptance of mortality, but also the slightly surreal real-life circumstances of those who are habitual smokers, over-eaters, violent criminals, and so forth. Such people are confronted daily not just with their mortality but with their likely executioner (via lung cancer, heart disease, homicide, etc.) However, I suspect that Kaufman is working on a much more existential level, evoking the sentiment that death is the debt we owe the cosmos for the loan of life.

More later.
6. This is far from the film's only acknowledgment of time as a significant motif. Throughout much of the film, Caden is confused about how long it has been since certain events have transpired, and time itself seems to proceed in fits and starts. One example: The entire opening breakfast table scene takes place over about three months, if we believe the clues from the radio, newspapers, and calendars. One of Kaufman's dominant themes is the difficulty the human mind has in processing its four-dimensional existence. In particular, the slipping grip on time that comes with age leads to us finding comfort in routine and small, tangible tasks. ("It's 7:44. You are here. It's 7:45. You are there.") Incidentally, the appearance of the graffiti clock has led some to suggest that the entirety of Synecdoche is a deathbed fugue. Although I wouldn't agree with such a reading.

5. I'm not sure that Caden is being "punished," particularly given that Synecdoche implies a godless universe lacking a cosmic justice. Most of the bad things that happen to Caden have either no reason (i.e. they are random events that could happen to anybody) or they are his own damn fault. Caden's myriad ailments don't actually cause him a premature death. (Note that he lives well into his nineties despite all the things that are allegedly wrong with him, while Adele, who is now around only "healthy, beautiful people," dies of lung cancer.) His interpersonal calamities are essentially outgrowths of his own selfish, emotionally shackled behavior. Even under a generous reading, I'm don't think anything that happens to him qualifies as cosmic punishment, other than that flying sink valve to the noggin. He's a miserable man who doesn't understand how not to be miserable. Even the cruelties visited upon him by others (Adele, Maria, Olive) originate with his own negligence, navel-gazing, and sad-sack brand of arrogance. It's no accident that all of Caden's "stage directions" to his actors are passive events that act upon their characters ("You were raped last night," "You lost your job.") rather than active events that their characters act upon. This reflects Caden's own dysfunctions: He is incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions and his own misfortunes.
7. I don't think there's any way you can call Caden's theater piece a "fun" experience. He's a pretty miserable man throughout the film, and working on the piece doesn't seem to alleviate his despair. Seventeen years into the production, he laments his "lonely, fucked-up being". It seems pretty clear to me that Caden is just spinning his wheels for decades, avoiding a truly critical self-examination.

For me, the actors standing around frozen contain an obvious As You Like It allusion ("All the world's a stage...") It also reflects somewhat Caden's own (flawed) approach to life, as he waits around for direction (or observation) from someone else. He himself tries to coach an actor about walking in a self-conscious way, but this is also his own flaw, as Sammy suggests before his suicide, and the earpiece voice states quite explicitly later: "There was never anybody watching."

Gah. I think I skipped over the Sammy question, but I want to address it along with the Milicent / Ellen character. The site "Like Anna Karina's Sweater" has some very trenchant observations about the links between Synecdoche and Jungian theory. Under a Jungian reading, Sammy may represent the shadow, and Milicent / Ellen the anima. That is, Sammy contains Caden's repressed or unconscious qualities (Just look how easily he charms the real Hazel). Ellen may represent the anima, Caden's unresolved feminine side. Indeed, as I noted above, Caden is frequently mistaken for a woman or a homosexual, even though there is nothing feminine about him and we (and Olive) have no particular reason to believe he is a homosexual.

As in much of the film, I don't think Sammy and Caden's interactions are intended to be realistic in tone. In the real world, Caden would likely have called the police during Sammy's audition and had the creep arrested. Caden instead hires him on the spot, because, well, that's what the theater piece is for, right? So Caden can really, truly understand himself. (Or so he thinks.) Sammy is Caden's unacknowledged and unfulfilled desire, as well as the strength that he covets. He's his dark reflection. ("Peekaboo.") Caden doesn't mind Sammy's studying of him because Sammy needs to do research or it won't be "real".

Ellen is much more complex, particularly since she is introduced when the film's identities and reality start to disintegrate. Kaufman has suggested that while Milicent the actress is real, Ellen is not. She's a fictional character, or a real cleaning lady that never actually showed up to clean Adele's apartment. She serves as a means for Caden to understand (however belatedly) that his problems are not his special: Ellen has a distant spouse ("Eric," the name of Caden's nonexistent homosexual lover!) and parental traumas (childlessness) and a general despair about her sad little life. Her problems are not dissimilar from Caden's, and therefore serve as an object lesson in the empathy that Caden is lacking. Ellen may speak to him over the earpiece because Caden has successfully integrated the anima into his personality by the end. Like his frozen actors, Caden can't function without stage directions (even to die!) and Ellen, the only other person he has truly empathized with, has taken over his internal dialogue. Ellen speaks in the second person, but she seems to be talking about her own life, not Caden's. ("Remember when you posed for Adele and felt beautiful again, just for a little while.")
Thanks, Hokahey,

Couldn't one say the movie is, in a sense, the show itself? They overlap so much, one can imagine they would be hard to distinguish from each other.

Thanks, Andrew,

Your answers are bracingly thorough, and I feel lucky to get so many knowledgeable and incisive replies. Some reactions:

1) I did not in any way find Caden humorous. To me, he came off as more pitiable than anything else. In comparison to the more reserved in-control male figures as exemplified by Bogart in Casablanca or Robert Mitchum's character is Out of the Past, so often men seem to me to be portrayed as weak, dependent, and emotionally needy in recent cinema, and I find that trend to be irksome. Caden fits in well within the more recent model, so that's why I had problems with him. When he says he's so lonely, I wish he would just learn to not live like an open wound. I think part of the problem has to do with the myths we tell ourselves in films, how characters can serve as models of behavior as well as fictional entities, and characters like Caden imply a new degradation of the masculine. No one else in the film, especially the women, have as many problems as he does, nor are they as emotionally needy.

2) Your point about Cotard's syndrome is very good, although I had difficulty telling the difference between Caden's problems with death and the film's general emphasis on mortality. I was bothered by the way the movie seemed to applaud itself for its "brutal" acceptance of death and evil quirks of fate (Claire complimenting Caden for his death-oriented play ideas come to mind). At times, the film's existential edginess, its willingness to acknowledge that we are all going to die, struck me as a little trite. I like stories where characters learn that truth and then fight it somehow, not exactly Caden's forte.

3)I like your analysis of the burning house, but of course the film is more interesting if the burning is never explained. It did strike me as the first major clue that we aren't watching a normal narrative film, and I did find the house to be funny, especially the blase way Hazel and the real estate agent acknowledge the burning without doing anything about it. My problem is with the house's association with Hazel. She seems to me the most life-affirming and engaging of the female characters, so why have death consistently looming in her face? I thought Kaufman did a particularly good job with the way Caden keeps finding substitutes for Hazel in the storyline (even the last woman at the end seems to be a blend of Hazel and Adele). I liked the way we see Hazel reading Proust and she talked of reading Kafka's The Trial. When you see a volume of Beckett lying around Caden's foot in one scene, you can conclude that Kaufman is shooting for nothing less than an allusive Modernist masterpiece of a movie, full of hints and mise en scene clues to add on layers of meaning.

6) Excellent point about the time clues of the opening scene (I missed them). I was surprised by the way the film compresses Caden's marriage to Claire and the time when they had a child together. It is really easy to miss if you aren't paying attention, while Caden's marriage and painful separation from Adele is much more pronounced throughout. Synecdoche reminds me of Alain Resnais' Providence in which the storyline's increasing fragmentation seems to reflect the central creative male character's consciousness.

Anyway, thanks again for your impressive analysis, Andrew. I'll reply more to your points about the godless universe of the film tomorrow. I must give Kaufman credit too. His work definitely seems tailor-made for critical exegesis.
Sam Juliano said…
I loved the burning house metaphor, and I did not remotely consider this film to be a "mess" but one of 2008's most brilliant works of cinema. Your questions are thoughtful, and attempt to decipher some of the cryptic elements, the existential edginess and the general nihilism on display. One person said it embraces a single coda: "We live for a while, then we die." Yet the film is does examine fascinating tenets of mortality (I loved that priest's definition of life equated to a nano-second in the pantheon of life) Beckett is lying around to emphasize nothingness, which is of course consistent with the central theme.
In ways, Caden reminds me of the priest in Bresson's LE JOURNAL UNE CURE DE CAMPAGNE, in his neediness and in his obvious loss of faith, secular and otherwise.

Great post, great questions, great comments.

1. Like I said, I think much of works or doesn't work in Synecodche comes down to highly personal and subjective factors. I agree that Caden is pitiable, weak, dependent and emotionally needy, but those characteristics don't preclude him being a funny or fascinating character in my eyes. In particular, I couldn't stop laughing at Caden's interactions with his therapist and various doctors, and his pompous, overwrought grandstanding in front of his actors and crew. I tend to like my humor black (recent example: Burn After Reading). As I said, Your Mileage May Vary. Personally, I don't feel that my appreciation of Caden's character is mutually exclusive with my appreciation of a "harder" male protagonist, whether it might be Rick Blaine or William Munny. I'm fascinated by any film that can find an emotional resonance with something personal inside me, and Synecdoche did that. I certainly don't find the miserable depiction of Caden any more troubling than the decadent depiction of masculinity embodied in, say, Marcello in La Dolce Vita. Maybe we're just approaching films differently. I tend to be indifferent to particular cinematic trends unless they are so worn that a film feels uninspired. Synecdoche felt anything but uninspired to me.

2. I think one problem many have with Synecdoche is that its morbidity is both satirical and straight-faced, often simultaneously. When Claire effusively praises Caden's honesty and bravery in tackling mortality as a theme, I read it as a blackly funny line that satirizes the arts community's usual tendency to engage in insular ego-stroking (call it circle-jerking if you like) and total lack of self-awareness. I mean, I really don't see any sign that Kaufman is asking us to nod sagely with Caden or Claire. They're clearly presented as flakes. After all, Death of a Salesman, the play that they just finished tackles mortality quite directly. It's not like Caden's theater piece is particularly fresh. It's just ambitious: not thematically ambitious, but ambitious in scope. Caden seems to be unable to tell the difference between artistic grandiosity and profundity, so he builds a replica city in a warehouse, as though this will de facto make the play more profound. It's all nonsense, and I think Kaufman presents it that way. I found it at once tragically ludicrous and ludicrously tragic, as a man once said.

3. Given that no one can escape their own mortality, why should Hazel be able to? This seems to be an elementary aspect of the film: We are all going to die, and the quality of our life is dependent to some degree on how we internalize and acclimate ourselves to that fact. Hazel is comfortable with a life where the end is built into the beginning. Caden is not. It doesn't strike me as cruel for Hazel--as you say, among the film's most life-affirming characters--to dwell in that house. After all, Hazel isn't unaware that the house it burning down. She bought it that way. She chooses to live in it, to not let the inevitability of her fate drag her down or rob her of a fulfilling life. Caden claims he can't make love to Hazel because he has "a lot of stuff going on," presumably referencing his attachment to Adele and Olive, but he's also clearly affected by having to make love to Hazel in a burning house. This strikes me as a potent (and funny) metaphor for the absurd nature of sex when it collides with the bleakness of mortality. Indeed, all of us are fucking in a burning house, so to speak. (The house being a world filled with death and also the "house" of our slowly disintegrating bodies.) How, I wonder, can anyone get it up at all? It's an admittedly bleak thought, but the film handles it with wit, I believe.
Thanks, Sam, for your input. I will look out for the Bresson film.

Thanks again, Andrew,

We can leave behind the discussion of Caden's masculinity, but I was wondering, what do you make of the "Infectious diseases in cattle" alternate title? It struck me as one of the more obscure ones that Caden proposed. Do you suppose he meant to characterize the people of the play as resembling domesticated animals ripe for slaughter (as they are at the end of the film)? And what are the infectious diseases--the many references to illness in the film?

Otherwise, we can agree to disagree about how much Caden may enjoy directing. He doesn't show it much, but I imagine that he likes the power of dictating the behavior of his players for years on end. His direction does give him some sense of control that he may lack in his personal life.

As for your point about Synecdoche depicting a Godless universe lacking cosmic justice, you wrote:

"His interpersonal calamities are essentially outgrowths of his own selfish, emotionally shackled behavior. Even under a generous reading, I'm don't think anything that happens to him qualifies as cosmic punishment, other than that flying sink valve to the noggin."

Perhaps so, but what of his shaking fit, his knee issues, and the other ailments that are not brought on by his personality? What of his daughter being ruined by Maria in Berlin? I think you can point to several things that imply a harsh judgment or fate planned for Caden regardless of his personal inability to take responsibility for his actions. I dislike speaking in terms of "God," so we can go with fate. Fate, or cosmic justice, chance, and human volition all come to mind when trying to analyze the film because the play project is Baden's way to try to understand what's happening to him (and, by extension, everyone). And, I think fate is unusually harsh on him, with only occasional moments, usually with women, to lighten the cumulative effects of the miseries he has to undergo. When his daughter says "Nein" when Caden asks for forgiveness on her deathbed, I thought, this scene is unusually extreme. He finally gets to talk to her just for this? When Caden starts to wash up Adele's apartment in a self-abasing way, again, how can one further emphasize the cruelty of him not seeing her again? Kaufman even has a tape deck playing her voice that fools him for a moment into thinking he may see her. It is these moments in the film, even given Caden's tendency to make things worse, that make me think that Kaufman's sense of fate is unusually cruel and vindictive.

As for Sammy, I like the Jungian theory, but there's one basic problem with reading too much into the symbolic implications of his character. Sammy ultimately becomes a more distinctive character (a lead amongst extras) just before he commits suicide. Initially, when one sees him on the edge of a scene looking on, I thought of one of Kafka's aphorisms where he discusses how everyone actually has two selves--the one who acts, and the other who "is called more of less to sit in judgment on the case." Sammy's character reminds me of that side, perhaps, of Caden's self.

Otherwise, I like the way the film boils down to Ellen's voiceover comments on the earphone. It's impersonal, intimate, and ghastly:

"As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving - not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are..."

A nicely put summary of personal disintegration.

6. Kaufman has said that the compression of time--and Caden's inability to accurately gauge it--is (among many things) an allusion to way that life seems to speed up as we age. I think that the overall effect is quite mesmerizing, lending the film a dream-like quality that is very difficult for film-makers to nail in practice. (David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky are the only other directors who spring to mind with a comparable skill in this respect.)

Interestingly, while Caden sometimes becomes confused in his relationships with others (look how often he conflates Olive and Ariel), Kaufman is careful not to directly call into question the sincerity of Caden's affection for any of the women in his life. Clearly, Hazel is the Love of His Life that he misses out on, but he also clearly still loves Adele, and even Claire, after a fashion. He may be a negligent asshole, but I never got the impression that he harbors hatred for Hazel, Adele, Claire, Tammy, Olive, Ariel, or anyone other than Maria. One might view the way that Caden hops between women as loathsome, but he clearly develops attachments that last a long time and aren't diminished by subsequent attachments. Hazel and Caden fit together, but Adele will always be Caden's wife, and Caden's okay with that. Contrast with Claire's disgust at Caden's habitual cleaning of Adele's apartment: she implies that it feminizes him ("You smell like you've been menstruating").

Speaking of Lynch, there's a similar confusion over time in INLAND EMPIRE, where it is likewise associated with a confusion over identity, obligation, and desire. "I can't seem to remember if it's today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was 9:45, I'd think it was after midnight!"

Well disease is a reminder of mortality, yes? If you are healthy, it's easier to ignore your inevitable death. I think that Caden's various diseases and conditions reflect his inability to dislodge himself from morbid thumb-twiddling. (As someone who suffers from anxiety disorders, I can strongly relate to this.) There is plenty of metaphor and symbolism in the specifics of his ailments that play upon traditional poetic or dream interpretation: eyes (defective perception or obscured enlightenment), teeth (insecurity), leg (restlessness, stasis), skin (vanity; recall that Caden confesses a wish for physical, feminine beauty), nervous system (malfunctioning animation and defective understanding).

I suspect that the "Infectious Diseases in Cattle" title is both an allusion to the film's prominent decay / mortality theme, and also a gently satirical take on opaque avant-garde conventions. It's also a callback to one of the cartoons Caden saw earlier on television, featuring livestock and viral macrophages, and a possible factor (epidemic) driving the apocalyptic dystopia outside the theater.

I guess I don't view Caden's illnesses as necessarily ordained by God or Fate. After all, the film doesn't take a realistic tone, and I would suggest that we not read cosmic intention or purpose into Caden's string of bad luck. I would look at it the other way around: Kaufman is clearly operating at least partly according to dream logic, and therefore the diseases might be viewed as reflecting Caden's attitude, personality, or flaws. They needn't be anything more than symbols and fodder for humor rather than genuine calamities. Again, Caden never seems to suffer any long-term health effects, other than eventually requiring the use of a cane, and most of us will find ourselves in a similar place some day.

As for the other cruddy things that happen to Caden, I could suspect we could go back and forth about these all day long. As you say, Olive's deathbed denial of forgiveness is one of the film's cruelest moments, but I think Caden is ultimately to blame for it, at least in part. If Caden hadn't been such a self-absorbed, negligent, spineless human being, his marriage to Adele might never have disintegrated, she might never have fallen in with Maria, gone to Germany, taken Olive away, poisoned Oliver against him, and so forth. In some ways, Olive's death scene plays like a ludicrous fantasy sequence where Caden imagines an improbable and unbelievably sad end point for some poor choice he made decades ago in his relationship with Adele. It's like a Simpsons non-sequitur (e.g. Lisa's one poor second-grade gymnastics grade eventually prevents her from being inaugurated President and results in her being banishes her to Monster Island.) I guess my point is that one can draw a line from Caden's personality flaws to most, if not all of the disasters that befall him. He's not entirely to blame, but he's one of the culprits for his misery. Paralysis and an unwillingness to see options for action rather than reaction (recall again all those reactive stage directions) is a particular problem for him. He believes that Adele left him, but he never bothers to think how he did Adele wrong (other than by "disappointing" her, another conveniently passive turn of phrase.)

I want to say a bit more about Sammy, as I think he's one of the more interesting elements in the film. I wouldn't suggest that a Jungian reading of Sammy is the only possible reading. Such a reading does enrich my understanding of his role, however.

By casting Sammy, Caden is acknowledging the presence of his shadow for the first time. This is a long way from resolving and integrating the shadow, however. Bringing Sammy into the production eventually causes Caden much misery. Sammy's presence makes Caden anxious: Sammy and Hazel seem to hit it off, which suggests Caden's growing awareness that his moroseness, inertness, and passivity were responsible for his missed opportunities with Hazel. (Sammy is Caden's Tyler Durden; note that Hazel claims Sammy can "fuck me without crying.") Sammy also directs Caden back to a dormant obsession with Adele. This has negative consequences--it destroys his marriage to Claire--but also a positive result, in that it brings Caden together with the Ellen character. The shadow therefore acts as matchmaker between Caden and his anima, or feminine self. More broadly, the shadow pointed the way to Caden's eventual discovery of human empathy, corresponding to the disintegration and mingling of his identity with Ellen's.

As was pointed out on LAKS, Sammy's suicide is one of the more ambiguous elements in the film's narrative. The death of one's shadow does not have positive implications. Rather the shadow should ideally be resolved and integrated into the core identity. It's not clear what the consequences of Sammy's death are for Caden's moral and psychological journey, but Sammy's final words do foreshadow the priest's monologue and the eventual conflation of Caden and Ellen Caden's internalizing / muddling of Ellen's history and problems with his own represent the first time he "really looked at anyone other than himself".

Thanks again for your exhaustive analysis. I am heavily distracted with my day job at the moment, but if you'll bear with me, I still have a few more questions before moving on to something ridiculously shallow like Fast and Furious 3. We have not discussed the many instances where Caden sees versions of himself on posters, animated shows on TV, and images of Adele in a magazine (not to mention the bizarre reality-interactive book of his psychiatrist). Would you say all these things are surreal projections of Caden's solipsistic consciousness, again emphasizing how much he bears the blame for the way his point of view dominates his world? Is there some pattern to all of these self-referential images? At times, they reminded me of the signs and symbols that someone suffering a manic episode might read into everything one sees.

I'm glad that you brought up Inland Empire, because there Lynch explores the limits of allowing a surrealistic directorial style to take the viewer away from normal narrative conventions. I like analyzing that film, but it does risk falling into total incoherency. I tend to like films best that can (like Donnie Darko) sustain to opposing interpretations simultaneously, but it helps when the viewer can maintain a more realistic interpretation as well as more flamboyant ones. When you talk of Synecdoche's dream logic, what's to stop it from falling into the same incoherency, or "mess" as Hokahey calls it? Isn't there a point where a film moves so far from verisimilitude, it becomes ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity? I definitely think Lynch crosses that line with Inland Empire (as much as I like the sitcom rabbit scenes). Synecdoche doesn't, but at times it seems to come close.

Also, what did you think of the computer-mechanical repetitive music, if that is the word, that kept occurring towards the end of the film?
Jason Bellamy said…
Damn. I'm too tired to read through all the comments and jump in properly. But ...

What does Hazel's burning house mean?

What do you think it means? That's what it means. And for me that's the problem.

I'm all for open-ended, vague, ambiguous and challenging films. But, to put it bluntly, I think Kaufman just fucks with us for the majority of Synecdoche, and I don't consider that deep art. The problem isn't Hazel's house, it's that Hazel's house is just one of the more overt abstractions that litter this film.

Is Synecdoche a great film? Only if you work harder at it than the filmmaker. And I don't think that works.

But I've been 'round and 'round about this film before, and I respect others feel differently. To them I note that I've loved about everything else Kaufman has ever done. I'd love to love this film. I just don't.
Thanks, Jason,

I would like to think Kaufman is just messing with us too, but I did immediately feel the need to watch the film over again, and the intense analysis of the critics to some extent justifies the movie's oblique strategies.

I would also like to quickly comment on another of Andrew's points:

"It's not like Caden's theater piece is particularly fresh. It's just ambitious: not thematically ambitious, but ambitious in scope. Caden seems to be unable to tell the difference between artistic grandiosity and profundity, so he builds a replica city in a warehouse, as though this will de facto make the play more profound. It's all nonsense, and I think Kaufman presents it that way. I found it at once tragically ludicrous and ludicrously tragic, as a man once said."

I happen to like the warehouse within the warehouse proliferation of Caden's play until the scenes in the play start to overlap with those in the movie. The idea of a universe within a universe within a universe (etc.) has interesting metaphysical and aesthetic implications. I think it is one of the coolest things about the movie, the sense of uncontrolled growth and the immense expansion of time (doesn't one player say 14 years?) until Caden actively competes with Kaufman as the creator of the narrative. Couldn't that be his revenge for being stuck in such a cruel film?
Anonymous said…
I've got this at home from Netflix, and I'm gonna watch it Real Soon Now, but I like your take on it.

I especially like your point number 3, which makes me want to see it more. I hate movies where everything is spelled out.

Regarding Caden spotting himself in numerous advertisements, I read this as reflecting his self-absorption. As I've said, I see this as Caden's primary flaw. Not necessarily the aggressive narcissism that we might generally associate with self-absorption, but a kind of passive fixation on one's own problems, excluding opportunities for happiness or to help others with their problems. The film's message to Caden might be summed up as "It's not all about you!"

Hallucinations that feature television, radio, print, and other media speaking directly to the viewers are a prominent element of schizophrenia. In Synecdoche, I read these as early clues, not that Caden is insane, but that we are operating inside a distorted narrative where symbolism and sensation are more important than material realism. (Emotionally, I think Synecdoche is very realistic.)

After Adele leaves Caden, he sees a couple of scenes on television that appear at the end of Synecdoche: himself as an old man walking through the ruined streets, and the picnic between young Ellen and her mother. The end is built into the beginning indeed.

Whenever films embrace or even flirt with surrealism, the "incoherence for incoherency's sake" pitfall is a consideration. Sometimes this criticism has a whiff of anti-intellectualism about it: Any film that is "difficult" is just pretentious rubbish. However, there's also an unsettling immunity that is granted when any film delves into surrealism and lets go of conventional narrative. It's difficult to critique it because it operates on an intuitive level. We either respond to it or we don't, and it's difficult to describe why this or that works or doesn't work. I'm guilty of bias in favor of this sort of film-making: I tend to give surreal films more leeway for being daring and reaching down to evoke sub-intellectual responses.

Personally, I don't think Synecdoche or INLAND EMPIRE fall into the "weird for the sake of weird" trap, because both Kaufman and Lynch are so comfortable and agile within surrealistic modes. They have an intuition for intuition, in other words, and in my estimation that skill is self-evident in their films. INLAND EMPIRE riveted me for three hours, and I can't really explain why. I'd like to think I'm not a sucker and I'm not just being conned by Lynch. Due to the completely unfettered character of IE, however, it's challenging to defend it (or attack it) in the way we might tackle an ordinary three-act dramatic film that cleaves to cinematic norms. It either works or it doesn't. It worked for me. I guess the surest sign that films like Synecdoche and IE aren't just dreck is that while I don't always appreciate why something is done this or that way, it almost always feels right on a emotional and sensory level. Why the rabbits? Who knows? To me, they're perfect, one of IE's more memorable elements. They're incredibly unsettling and oddly funny, full of strange flickers of commentary on sin, deception, family, media, and so forth.

I also think it's significant that while I don't always know what's going on in surreal films like Synecdoche and IE, I always know what they are about. That, to me, is the achievement of talented film-makers like Kaufman and Lynch who work within such modes: They clearly convey a multi-layered and affecting message in a language I'm not even fluent in.

And for the record, I adore Donnie Darko, but I don't think it's in the same league as Synecdoche or IE.

I too really responded to the concept and the imagery of the infinitely nested warehouses. Hence, my review of Synecdoche was titled "Turtles All the Way Down".

Ultimately, I think that the film is critical of Caden's approach. The proliferation of plays-within-plays and multiple Cadens and Hazels does not ultimately produce wisdom. As I said above, Caden seems to mistake scope for profundity. Never mind the practical limitations of his approach: Not only is the warehouse-within-warehouse subject to the Turtle Problem (the nesting will never end), but it's just not materially possible. In Synecdoche's dream world, this doesn't present a problem: Each artificial city seems to be the same size as the previous, which is, of course, a physical impossibility.

It's telling that understanding arrives (if it arrives at all) when Caden lets go of his directorial role and invests himself not in the infinitely nesting reality of the play but in one small detail of his universe: a peripheral character, Ellen the cleaning lady.
Jason Bellamy said…
"the intense analysis of the critics to some extent justifies the movie's oblique strategies"

Good point. And maybe true. Or maybe it simply illustrates the passion of movie fans and nothing more.

I'm stereotyping here but I'd bet a lot of people who got all worked up about Synecdoche are the same people who looked down their nose at all the over-analysis and stubborn defenses provided by comic book fanboys in relation to The Dark Knight (and other films of its ilk).

I think that "serious" and "intellectual" film fans and critics often fall into the trap of believing that if the conversation is "serious" and "highbrow" that the topic being discussed must be worthy of the discussion. I'm not sure that's always true.

I guess I'm the exception that proves the rule. I named both Synecdoche and The Dark Knight as among the best films of 2008. I recognize The Dark Knight's flaws (Jim Emerson's relentless picking at the film's technical and narrative scabs has been particularly illuminating), and I sympathize with elements of both the backlash and the anti-backlash. However, I stand by my initial assessment that TDK is an exhilarating digestion of pre-9/11 urban despair and post-9/11 mortal anxieties, and also the most important pure action film in a decade. So what are we to make of an amateur critic like myself, who adored both Synecdoche's miserable art-house mindfuckery and The Dark Knight's visceral thrills? (Or of a professional critic like Ebert, who ranked both among his favorites of 2008?)
Jason Bellamy said…
Andrew: Oh, it's totally possible to love both movies or, in general, to be a fan of vague art films and blatant pop culture fare.
(Alas, Ebert seems to be proving of late that he's a fan of about everything.)

My point, which I didn't make very well, is that art film failings get excused in a way that similar failures in mainstream pop culture stuff doesn't. I make the same mistake. I don't have the solution. I'm not sure there is a solution, or even a problem that needs solving. It's just food for thought.

The comment I was responding to was in relation to the idea that the intensity of analysis is reflective of the quality of that which is being analyzed. I don't think that's necessarily true. Americans talk about Paris Hilton a heck of a lot, but I don't think she's worthy of discussion. So perhaps all the fascination with Synecdoche is indicative of a great film. Or maybe not.

Fair enough. Broadly speaking, I think you're quite correct. Is the Brad-Angelina-Jennifer "feud" worthy of our attention, or the Octo-Mom? Certainly not. I would suggest that any time significant quantities of ink (or electrons) are spilled in the analysis of a topic, one can quickly glance at the analysis, make a judgment as to its quality and depth, and come to conclusion about the quality of the underlying subject matter.

Personally, I think that even The Dark Knight, hyper-commercial juggernaut though it might be, emerges as a rich and challenging film, worthy of dissection and discussion (beyond the "TDK rulez!!!11" stripe of discussion.) Moreso with Synecdoche. Conversely, I think that there are films that are stunning and humane works of art that don't operate on the same intellectually provocative level as a Synecdoche or even a TDK. From this past year, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Wendy and Lucy, The Class, Shotgun Stories all spring to mind. As cinema and as drama, they are all exceptional, but they don't seem to provoke the same rumination and picking and turning over and over that a Synecdoche does. I don't think this means that they are "better" or "worse" or "simpler" or "purer". Their art just functions in a different way.
Thanks, Rick.

I'll be curious to learn what you think of Synecdoche.

Andrew and Jason,

In the midst of work, I was about to insert a snarky remark about not remotely understanding the endless intellectualized lovefest over The Dark Knight in the blogosphere, but now I'm glad I didn't. I agree that different genres of films demand completely different kinds of analyses. Andrew makes a good point about the intuitive instincts of Kaufman and Lynch. While other genres of film like the thriller and the romantic comedy may have begun to play themselves out, surrealism may still have much potential for filmmakers because it can be one way to acknowledge and explore an increasingly freakish mediated landscape. For instance, there's a moment in Synecdoche when you can see clownish soldiers in the background herding unwilling civilians into buses labeled something weird--Funhouse?--and the scene reminded me of the Abu Ghraib imagery of Children of Men. Tremendous shifts in the US government, outbreaks of disease, the destruction of civilization could all be going on in the background of Caden's play project, and he's so absorbed in his work, he doesn't know what's going on. I like the way both CIW and Synecdoche uses mise en scene to further destabilize the viewer's assumptions about the storyline of the film.
BTW: Thanks to everyone for all the great conversation, and to FilmDr for providing the forum. I've just tumbled to this site this week and am looking forward to future posts. Added a link at my site:
Thanks for your many insights, Andrew.
Michael Devine said…
3) The burning house is a metaphor for a major problem in life that instead of solving, you've resigned to live with. Specifically for Hazel, it is the loneliness of unrequited love.

Hazel has just been rejected by Caden, and is now facing the reality of being alone. She mentions her fear of buying alone, to the realtor. The only realistic problem Hazel has with the house is that she doesn't want to live and die alone. The fire is a physical manifestation and exaggeration of that. To take the house is to accept that you can't have everything perfect. To not deal with the fire is to give up trying to have what you want. When seen burning over the years, it is a reminder to us that Hazel still has this problem (she still loves Caden but has given up hope) but that she's accepted living with it.

If it were a simpler film, the fire might have gone out when Hazel and Caden finally ended up together in a satisfying way. Instead, as if her loneliness and the fire still couldn't exist independent of each other, when her loneliness was gone the fire killed her.
Michael Devine said…

> Andrew said...
> ... ("It's 7:44. You are here. It's 7:45. You are there.") Incidentally, the appearance of the graffiti clock has led some to suggest that the entirety of Synecdoche is a deathbed fugue. Although I wouldn't agree with such a reading.

I think it is! I think Caden dies in the opening scene: The clock hits 7:45, he sighs and closes his eyes. In the end it doesn't say "7:45. You are there." It says, "Now you are here, it's 7:43. Now you are here, it's 7:44. Now you are... gone."

So then what happens over the next 40 years and 2 hours of movie?

One clue is given by the fox in the cartoon that's on tv the morning after Adele and Caden's parents see his play. The fox says "When you are dead, there's no time. The world...???" A cartoon Caden holds his knees and watches a ghostly clock fade away in mist.

It may be that Caden goes through the movie dealing with unresolved issues and letting go of things. This includes his physical body, his aspirations as a director, and all sorts of relationships. As he deals with issues with people (satisfactorily or not), they tend to die and are removed from the story, rarely being mentioned again. It isn't about "making everything right" or finding lasting happiness, either; any time that happens, it goes away. Neither is it about practical problems, like money, or reality. His issues can grow without bounds (his play has 13 million actors, his daughter becomes a freak-show stripper) until he lets go. So Caden is continuously faced with problems and worries and desires. One of the final things he lets go of, when he switches roles with Ellen and gets the earpiece, is control of his "life", of his actions and decisions.
Thanks, Michael, for your interpretations. It has been awhile since I've thought about this film. It ultimately leaves me dissatisfied with Caden's wimpy persona, but I do like the way it creates a Donnie Darko-like world where every image can suggest deeper meanings. I like your interpretation of the meaning behind the burning house, but the menacing physicality of the image is still distracting. Isn't a burning house far more immediately lethal than some problem that you delay solving?

As for your theory of the deathbed fugue, I need to rewatch the movie.
julia schwartz said…
There are so many comments and I have just come across this site, but I want to say I agree very much with many of the points that Andrew has made. I think that Hazel's capacity to be life affirming comes from her ability to look death squarely in the face. This is in contrast to Caden who is somatically preoccupied, obsessed with dying, but not really facing what that means. This is the difference between finitude- what Hazel grasps- and demise- the physical death- which is what Caden is preoccupied with.
Caden repeats "I know how to do it" but he doesn't. He doesn't really know how to do "it" meaning how to be, to live with the knowledge of the end- not in a meaningful way. It comes out in the cliched scene that Andrew refers to as "circle-jerk." The whole last monologue by Ellen/Millicent is, for me, about mortality, finitude.
On the time discontinuity: the traumatic loss of his daughter and other later losses that Caden experiences can account for the temporal disruption as when he says about Olive's leaving: "it's been a week" and Hazel says "It's been a year."

I think this is an incredible film about finitude and mortality.
Thanks for your insights, Julia. I need to watch the movie again. I was mostly just bothered by Caden's wimpy, milquetoast persona.
julia schwartz said…
Andrew, if you ever come back on, thanks for your incisive comments! I think we see things similarly, and in fact you have suggested things that I hadn't considered (and I have given this movie a lot of thought!).