“I think it was Thomas Mann who said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people,”….which I thought was pretty cool” - Charlie Kaufman, 2011
The work of Charlie Kaufman is almost synonymous with creative frustrations. Indeed, the first scene of his feature debut, Being John Malkovich (1999, Gramercy), depicts an artist’s (in this case a puppeteer) performance titled “Dance of Disillusionment and Despair,” while the entirety of 2002’s Adaptation. (Columbia) is based on Kaufman’s own writer’s block. But his work often goes beyond the simple frustrations of an artist’s creative process, most particularly and intensely in his 2008 film, Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics). In this film, Kaufman’s directorial debut, he presents the life of an artist as incredibly tortured, tragically unfulfilled, and profoundly depressing. Kaufman creates a world that mirrors the artist’s nightmares; in Synecdoche, this artist, a theatre director, isCaden Cotard, whose insecurities and paranoia played out as realities.
The aim of this essay, then, is to examine the various ways in which Kaufman explores the mind of the artist, revealing it as immensely neurotic and massively miserable. Given the intense pain that the life of the artist, as depicted by Kaufman, is filled with, one must ask why Caden (and the artist in general) continues his attempts to create. I believe that the answer to this question lies in the myth of Sisyphus. In Albert Camus’ reading of the Sisyphus myth he proposes that while life is ultimately meaningless, or absurd, we must still live it to the fullest. Kaufman similarly, in his “myth” of Caden, seems to propose that while the creative task is never truly (or even closely) completed, we must continue to try anyway, regardless (or in spite of) the intense despair that might come within. For Kaufman, the mind of the artist is an almost unfathomably dystopian one, yet one which must nonetheless be inhabited with deep perseverance.
Before moving on to a deeper investigation of the philosophical implications of the film, it is important to briefly examine how exactly Kaufman merges the external, more literally dystopian world within which the story of Synecdoche, New York takes place, with the internally tortured psychology of the artist. Throughout the film there are two parallel worlds shown: that of the world outside, not directly related to Caden’s life, which increasingly moves toward destruction, and the specific worlds of Caden’s life, that is the various warehouses and his personal relationships.
Over the course of the film, as Caden constructs the increasingly intricate and detailed version of New York in his warehouse, the “real” New York in which the film is set devolves further and further into chaos and anarchy, culminating in an unexplained event near the end of the film (we are only given the angered shouts of people and the noise of an explosion as hints) which leaves this “real” New York, and the one within Caden’s warehouse, in a post-apocalyptic state. It is my belief that this disintegration of the society outside, without any direct reference to it in the film, is to stress Caden’s self-involvement with his own project. In a way, Kaufman is emphasizing the isolation of the artist, one so far removed from reality that he is oblivious to its destruction.
However, the continual decay of the outside world also serves to mirror Caden’s own decaying physical and mental life. Caden Cotard shares a surname with the French neurologist Jules Cotard, the discoverer of a rare neurological disorder that makes its sufferers believe they are dead, decomposing, or internally decaying. Throughout Synecdoche, New York, Caden’s body is shown in various states of decay, and significant portions of the film show him in various doctors’ offices, surgeries, and medical emergencies (his seizure after calling Adele, his heart attack after finding his thrown-out gift to Olive, among others). Just as Kafka makes subjective realities objective ones in his The Metamorphosis, turning Gregor Samsa’s feelings of alienation and repulsion into his becoming an insect, so too does Kaufman turn Caden’s lack of fulfillment, alienation, and repulsion into a dystopian environment and decrepit body which impose similar feelings on him.
“I have a title: The Obscure Moon Lighting and Obscure World” whispers Caden to Hazel on their final night together, only to have her reply “I think it might be too much.” Caden’s continual search throughout the film to find an appropriate title for his project is never completed; constant suggestions meet constant rejections, yet Caden persistently keeps searching, up until the moment of his death. Caden’s attempts to title his piece are the closest literal parallel we get to the Greek legend of Sisyphus, a man condemned by the Gods to the eternal fate of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down, and the project to begin again. Yet over the course of Synecdoche, New York Kaufman depicts the struggles of the artist as similar to those of Sisyphus. As mentioned earlier, for Kaufman, and by extension Caden, the artist’s work is never completed, never satisfactory, and one of intense pain, yet one which needs to be continued.
There are numerous aspects of the film which underscore the circular nature of the Sisyphus myth and the artistic process; the never-ending cycle that is the creative process and Sisyphus’ fate. The film as a whole can be viewed as a circular narrative. As the film opens, we fade from a black to grey screen, before opening on the image of an alarm clock, reading 7:44am, quickly clicking to 7:45. Similarly, near the close of the film, as Caden wanders around the remnants of his warehouses and sits on a couch with another character (self-identified as the mother in Ellen’s dream), a spray-painted clock on a wall also reads 7:45. The image slowly whites itself out, fading to a soft grey that then slowly fades to a black over the course of the end credits. The overall structure of the film is thus very similar to that of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), another work largely based on dream logic, and which opens and closes with two halves of the same sentence.
This conclusion to the film can make the film’s narrative as a whole parallel to one of Sisyphus’ trips up the hill, with Caden’s theater project as his boulder. As Caden sits on the couch mentioned earlier, his head on the shoulder of Ellen’s dream mother, he states “I know how to do this play now… I have an idea… I think… if everyone…” Here he gets cut off, as he’s instructed to die by Ellen’s voice. By visually and temporally linking the opening and closing of the film, Kaufman allows, in a way, for Caden’s rebirth with each subsequent watching of it. Unlike most narratives, this is not a closed one. Caden’s story does not simply repeat with each viewing, but is instead recycled. While these two terms are only minimally distinct, this distinction is incredibly important. Both Caden and Sisyphus’ story is not of one single boulder being pushed up a hill, or one artistic experiment being created, but an infinite series, each of which is necessarily relived by their respective characters each time. Kaufman’s narrative structure masterfully allows this, creating a film which grows and expands with each viewing, instead of simple repeats.
A Conscious Caden
“If this myth [of Sisyphus] is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” asks Camus in his essay on the subject. One must similarly ask whether or not the story of Caden is tragic. If Caden truly is an artistic, modern equivalent of Sisyphus, one must wonder if he is conscious of his constant struggles and failures.
After Hazel’s death, Caden calls her voicemail to leave one final message: “It’ll all take place over the course of one day… that day will be the day before you died…it was the happiest day of my life… now I’ll be able to really live forever… see you soon.” Here, I believe we get a slight glimmer of hope from Kaufman that Caden’s character is not conscious of his plight. Caden constantly perceives his project as achievable despite his previous failures; even up until his last breath he conceives of new ideas to complete it. As Camus would have put it: “One always finds one’s burden again… The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The following review was originally published by Unbound Culture in Fall 2008.
Toward the middle of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on an airplane reading a self-help book called Getting Better,written by his therapist Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis). Suddenly, he looks over to see Gravis sitting across the aisle from him. He says: “I’m not sure I’m getting the book.” She replies: “It’s getting you.”
This is the experience one might feel while watching Kaufman’s directorial debut—a surreal, breathtaking masterpiece about life, love, death, and everything in between. Yes, the film is about many things (as well as how these things in turn relate back to even more things [the title is a clue as to how this works]). But to be more specific, in regard to the scene mentioned above, the film is about how we read our own experiences into the world around us—how we interpret things like people and art egocentrically. Kaufman’s choice of using a self-help book to illustrate this point is a brilliant one. This is because self-help books (like horoscopes and religions) play on a person’s egocentric worldview. These books offer the most general advice imaginable, but a vulnerable person seeking help or spiritual guidance will interpret the advice as relating specifically back to him or her.
Now, getting back to the movie, Caden Cotard is a theater director who, at the start of the film, is mounting a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in which the two leads are played by young actors. The success of this interpretation leads to Caden being awarded the MacArthur genius grant. With the grant money, he plans to write and direct a theatrical production more “true” to himself.
But what is “true” to Caden Cotard? This is what he must uncover, and this is what we’re after as we watch the movie unfold. Caden rents out a large warehouse in Manhattan’s theater district and gets to work. He will direct people in their everyday lives on a set that is a direct replica of the outside world, and he will even hire an actor named Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself.
Meanwhile, Caden is also beginning to lose his autonomic functions, and the various doctors he’s visiting can’t give him a straight answer as to why. He’s wondering if he’s dying. As a matter of fact, he is. But it’s not for any particular reason (perhaps why each doctor keeps sending him to a new specialist). It’s simply because he, like all things, must die. His loss of autonomic functions only helps him examine his life more closely and how the different parts of his body relate back to his brain (this, you will notice, relates back to the film’s title and its main thematic thrust). For example, in a scene where Caden experiences sadness, he must use artificial tears where in the past the tears would be automatic. And in a scene where he is about to eat food, he must perform odd mouth exercises to jump-start his salivation. The upside (or the downside) of such a closely examined life is that Caden becomes fully aware of his own mortality. Now he has a time limit. What should he do?
Unexpectedly, he decides to clean. His painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has taken their four-year-old daughter Olive with her to Germany, and they probably aren’t coming back. So Caden cleans her studio. What does the room look like under the layers and layers of paint and grime? What does his life look like?
With Adele gone, perhaps this will give Caden the opportunity to get closer to Hazel (Samantha Morton), the box office attendant at his theater who very clearly has a crush on him. Hazel is spontaneous and full of life—almost the exact opposite of Caden. This can be seen in her house. For some unexplained reason, it is always on fire. Is this because she, unlike Caden, is always aware of the transience of life and the importance of living for the moment? Maybe.
Oddly enough, it is through Sammy acting out Caden’s life in the theater that Caden begins to realize how much he loves Hazel and how much she means to him. But—not surprisingly—Sammy ends up falling for Hazel, too. So Caden settles for Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress he hired to play Hazel. What do we make of this? Are Caden and Hazel really in love with each other? Or are they only in love with the societal roles they play for each other?
Speaking of roles, Caden soon begins to realize what we’ve already discussed—that in life, we interpret the world in a way that relates back to us—we assign roles to the people and objects we encounter. This is why he still thinks of his daughter Olive as a four-year-old, even after she has been gone for years and is much older and living in Germany. He needs her to be a four-year-old for him because that’s the role she was playing when he last saw her. Her own life and experiences beyond that role are offensive to him. Is it fatherly concern that upsets Caden when he finds out Olive is being used by Adele’s friend Maria as an art object, or is it anger that she is no longer his little girl? Maybe it’s both.
Later, Caden finally comes face to face with Olive, and he realizes that he must play a role for her now—one that isn’t true to him, but that is true to her. The situation has been reversed. It is one of the most revelatory and heartbreaking scenes in the whole movie.
Clearly, there is a lot to think about in Synecdoche, New York, and the film surely raises plenty of important questions. But it’s also a pleasure to watch. Kaufman juggles philosophy, drama, and comedy with incredible ease, and the performances are some of the best of the year. Hoffman is indeed the standout, followed by Diane Wiest in a surprising role toward the film’s end. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and yes, even though it doesn’t happen a lot at the movies these days, you’ll think. Best of all, you can trust that Kaufman isn’t taking you for a nonsensical ride through his own self-indulgence. Never will you feel that Synecdoche, New York isn’t working, even if you might not be “getting” it yet. After all, it will certainly be getting you.