The Collegian
Friday, February 23, 2024

Cinema in Retrospect: 'Synecdoche, New York'

<p>Graphic by Lucy Stefani</p>

Graphic by Lucy Stefani

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.  

Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film, "Synecdoche, New York," is an expansive and sometimes nauseating film. The film disregards cinematic conventions for temporality and perspective. It blends boundaries between artform and artist using a uniquely post-modern veneer; yet, it is also a film about the paradoxical complexities of daily life. The film’s main character, Caden Cotard, is a theater director who lives — at the beginning of the film — with his wife and daughter. However, after his wife and daughter leave him to go to Germany and he wins a MacArthur Fellowship, the finer details of his life begin to evaporate as his touchstones recede farther away from him. He repeatedly finds himself oscillating between yearning for total control over his life and lusting after the ability to be simply told what to do. The reason the film’s structure is so maze-like — with the narrative sporadically looping in on itself or completely shifting gears — is because its perspective character is so often lost within his head. Yet, it is this motivational limbo that the film is so interested in.

Caden’s occupation as a director predisposes him to demand heightened control over his peers. His struggles at the beginning of the film are precisely on account of fixations on perfection — he was so eaten up by minutely controlling every aspect of his play, that he ended up growing distant from his family. After his paternal authority was jettisoned from him, he turned toward extramarital romances. Since this was new territory for him — and antithetical to his professional domain — he could do nothing if he was not explicitly guided. He needed to be told what to say next and when to ask for more.

Finding that such an ask was not feasible, he turned back to theatre, seeking to use his newly accrued funds to create a piece so grand and unflinching that it might become a synecdoche for the infinitely faceted performance that is life. Despite his instinctual conviction, he struggles to decide upon the project’s specifics — its scope, its title and its format all change several times. Gradually, the piece becomes more and more of a lagging manifestation of Caden’s own microcosm of life — with the primary actors playing himself and his closest acquaintances and their performances being mockups of the past few days’ pertinent proceedings.

Such a revisionist nature allowed Caden to plant himself under the microscope through which he could serve as the controller. If he has a bad day, all he needs to do is file a complaint and he'll be able to try his hand at it all over again. It isn’t a process of learning for the future, but revising for the past — repeating the same few events ad infinitum so that he can gain mastery over his shortcomings. His daily life then becomes the prep work for the real project which is a lingering fabrication. This process becomes troublesome, however, as the authenticity and intentionality of life become buried in abstraction. Living only in the past banishes a productive engagement with the present; demanding total control is contingent upon something being willing to cede it. His obsession with remedying loss estranges him from the abrupt and violent losses life entails. As such, whenever tragedy inevitably strikes, he only ever takes it as a reminder of what he should have done, of how his play should have been made. After the death of his closest friend, all he can bring himself to do is leave a voice message on her answering machine, confessing that he finally knows how to realize his initial dreams.

Despite his resolutions, his only true moment of closure comes from his resignation to the world around him. Finally burnt out after working in circles for decades, he places the reigns in someone else’s hands, letting one of the actors become the director. All his life, he had slowly been turning to stone, and so, with his final breath, he opted to let someone else take over the chiseling. Only through becoming an actor, in an infinitely minor and unseen role, could he position himself for the infinite uncertainties of life. Caden’s closure is contingent upon realizing that everyone that has ever been or ever will be are both the actors and directors of their personal stories. Making a photo-realistic replica of the past is a futile effort because as one person’s camera is developing its film, a myriad more are being flashed into being.

Caden’s self-consumed narcissism is exaggerated in the film, but the sensations of lost time and the fear of missing out it evokes is universal. Easy answers are so often asked for because life’s intricacies are incomprehensibly complex. However, it might be the case that there doesn’t need to be answers to every question. Answered or not, life goes on and everyone everywhere is around for exactly as long as they are. Even if bookends of life are identical, the intermittent pages of discovery are unfathomably personal. It’s impossible to know how things will turn out; it’s only possible to try and do one’s best. Being the billed actor or a director doesn’t matter because everyone is the lead in their own show — and there’s not another one out there like theirs. No story is ever complete, and neither is any storyteller. Life is messy and directions seem like they would clean it up, but as it happens, even directors need directors.

Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at

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