Coming to Pieces, Somewhere

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is beautiful, yet frustrating. Synecdoche, New York (2008) is the kind of film that doesn’t fail to fascinate its audience. It is a force to be reckoned with. Kaufman is known for the mind-boggling clever narratives of Adaptation’s meta-fiction and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s multi-layered time- and memory-bending, yet here, there is something else. Synecdoche, New York provides harmony in its dissonance and enraptures in its extensiveness.

At the very beginning, while the credits roll, a radio show discussing the changes of the seasons plays. The film’s start sets off morbidly in the sense that everything is focused on mortality. It takes place in autumn, which suggests death and the “beginning of the end.” The film concludes with a voice telling the main character, Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), to die.

As part of this all-encompassing sense of death, Caden is overcome by illness. Different types of doctors — ophthalmologists, neurologists, and urologists — create confusion and a sense that Caden is not being heard. He acquires pustules on his face and explains to his daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), that they are called sycosis, not psychosis, in which the use of homonyms creates aural dissonance. He assures her that he is not deranged, but rather, has some facial blemishes.

Synecdoche is a film that is overcome with discomfort. Not only are Caden’s various illnesses difficult to watch, but his marriage is also fraught with arguments and a lack of support. An exemplary scene of such dissonance comes by way of a family car ride when Caden discusses needing a plumber with his wife (Catherine Keener). While Caden tries to call the plumber on his phone, Olive asks what a plumber is. Caden responds to her, and his wife, Adele, interrupts his explanation to correct him. His attention floats between the phone and Olive. He explains the concept of pipes and their similarity to veins. Adele chimes in by comparing them to “capillaries” instead, and Olive complains that she doesn’t want to have blood. Meanwhile, in the background, the music, a dissonant and jumpy combination of tones composed by Jon Brion, begins to build. The volume rises. The scene reaches a fevered pitch as everything collides and becomes an anxiety-inducing orchestra of discord.

While Caden falls apart inside his world, he does not notice the deterioration of the world around him. One night, there is a blimp or an airship flying above, with an ominous sweeping searchlight below it. The “Angelic Day Spa” is closed. Jeeps drive by, people gather gas masks, and a nude man is led through the street by a leash and a collar. By the end, it is the audio which takes over the revelations, with the sounds of fighting and rioting coming from outside of a building. But before then, there is a subtlety to the reveal. Rarely is anything shown in its entirety, and the appearance of landscape shots become sparse, with Kaufman opting instead to hide it all. It needs to be looked for, and one would most likely ignore the signs of what is to come at first glance.

Reality is fluid, and this is reflected through the film’s language. Caden is seen in all forms of media. He can be seen in an animated video about forgetting a parachute, and appears as a GIF on his psychiatrist’s website touting her book; yet he seems perturbed by its existence and unaware of its creation. He is also on the poster for a fictional movie, Little Winky, hinting at allegations made about him being homosexual.

Time is something to be deconstructed as well. Hazel (Samantha Morton), a box office attendant, tries to seduce Caden, who is still thinking about his estranged wife. She tries to persuade him by saying, “It’s been a year.” He corrects her, “It’s been a week.” Time progresses with no clear indication. When Olive is eleven, Caden still thinks she is four years old. He is told to return to the dentist in three months and is immediately found at his next appointment. The world is destroyed and Caden ages suddenly. There are multiple funerals. Time flies by, but Caden keeps moving.

Pain and discomfort abound, yet nobody can understand Caden Cotard’s pleas for help. He fears death, finding illness at every turn, but only while attending the funerals of the others, with the sadness left behind for him. Reality begins to flake, to chip, to break. Voices escape their written constraints and such art is living, as Caden struggles with his own mortality and cannot complete his work after 17 years. By the end, Caden claims that he knows how to finish the play and then dies. The play is something that all of these other details surround. It is the central element, and yet it is essential to chip away at its supporting thematic connections, just as Kaufman chips away at the world Caden inhabits. The ailing man seeks a way to create truth in his world of deception. With an unfathomably large warehouse and the funds of a MacArthur grant behind him, Caden stages real life.

There is art to Kaufman’s depiction of this play. It is a distinct entity with people receiving notes — clearly in the process of acting — at the beginning. However, as the film progresses, buildings are created to match those of the real world, and they are closed up to the point where anybody acting inside would go unnoticed. Caden hires somebody to play Caden, another to play Hazel — who has become his assistant — and the two follow behind the actors making notes, with the former making notes of their own. The visuals are a convergence of real life and the play, which soon diverge and splinter into unclear differentiation.

Sammy (Tom Noonan), the man who plays Caden, commits suicide and is scolded by Caden because he never did the same. Sammy falls in love with the wrong Hazel and a funeral in real life is delivered in Caden’s world. This time, Brion’s score plays out over a small speaker to the crowd standing on a set. When Caden’s identity is subsumed by his inhabiting of the role of Ellen — Adele’s cleaning lady, whom he plays once she (Dianne Wiest) takes over Caden’s role from the now-deceased Sammy — the boundaries of self are pushed past simple comprehension.

Synecdoche, New York is a meta-fiction of itself, like a paper being folded over and over, until it is too tight to be squeezed further. It tells stories at various levels simultaneously, subtly shifting reality on stage and behind the walls of the play, to the point where it is laughable to see Caden enter a smaller warehouse inside the warehouse wherein the play is staged, only to find another warehouse, even smaller, within.

Nothing is safe from the touch of this deconstructive force. The written word breathes the throes of Adele’s illness, through her voicing the letters she writes to Ellen-Caden, while the four-year-old Olive’s diary continues to tell Caden of his daughter’s life story after she leaves the book at home. Caden’s multifarious appearances in media are disconcerting when noticed. His psychiatrist (Hope Davis) comes into being when he reads her book on a plane, the book reacting in concert with her as Caden spurns her advances.

Nothing is safe from the touch of this deconstructive force.

The premise of the film ties into an essential element of human nature: we all play ourselves. There is a performative aspect of being in the way we react to expectations and perceptions of ourselves, taking on roles dictated not only by our own sense of identity, but also through others’ views of us. This is Sammy, playing Caden, in his speech and action based on following the man for years, having popped up like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden at the beginning of the film, invading briefly before taking his part.

It is Ellen, though, whose performance of the same role shows something more. When she asks for the role, she explains to the real Caden — who says that he does not understand the character — “Caden Cotard is a man already dead, living in a half-world between stasis and anti-stasis. Time is concentrated and chronology confused for him. Up until recently, he has strived valiantly to make sense of his situation, but now he has turned to stone.” This, following the death of Hazel, and the disappearance of nearly everything connecting Caden to his world is met with the man’s approving remark, “Okay. That sounds good.”

After a funeral scene on set, with a rousing speech by a pastor (Christopher Evan Welch) calling for self-preservation, Caden abandons the role of playing himself for that of Ellen’s. The ‘real’ Ellen becomes Caden, giving instructions to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Ellen through an earpiece. Hoffman’s Caden was playing the wrong role the whole time, and that is what he learns through this new casting. Everybody else was focused on appearances, and on maintaining lines of reality. But when reality does not want to maintain itself, neither should the world of the play. Ellen-Caden makes tweaks in the funeral’s script, and the resulting moment is performative, yet honest, playing within the bounds of the world and making the most of what it has, creating a scene of transcendentally spiteful bliss.

A synecdoche is a part representing a whole or a whole representing a part, the meaning of the word as dense as the film it represents. Kaufman examines honesty, the quest for creative freedom, and for bringing something meaningful into the world. Adele creates paintings smaller than the naked eye can discern, while Caden tries to stage a whole city of life, and the former is referred to as “honest.” They each try to find their part within the whole, to examine the broken world in which they reside. It is uncomfortable to consider whether we are being who we are meant to be or being who we are expected to be, and in Kaufman’s magnum opus, the discomfort is an essential part of the consideration as a whole.

By Benjamin Wallin

Benjamin Wallin is the Editor-in-Chief of Refract Magazine and has been writing about film since his freshman year at Baruch College. He’s fairly confident in the role he plays.

Illustrations done in collaboration with the New Media Artspace at Baruch College. The New Media Artspace is a teaching exhibition space in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, CUNY. Housed in the Newman Library, the New Media Artspace showcases curated experimental media and interdisciplinary artworks by international artists, students, alumni, and faculty. Special thanks to docent Maya Hilbert for creating artwork for this piece.

Check the New Media Artspace out at