Reality through Art in Synecdoche, New York

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Charlie Kaufman’s postmodern film Synecdoche, New York, is on one hand incredibly realistic, with an obsessive portrayal of the mundane, the everyday, the almost-disgusting banal, as if these aspects of our lives are important to the larger picture. But – on the other hand – Synecdoche’s main character, Caden, tries desperately to piece together a larger picture from the little things; the narrative from this condemned attempt at putting together a puzzle from pieces of life (mostly his own pieces) gives the film a surrealist facet as the little routines become lost within metaphors for something bigger, something Caden seems unable to grasp. Synecdoche’s final product is thus a strange film that floats in a rigidly controlled manner through two worlds: one, the world as it really is, and the other, the world that Caden inhabits. These two worlds should be the same, but Kaufman shows us that artistry is an attempt to grasp a portion of your life and extract something physical from it, implying that there is a separation from the world in which we all live and the worlds we individually experience.

Art seems ideal for capturing this idea and indeed, Kaufman exploits this metaphor to the fullest. The constant interplay between the duality of everything within Caden’s life is made concrete in the film through the contrast between Caden and Adele. Kaufman juxtaposes Caden’s art (as a director) with Adele’s (as a painter); their two different artistic views clash literally in the film through the screenplay and within the scenes themselves; the mise en scène is particularly important in Synecdoche, as Kaufman lets symbolism intentionally run rampant.

Everything seems connected in Synechdoche: specific background details, such as obituaries in a newspaper being read, or a stalker upstaging Caden in one scene, are previews of what happens later in the film. In a similar vein, Caden views his own deteriorating bodily symptoms as indicative of something more sinister, a sign that his life is itself deteriorating, which it is, although it is up to the audience to decide whether the two are related, or even real. This “realness” that is being tackled by Caden, and the opposing ideals of objective reality and subjective art vying for that realness, come to a head in the artistic ideas given to us. Can art be real, or is it just a pale imitation of life, a futile attempt to capture something true? Caden’s art engages this question, constructing a life-sized set composed of all the commonplace misery that plagues everyone each day. He must match life on a one-to-one scale, lest he fail to catch an obscure detail that leads to the grand truth normally lost within the cacophony of our everyday routines. As much as Caden is attempting to “see the big picture,” he believes he can extrapolate it by focusing on the little details.

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Adele’s miniature paintings.

Grating against Caden’s grandiose simulation of his own life is Adele’s impressionist paintings, which are almost amusingly minuscule in size (magnifying glasses must be used to view them), especially when they are compared to the scale of Caden’s play. Impressionist art is characterized by its undisguised brushstrokes, capturing the essence of its subject rather than the tiny details that are unnecessary for recognition. Adele’s exhibit in the film, “Small Miracles,” reaches massive acclaim in Europe; when Caden visits the exhibit, he discovers that Adele’s artwork, like his own, tends to possess subject matter that is highly personal (such as Olive being a subject in one of Adele’s paintings). But while Caden’s work focuses on the impending nature of his own death, Adele’s work portrays the life she finds around her.

The two art forms bleed out of the plot and into the film itself. Sudden but subtle time-skips take Caden from the time when his daughter is four years old to when she is eleven, a blurred transition that occurs in one scene; this blasé approach to time Kaufman uses in the film stems from impressionist roots, where painters use lighting and color contrast to show that time is always passing, even in a still picture. Similarly, the film shows an overabundance of unpleasant scenes that we all know occur in real life, but that filmmakers rarely bother to show in film (such as multiple bathroom scenes). Realism artists intended to dismantle the romantic art movement by utilizing dull settings and accentuating the ordinary to appeal to what life really was, rather than how we fantasize it to be.

Synecdoche suggests that Caden’s realism fails him; he is unable to figure out the specific focus of his play, let alone the haphazard mess of his own life. It is not until he gives up his directorial position, and thus his autonomy, that Caden finally realizes what he envisions his play to be; but at this point, it is his time to die. Interestingly enough, realism in theatre often stresses that individual choice is more important than external force when making a decision, a theme Caden obviously struggles with as he builds perhaps the largest piece of realistic art ever created. In the end, it is apparent that Caden has become lost in the large world he has created, and it is only when he stops focusing on the little details (because he is no longer the director and no longer even directing his own actions) that he has the time to think and find inspiration, but by then, it is tragically too late.

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Caden and one of his actors viewing the construction of the set built to replicate Caden’s life.

Because of Caden’s failure to exhaustively capture every aspect of his life, Synecdoche argues that there are two worlds we live in – the one we share with everyone else, and the one we alone experience, the one in our heads. If there was only one world, then Caden should have been able to capture it with his life-like theatrical imitation. But he does not; as the film goes on, Caden becomes increasingly frustrated with his play, and he continues to enlarge it in an effort to find what he is missing. Concurrently, Adele’s paintings become smaller and smaller, and more successful, hinting to the audience that Caden is missing the point. Adele’s paintings, as small as they are, do capture something about the people in them, even if you have to look very closely to find it. But importantly, the details are hidden behind her brush strokes. Adele does not need every minute detail to capture something true about her subjects; she is content knowing that her perspective is different from the reality she lives in – something Caden only seems able to comprehend once he has given up all control, just before his director tells him to die.

You can find more on Kaufman’s work below. 

Jonathan Romney’s Charlie Kaufman on weirdness, failure and his new puppet noir, an article on the creation of Kaufman’s newest film. 

Francis Levy’s Synecdoche, New York Revisited, a somewhat heavy-handed but accurate description of Synecdoche. 

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