As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the movie, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
Synecdoche, New York is a comedy/drama movie released in 2008, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie was filmed in Schenectady, New York; the title of the film, as you can imagine, is a play off the name of the city. Hoffman plays a theater director named Caden Cotard—evidently another play on words referencing the Cotard Delusion, who continuously worries about death, which holds him back from his true potential and from living life to the fullest.
In the movie, Caden is married to another artist named Adele. Their relationship is rocky, partly because they are polar opposites. Caden thinks big, a hopeless romantic, and worries about everything—death, what to wear, what to say, creating the perfect play. Adele is carefree *cough cough*, doesn't believe in love, and produces works of art so small, special magnifying glasses are needed to see them. He seeks justification, praise, encourage from Adele for his theater pieces, and in return gets on criticism. Naturally, this throws Caden into further despair; and what is interesting here is amidst the plethora of analyses found online—Youtube, podcasts, articles, etc. this very simple yet very profound fact is missed. Those analyzing Synecdoche get so caught up in the details, the myriad references to infamous books and legendary theater pieces that they fail to see much of Caden's existential troubles can be attributed to a broken heart. It is quite comical and only adds to the brilliance of Synecdoche.
So, Adele leaves Caden to move to Europe with their four-year-old daughter named Olive. As a result, Caden becomes increasingly lonely and distraught as years, as time, as life passes him by and plunges further into the existential abyss. Kaufman also does a brilliant job writing this into the script. Often you'll think a scene is portraying the same day, but months or years may have passed in seconds. We can all relate. Once we were kids, suddenly we're adults, and before you know it, we're seconds away from being dead.
With Adele gone, not ready to let go of her, he has a half-hearted and failed fling with a co-worker named Hazel. Not long thereafter, he wins a MacArthur Fellowship (aka the Genius Grant), which provides him the financial freedom to further his artistic pursuits without worry. Oh, and I apparently forgot to mention that Caden is an atypical hypochondriac who doesn't wash his hands after peeing in sinks. But yeah, bump on head—I'm going to die, bump on arm—I'm going to die, dissecting feces to look for non-existent blood in stool—I'm going to die, fungal brain infection—I'm going to die. Ironically, he outlives pretty much everyone he knows.
But anyway, with that Genius Grant, he decides he create a play of such size, of such grandiose that it is a simulacrum of life itself, or rather that sliver of consciousness between the two vast voids nonexistence in which life ekes out its existence—the human experience. Best summed up as Caden would put it,
I will be dying, and so will you. And so will everyone here. And that's what I wanna explore. We're all hurtling towards death. Yet here we are for the moment, alive, each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't.
As time passes, Caden's play increases in size, and the team grows absurdly large. He marries a cast member named Claire, not necessarily out of love, but rather to fill the void in his life that Adele, and now Hazel has left him with. This is important and again missed in most of the analyses of Synecdoche. It is important because most of Caden's actions in the movie, again, are a result of heartbreak. Claire and Caden have a daughter and when the daughter reaches four years of age, he takes off to Europe to find his other daughter, Olive; only to discover that she is now eleven. Years pass without notice, and suddenly Olive is grown up and an adult dancer. Caden was not able to make contact despite going to one of her private shows.
While all of this is happening, the lines between reality and fiction blur, the viewers—us, the actors and actresses—us, have a hard time telling the difference between what is real and what is not. Actors play actors, actresses play actresses, actresses play actors, and regular people end up becoming actors and actresses themselves. If that makes no sense, watching the film will probably be of no help. Well, that is not entirely true, as will be shown in the next paragraph. What is happening is relatively simple if you again keep the one important fact in mind that everything Caden does is inspired by his broken heart. Kaufman continues the theme throughout the movie that "everyone is everyone," and there is no real distinction between what is real and what is not—everything is real, and everything is meaningless. The line between the two doesn't exist; the line is the fiction. This idea has been explored in other movies, e.g., The Purpose Rose of Cairo and Pleasantville.
There is a character in the film that has baffled a lot of viewers. Who is Ellen, the cleaning lady? Epic articles have been written on the subject. Was Caden really a woman? Was Caden really Ellen from the start, and we just saw her as a man? Was Ellen some metaphor for something else? The answer to this is simple. Everyone is everyone. Near the end of the film, Caden becomes Ellen, or at least plays the part. Why does Caden become/play Ellen? Again, the broken heart. So again, who is Ellen? Ellen is actually Adele's cleaning lady, AND possibly one of her many lovers. Why do I say this? Well, if you blink, you may have missed it. Caden, while in Adele's art gallery, comes across an extremely small partially nude painting of Ellen in her "Women I Love" series. Other signs point to Ellen perhaps being Adele's final romantic endeavor. Caden, by becoming or playing Ellen, is about as close as he'll ever get to being with Adele once again. Although, much to his despair, after decades, after becoming Ellen, Caden and Adele would never again cross paths. But at least by cleaning her toilets can he in some sense be close to her, in some sense can gain a bit of tainted closure.
Okay, so can you go further down the rabbit hole on this? Yes. Is it worth it? Perhaps, and perhaps not. You may recall that Olive, Caden's daughter accuses her father of leaving them to have gay sex with a man named Eric, and the only Eric in the film is only shown once, to my knowledge, in the bed of Ellen. Everyone is everyone. Ellen laments at the end:
There was supposed to be something else. You were supposed to have something, a calm. Love. Children. A child, at least. Children. Meaning.
She was never able to have children. Caden becoming Ellen to get closer to Adele then learns of Ellen's equally as disturbing past and realizes he is not alone. He has never been alone, and it is only in recognizing this that he is finally allowed to die after living a wasted and meaningless life, riddled with heartbreak and misery. As do we all to some extent. Adele's reminder echoes the sentiments, Everything is disappointing when you know someone. Every choice that is made pulls the strings of a million others, ends a million lives you could have lived, but never will.
Other great quotes in the movie:
Stalker Sammy: I've watched you forever but you never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there's nothing. No more watching, there's no more following, no love.
Preacher: Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won't know for 20 years and you may never, ever travel it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is, its what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain wasting years for a phone call or a letter or a look for someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes, or it seems to, but it doesn't really. So you spend your time in vague regret or vague hope that something good will come along. Something to make you connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry. And the truth is I feel so fucking sad. And the truth is, I've felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long. And for just as long I've been pretending I'm okay just to get along, just for--I don't know why. Maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.
Really, analyzing this film could go on ad absurdum. For example, take a look at YourMovieSucksDOTorg's YouTube incomplete as of 2019 five-part analysis.
Each progressive analysis of the movie getting further and further apart in time, each becoming so much more difficult to complete, and the creator of the series has done a great job at highlighting how some of the books people were reading, some of the backdrops, etc. have hidden meaning and relate to the film. But, the overall point is missed or perhaps that is coming in the elusive Part 6 which … may be released years from now?
So what is the point, what is the meaning behind Synecdoche? Simple, life is absurdly and comically meaningless; everyone is everyone, and time flies by faster than you know. If you spend your time worrying about this or that, you may end up missing out on something good. After all, wasn't Hazel, wasn't Adele both what Caden was looking for? Both subtly, but philosophically profound thinkers? Both hopeless romantics? A point missed by Caden at least until he hooks up with Hazel, the older version at the end. And yeah, I missed a lot of points, didn't cover a fraction of Kaufman's brilliance in this blog; a choice I'm making to save a few versions of myself; a limit to the extent we can understand life itself by examine the details; and that in of itself is part of the point.
Overall - 10
Meaning of Life Relevance - 8 Uniqueness – 10
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