By Jake Peter
Synecdoche, New York was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and released in 2008. It stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a theater director longing for recognition and validation. As he attempts to create one final play to survive as his masterpiece, the line between reality and fiction begins to blur.
Solipsism, or the theory that one can only be sure that one’s own mind exists, plays a major role in this film. Though the world around Caden falls apart as the film progresses, he’s too consumed by his own problems to even notice. He’s surrounded by fellow New Yorkers experiencing their own tragedy and suffering, but too self-absorbed to pay them any mind.
While it’s easy to condemn Caden for his constant focus on his own experience, it’s equally easy to follow his example. Our own existence feels intense and vivid, and others’ thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to us. It takes deliberate effort to free ourselves from our naturally self-centered mindset, something Caden doesn’t achieve until he’s on his deathbed.
This film presents one of the most troubling facts of human life—that one’s own reality is and will always be subjective. No one will ever experience the world outside of their own mind, and everything outside of one’s mind is impossible to ever prove as real or as an illusion. So while we can relate to Caden’s misery, we’ll never be able to truly understand it because we’ll never experience life in the singular way in which he has.
The film’s title also factors into this theme. A “synecdoche” is a term for when a part of something refers to the whole, or vice versa. Caden dreams of staging a play that encapsulates life and all of its complexities, yet he decides to base the play on his own life. His experience could never represent that of the billions of humans who have ever lived, yet he yearns for it to do so.
Kaufman also uses this opportunity to explore the life and trials of an artist like himself. Despite the success of his plays, the self-deprecating Caden constantly seeks validation from those around him. Soliciting intellectual critiques and conversation about his work, he instead receives vague, generalized compliments and criticisms from friends and family. No one understands the motivations or significance of his creative decisions, which is endlessly frustrating for him.
In addition, Kaufman utilizes this script to examine how language shapes the way we think and experience reality. Semantics cause miscommunication between characters in almost every scene, creating frustration and discomfort and derailing conversations. Kaufman also inserts strange, over-the-top dialogue in casual settings as if to indicate that the words’ sound matter more than their meaning.
As the film progresses, Caden slowly loses his grasp on the passage of time. He goes from losing track of the day of the week to mistaking how many years of his life have passed, and decades of his life pass him by. Characters constantly remind him of the importance of living in the moment, but their advice doesn’t seem to help him.
Death follows Caden throughout the film, sometimes literally. After experiencing a minor head injury, he begins to develop serious health conditions and his body slowly deteriorates. Some remind him of his impending mortality, while others comfort him and try to downplay his concerns about his health.
Caden combats his fear of dying by turning his focus toward his legacy. He convinces himself that his final play has to be perfect so that it can live on after he dies, believing his legacy to be more significant than anything he could accomplish while alive.
Sadly, Caden wastes much of the second half of his life fixating on his legacy. He tries to increase the imagined value of his life beyond his death even though he’ll never know how he was remembered. This obsession reveals his desire to essentially live forever, or at least for his work to live forever. But to live your life with the goal of being remembered is like planning a birthday party which you can’t attend. Such a futile pursuit is merely Caden trying to convince himself that both him and his work won’t one day be forgotten, though they both inevitably will.
While brainstorming ideas for his play, he alludes to this desire by saying, “We are all hurtling toward death. Yet here we are, for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we will die; each of us secretly believing we won’t.”
As Caden develops his final production, he begins to lose his sense of self and his grasp on reality. Actors start playing other actors, and one takes on the role of Caden and directs the play. Even Caden himself eventually assumes the role of one of his characters though he had previously claimed to be on a quest for self-discovery numerous times. Not only that, but several characters question Caden’s gender and sexuality with unusual tenacity in some of the film’s stranger scenes.
More than anything else, Caden struggles with the curse that is the Absurd as he nears the end of his life. Though the universe is irrational and meaningless, he devotes himself to searching for reason and meaning within it. Instead of understanding and accepting this cosmic indifference and creating his own meaning through art, he denies it and searches for answers beyond himself.
Kaufman inserts countless literary references into this script, many of which apply to Caden’s life. Caden seems just as disillusioned and detached from reality as Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman, the play he directs in the first act. Also, like the protagonist in The Trial, Caden appears to be overwhelmed by the complex processes governing his life and unable to break free of them.
An actor playing a minister in Caden’s play laments Man’s Kafkaesque condition, stating, “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 twenty years. And you’ll never trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out.”
However, Caden does find solace in one avenue of his life: his relationships. Companionship acts as a distraction for him, and he openly admits to women that he’s spending time with them to escape his crippling loneliness and distract him from his problems. Though he lives a life of obscurity, his relationships make him feel a little less alone and a little more important in the world.
This film is dense, confusing, and occasionally comical, but it’s ultimately human. Kaufman calls attention to the harsh realities of existence in strange and beautiful ways, keeping his characters relatable even as they grapple with their own mortality. Even as it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between Caden’s play and reality, Kaufman continues to offer insights into the human condition.
Kaufman may not have meant for Synecdoche, New York to be fully understood, and in that way his film mirrors life itself.