A defence of Synecdoche, New York, or, Art as devouring world-monster

Synecdoche, New York was released in 2008. By all fiscal accounts it was a massive failure while critically it was as divisive as they come, summiting a good number of top-such-and-such film lists of that year yet elsewhere dubbed obscure, pretentious, and more or less just a gluey collage of impenetrable scenes featuring arbitrary words spoken by characters it’s impossible to care about.

The story, here synopsised without mercy, is that of Caden Cotard, a small-time theatre director in Schenectady, New York who is wracked by unusual ailments and an unravelling marriage, not to mention a head injury suffered through an exploding tap. His wife takes a trip with his daughter to an exhibition of her tiny paintings in Berlin and amid his confusion over her continued absence he wins the MacArthur Genius Grant, using the prize money to begin work on a larger play of his own creation. As his grip over time, memory, and bodily functions gets worse, the play grows in scale and convolution: scenes from his memory are reconstructed as sets; actors are hired to play people he knows; actors are hired to play the actors playing people he knows. It grows to a magnitude such that the lines are blurred between his life and what he’s created to represent his life.

The film’s themes?

CADEN

It’s about everything. Dating, birth, death, life, family. All that.

Caden is here talking about his play’s themes and his glibness highlights just how ridiculous a task it is to get all of these things – everything – into a single artwork. Yet these are by extension the themes of the film, and of course the master-theme presiding over them all: the inevitable, reality-diddling failure which can be the only result of making such an attempt.

Synecdoche, New York was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, his first proper directorial role having always worked as the writerly half of duos including Spike Jonze on Being John Malkovich and Michel Gondry on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Critics such as Mark Kermode have said that, without the mediating influence of the writer-director partnership, in Synecdoche Kaufman created something overly dense, alienating and unwieldy. Basically in dire need of an Industry Guy with a scalpel.

I disagree here, and my disagreement strikes right to what I believe is most incredible about the film. It is definitely unwieldy, but, as mentioned, so is the play which is so clearly a representation of the film itself – as Cotard is of Kaufman. The clue is in the name: synecdoche, a constituent part which stands in for, is somehow equal to, the whole. Just as the play contains more plays, set-filled warehouses within further warehouses, so is the film the greater warehouse enclosing the initial play. Everything which is wrong with the film, its overwrought opaqueness, its impossible scale, having a slightly stupid name, is also wrong with the play, and these are all things that are knowingly sent up in the film. Therefore everything that’s wrong with Synecdoche, New York is a perfect illustration of what it’s about: the failure of art to comprehend life in its entirety, or, since art is our primary tool for making sense of what we feel, be it ‘high’ art or ‘low’ or whatever, the failure of life to comprehend life in its entirety.

By all means call this a crass defence of the film, where any and all flaws can conveniently be subsumed into some broader reading of its genius (that’s what I’d say if I hadn’t seen it), but I hold that the particular flaws on show are precisely ones which mirror those of the play, and even – gulp – of life itself: overwrought opaqueness; impossible scale; bearing names or words which are stupid, inadequate.

And I’m sure you could find something uplifting and redemptive in the film but I’m unable to see it. I could copy out the final speech of Millicent (an actor Caden hires to play himself who in turn becomes a better version of him than himself) at the end of the film here, a deus ex machina moment for both the film and me watching it, but I won’t because it shits me up severely.

While Caden is over decades drawn further into the dilapidating memories of his play, the world outside is equally falling apart. Unspecified discord abounds and so self-absorbed is he that he doesn’t even notice the destruction. Ultimately he is alone, dealing with this by building a cathedral to his loneliness, neglecting the world outside which could have been his only salvation.

eight-and-a-halfIt’s been compared to Federico Fellini’s 8½ and justifiably so, a film about a possible-genius possible-egomaniac director called Guido Anselmi and his struggle to realise a film too grandiose to sustain itself.

GUIDO

Everything happens in my film. I’m going to put everything in.

But whereas Caden’s image of the world is so near to completeness that it becomes monstrous, Guido’s, in a perhaps more Italian style, becomes ridiculous. Caden’s project is all-pervading but Guido’s is only hinted at through scattered reports of ‘the spaceship’ being constructed as a backdrop, its proportions swelling along with the sense of absurdity in purveying a perfectly profound comment on life through an all-singing sci-fi epic. But of course it has to be a sci-fi epic as it has to be all other things as well, being as that its subject is precisely everything. Herein lies the inherent comedy of what may be deemed the most serious task of all. 8½ is unashamedly self-referential, self-effacing, and resolves finally into a philosophical but relaxed ambivalence as to the project, which Guido abandons and is better for it. The film doesn’t know if you really can make the all-encompassing artwork but you can wear sunglasses and look cool, so that’s okay. Or maybe I’m just talking about Guido, or Fellini.

But then that’s the point: the film is Fellini just as Synechdoche is Kaufman. And, as Nathan Cotard does not end up free of his project and looking cool in sunglasses but rather a demented shadow lost in his own crumbling city, you’d have to say that ultimately Kaufman is more the pessimist.

Further back you can see 1933’s Footlights Parade as another precursor, in which a director of musical comedies, Chester Kent, creates more and more pieces of musical comedy (each assigned to a ‘unit’ of performers and technicians) themed on seemingly every facet of his mind and memories.

CHESTER

Soldier girl unit, bull fighters, blue girls, ghosts, baby dolls, voodoo, Russian revolution – there’s nothing left in the world!

This culminates in the dreamlike lunacy of the famed By a Waterfall sequence. Chester is insatiable in his transposition of life into lindy-hopping musical prologues, the same drive beneath Guido and Nathan, but there’s no ’60s ennui here; rather the fast-talking baggy-suited razzle-dazzle of ’30s America. A tiny sliver, perhaps unwitting, lets us realise our modern cynicism when Chester, bereft of ideas for new units, idly compares himself to Doctor Frankenstein, the implication open for comparing his creations to unholy monsters, before he then realises ‘That’s a swell idea for a unit!’ skewing even a moment of self-awareness into yet more fodder for fictionalisation. Again, this is probably my modern lens bending what was never put there, but it makes a chilling window on to the ‘Droste effect’ narrative mechanism beneath Synecdoche, New York.

Footlights Parade is not a film of chin-stroking theory and makes no such claims, but it’s interesting to plot these three films on a trajectory across the past hundred years which is bound by the core notion of the hunger for turning everything into representation, each point on this trajectory marked by the mood of its time: the jovial, sky’s-the-limit Footlights; the smirking avant garde of 8½; finally the hyper-complex stupefaction of Synecdoche.

Kaufman hadn’t seen Footlights before making his film, but I’m inclined to see these points mapped across the twentieth century as something felt and absorbed more generally than the need for direct influence. The trope of mise en abyme (or a story within a story and how this permits the creator to address the circumstances of a narrative’s construction without ever needing to ‘step outside’ of it) is an idea known well enough now and can quickly be aligned to senses of epistemological discomfort which arguably arose from the mechanised chaos of  the two world wars, this discomfort then stoking a desire to recognise how and why an artwork is made within the bounds of the work itself – or, rather, to look directly at what was there all along. The frail edges of things could no longer be ignored. The story within a story and perhaps much of the ‘postmodern’ (a body of thought which abhors bodies of thought and so is best discussed obliquely, perhaps through big musical numbers), was a step away from reality which was also a step towards honesty. Or at the very least this was the hope.

But the particular strand within this that concerns us here, the artwork which becomes too much, a termite nest so obscenely large that it gnaws at the very foundations of things, is to my mind the most troubling and compelling part. Using the points of Footlights, and Synecdoche I wonder if the next point could be predicted, be it in film or elsewhere. But would it work differently elsewhere, as in literature? Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, in which a man reconstructs scenes from his ruined memory with ever more elaboration until even the actors he’s hired to play the parts lose touch with what’s real and what isn’t, certainly bears a strong resemblance to Synecdoche, although Kaufman had not read it before making his film. There aren’t any strong differences in presentation here, but the potential for a novel to extend the idea further may, perhaps, lie in another aspect: size.

On finishing Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, say, you feel that you’ve lived an entire lifetime, had an entire universe of objects and ideas fly past you, and though it’s not easy to make sense of it you know that, upon finishing a life, the task of looking back and making sense of it (in the terms that standard narratives tell us should be possible) would be equally tricky. Therefore such books, through their inordinate length as much as anything else, have the power to contain a replacement, another world which is too large to sit in any one person’s head in any one instant – even the writer’s, who accumulates such a work over time and so it resolves as a thing far larger than even he or she is able to comprehend, as we tend to assume they can. Ulysses is the work of a great many Joyces.

With this in mind, maybe the next stage on this imagined trajectory would be for an artwork which the viewer/reader has spent so much time with that the new representation-world is not merely a labyrinth for a character to get lost in; to truly know it, the viewer/reader would become equally lost, in moments unsure that he or she is even reading a book or watching a film at all.

Consider that in computer games an essential part of a game-world which the player can really buy into is the belief that the reality of the game extends beyond the limits of what could reasonably be seen: I don’t have to go into that room, but knowing that I could makes not only that room ‘exist’, but an infinite number more besides. This is a principle of real life as well, and it’s one that potentially could be used to similar effect in books. On the scale of a massive and life-packed book, a Ulyssean novel-universe – who knows, maybe it could trigger something peculiar, some kind of dissociative state.

Here the value of the whole endeavour is thrown into question. It’s no longer the mere articulation and relaying of experience, as art could generally be said to do, but rather it’s the experience itself which is peddled, almost like a drug, although the viewer/reader is making the experience in equal part to the original creator, becoming the Caden, the Guido, the Chester. I wonder at this point why one would ever want to imagine creating such a thing. Off-hand I could say that, in art, impulse often precedes rationale, but really I know there’s something megalomaniacal in the desire to make a world which others become lost in.

Still, perhaps there would be value for the viewer/reader/player in having become so lost and then coming out of the other side, a lucidity borne of being able to compare two lived-in worlds – a basically psychedelic argument. I think there is value here, and to a degree art has this function already. One could see this making it all the easier for the art-as-drug phenomenon, where mere vicarious pleasures subside into full schizophrenia, to creep up our veins.

Idly scratching at my forearm I suppose that, if this had all happened already, we’d never know.