Isolation and Art in ‘Synecdoche, New York’

'Synecdoche, New York' brilliantly creates structures that isolate its protagonist from his identity throughout, until he is left entirely vacant and alone.

Sony Pictures Classics

“Whoever has no house will never have one. Whoever is alone will stay alone.”

Crying in the rain. Loss of a loved one. Self-sabotage. The muted wail of a big city through the eyes of a depressed twenty-something. When Thursday bleeds into Monday and Tuesday feels a lifetime away. Unforgivably cliché, I know, but this is how we encounter loneliness in film. Loneliness is a phenomenon that is both caricatured and romanticized to no end. Its depictions are rarely organic or ugly or anything real, but when they are, you feel it. The cathartic feeling that isolation breeds is sought after by any and all dramatic directors. However, there are few films as rife with solitude as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and frankly, we can likely assume that the bulk of them are also Kaufman-affiliated. Synecdoche, New York is a film that risks a lot for its haphazard idiosyncrasies and, in doing so, garnered mixed critical reception upon its release, with some hailing it as an absurdist masterpiece and others panning it as a self-indulgent mess. Evidently, I would agree more with the former statement– the film taps into the universality of loneliness through the strange and hyper-specific experience of one man. Synecdoche, New York brilliantly creates structures that isolate its protagonist from his identity throughout, until he is left entirely vacant and alone. 

The film follows Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director living in Schenectady, New York with his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), and his four-year-old daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein). From the very beginning, household tensions are high and viewers are met with Caden’s strange behaviours. His fixation on death coupled with his hypochondria and neuroticism makes him a strange contender for a main character. Despite being aligned with him throughout, we are never supposed to trust his inner workings or believe the world we see projected through his eyes. When Adele leaves him to move to Berlin, taking Olive with her, Caden’s world begins to deteriorate around him, both mentally and physically. Upon receiving a MacArthur Grant, Caden uses the money to fund a risky play in a massive warehouse. In the said warehouse, he designs a pseudo-New York to scale which slowly begins to mimic the world outside of it. Any sense of normalcy we were afforded in the first fifteen minutes quickly dissolves and we are left with a surreal and distressing environment. 

The film purposefully lacks cohesion, with Caden unable to properly grasp the time that passes around him. Synecdoche, New York moves both unnaturally fast and painstakingly slowly thus perfectly capturing the complex intersection of depression and anxiety that Caden appears to fall between. He is the film’s only genuine consistency, exhibiting next to no growth while those around him appear to evolve at lightning speed. What haunts the screen more than him, however, is the overwhelming loneliness he represents. It’s the kind of loneliness that seems to permeate unto anyone it touches, making Caden something of a reverse King Midas. One could make a very compelling case that Caden is already dead and living out a hellish nightmare (his “death” is alluded to on several occasions) or that given the film’s surrealism and inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, all of these events are taking place within Caden’s anxious mind as he slips further into insanity. 

Illness is Caden’s initial method of isolation. Within the first few minutes of the film, he appears to be surrounded by sickness and malfunction, bouncing from urologist to neurologist and so on. The nonchalant cadence with which the doctors deliver him bad news further suggests delusion on the part of its recipient. In addition to pitying himself greatly, Caden uses illness as a physical manifestation of his own internal disorder. He sees things vastly different than those around him; strangers’ obituaries read as a personal death sentence and everyday occurrences feel final, as though he is on the verge of slipping out of reality. Caden is convinced that there is something inexplicably wrong with his body that positions him far away from those around him. 

Isolation in a film is typically portrayed through the use of physical distance. When we think of the word, we visualize a Rear Window-esque secluded character or the vast nothingness of Castaway’s setting. We make the distinctly human mistake of measuring isolation in its most somatic sense– it’s a distance that we have to see to believe. In Caden’s case, he is psychologically isolated from everyone around him, presumably long before the story even begins. Alongside his impending sense of malady, Caden and his wife have severe marital issues. Adele is depicted as a spiteful and frigid partner through Caden’s eyes but we seldom get to see her perspective; the manner in which she leaves him suggests that both parties are at fault and that Caden is simply too self-absorbed to acknowledge that. This is the first of many glimpses we get into Caden’s destructive ego. 

While his personal relationships do a great deal to create a preexisting distanced dynamic between Caden and the world he inhabits, it is the grandiose MacArthur Grant-funded set he proceeds to create that isolates him the most. The title, Synecdoche, New York, is a direct reference to this pseudo-city that finely imitates life outside its parameters. Hence “synecdoche”, a figure of speech wherein a part of something is made to represent the whole. Caden needs this version of New York to become his sole reality– one where he is the director and has constant control over the outcome. Within this warehouse, Caden is God and possesses the centrality and respect that his personal life lacks. He and his ensemble cast physically move away from the outside world, find comfort in their hyperrealistic set, and quickly adjust to these confines. 

Caden’s new world is a collaborative venture that is entirely isolating. He constantly expresses his loneliness to no avail and despite the sizeable cast and crew awaiting his every direction, Caden can not seem to connect with anybody. By opting to replicate his existence through the use of an actor, Caden comfortably allocates his identity to a stalker. A stalker who later, in character, commits suicide. This depressingly meta event perfectly reinforces the theory that Caden is already dead but, more importantly, it serves to further isolate himself from his identity. He is a man who seems to die every day just never physically. This is worsened by the temporal dimensions that constrict him; one year feels like one week and seventeen years can pass in the blink of an eye. 

Caden’s magnum opus, having amounted to nothing theatrically, makes us question the entire purpose of the world he created. If there is no audience, is it still art? Is the omission of an audience Caden’s own way of ensuring this mimetic new world feels as authentic as the real one? This could act as commentary on God and determinism or the notion that we are constantly performing. Perhaps Caden’s own mundanities make for the kind of woeful story that he is fond of directing. But above all that, there is something to be said for finding artistic merit in one’s trauma and loneliness; almost as though the deliberate replication of the events lessen their dread. There is an initial hopefulness to this story– that this play will somehow help Caden navigate his disorderly world and overcome his tenacious loneliness. Quickly, however, we learn that this hope was misplaced. 

The most climactic part of the story (and perhaps Kaufman’s boldest directorial move) is the devolution of Caden’s role as director to another character, Ellen. In giving away his one true asset and the power that accompanies it, Caden dies once again. His identity has been stripped to the bone and he assumes the life of another, doing oddball janitorial jobs while Ellen (through an earpiece) directs his every move. Say thank you. Apologize. Die. In addition to being entirely isolated from his former identity, he has practically become inhuman. Passively observing what once was his life, he not only stops calling the shots of those around him but loses his ability to make his own decisions. As viewers, we watch Caden lose his family, his work, his grasp on reality, his profession, and finally, his body. 

In the final few minutes of the film, there is a strong emphasis on collective suffering and sharing others’ pain. Through Caden’s earpiece, Ellen delivers a deeply moving soliloquy about how we are all one and we carry everyone’s sadness with us until we die. It is noteworthy that she does not acknowledge the positives of our relationships. We do not carry others’ joy the way that we carry their misfortune. The film seems to convey that humans are best at accumulating pain and that while loneliness is something we all share, there is no true remedy for it. Caden dies on the shoulder of a forgotten actress, but make no mistake, he dies alone. Synecdoche, New York boldly asserts that everybody dies alone with their pain, under the weight of their experiences and the life that they lived. In Caden’s uniquely unsettling case, even the construction of a new world could not relieve him of his perpetual loneliness. As for what that says about us, some things are better left unwritten. 

“Everything is everything.”

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