Exploring Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York”: A Philosophical Analysis

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PREFACE

“There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”

— Susan Orleans, Adaptation (written by Charlie Kaufman)

I’ve wrestled near-tirelessly with this analysis, as Synecdoche, New York is a unique beast. Standard film analysis won’t do, and far more capable minds have already broken down the film’s narrative, thematic, and technical components. This left me a little lost.

Should I discuss the film’s merits on a technical level? Should I address themes and how they are tackled via visual and narrative motifs? How much backstory should I present, or withhold? Should I focus on the unique structure of the film, which plays with our concept of time and how it is perceived as we age?

At the end of the day, I decided to throw my hands in the air and declare, “Fuck it!” What interests me most about the film — what I feel really makes it one of the most important films of modern cinema — is the philosophy at its core. After all, the conceit behind Synecdoche, New York is what endears the film to me over any other. It is as good a subject for analysis as any of the myriad options at my disposal.

I take for granted that you have seen the film prior to reading this. As such, I will not be providing a synopsis. I will be referring to characters as events as if you are already familiar with them. Should you have stumbled upon this and have yet to see the film, you can buy it via iTunes, Amazon.com, and elsewhere. Hell, you can probably torrent it.

I would also like to take a moment to send a shoutout to Mick over at Being Charlie Kaufman for sharing this piece with his audience. I love the site, and it means a lot to me. I cannot thank you enough! Any one looking for a wealth of information on Charlie Kaufman and his work, BCK is your best bet. It’s a veritable treasure trove.

The Philosophy of Synecdoche, New York:

Dethroning Solipsism, and Dispelling The Concept of “The Other”

I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.”

— Charlie Kaufman, BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture 2011

Synecdoche, New York is a film that concerns itself with examining solipsism, and in disposing of the harmful concept of “The Other”. Solipsism is the belief that only one’s own mind is certain to exist; that one’s perception of reality and events is the only certainty, the only truth. As a philosophy, it is akin to Objectivism — the belief that the pursuit of one’s own self interest is the only moral obligation to which any human is bound.

Solipsism is a gross philosophy. It does not leave room for the understanding or concern of others. It is diametrically opposed to Altruism, which — while impractical to some extent — at least gives us something worthy to strive for. While one can argue against the practicality of Altruism, it’s hard to rationalize Objectivism and Solipsism as being inherently healthy life philosophies. While they may serve the individual, they do not foster the wellbeing of the human community writ large.

Now, all of that isn’t to say that individuals who prescribe to philosophies that place themselves at the center of their own universe are inherently bad. One can argue that such philosophies drive individuals towards great personal success, and through that success said individuals can turn around and provide aid of which they might not have otherwise been capable. There is a certain benefit to being concerned with one’s own self, but this dissection is not concerned with those few individuals who put their own universes in check before extending their helping hand. So it follows that Synecdoche, New York does not concern itself with such.

The film examines solipsism at its worst, demonstrating the dangers of such a philosophy through its chosen vehicle: Caden Cotard.

Solipsism As A Catalyst For Emotional Distance

As is often the case in Kaufman’s films, Caden is a hard protagonist to like. In fact, the more time we spend with him the harder it is to view him with even a modicum of sympathy. From the word go, we see that Caden is a fairly self-involved person. While his wife, Adele, wears herself ragged trying to support herself, their daughter, Olive, as well as Caden’s mounting insecurities, Caden seems concerned only with what exists within his own private universe.

We are introduced to Caden as he laments, as would  a broken record, his impending death. He constantly feels ill, and sees detritus in every newspaper headline or mail order magazine. He even occupies his time by re-staging the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman, a play that concerns itself with an old nobody trying desperately to amount to some pre-conceived notion of success before the chance escapes him. Like Caden, the play’s protagonist, Willy Loman, is revealed to be a pathetic creature who chases self-satisfaction at the expense of his closest loved ones.

Willy Loman is revealed to be an adulterous, distant husband, and Caden is revealed to be something quite similar. While there are suggestions placed throughout the film that Caden is unfaithful to Adele (or at least capable of such infidelity), it is his “why me” woes that bind him to Loman. He is a man who is personally responsible for the deteriorating status of his marriage to Adele, and to his lack of fulfillment  as an artist, but he cannot see outside of himself in order to look upon the seeds he has sown. And, as we learn, the crops his selfishness yields are beyond poisoned.

When Sammy jumps to his death after Caden refuses him his right to fall in love with Hazel (mirroring Caden’s early attempt at suicide), Caden reacts shamefully. While every one involved with his production gathers around Sammy’s lifeless body to mourn, Caden screams at the deceased man for “getting it wrong”. After all, Caden did not jump to his death. He doesn’t even see Sammy as a fellow human being by this point, merely as a liability. His suicide was not a loss of life, but a hiccup in the production that created an issue of logistics for Caden.

Even more troubling is Caden’s inability to notice the looming apocalypse that will some day lay waste to New York, perhaps the entire world. As the film progresses, we start to see signs that all is not well in the real world. Army vehicles round up citizens. Gunfire and explosions can be heard in the distance, almost non-stop. Men and women walk the streets wearing gas masks, or leading one another around by leashes as if they were pets.

In one scene Caden leaves his warehouse/theatre for the night with Claire (his second wife/leading lady),and  he fails to notice a line of people standing outside. One man stops Caden to ask him when “it” will be finished, as “things are getting bad out here”. Caden assumes the man is anticipating his play; the man is actually referring to the life-sized recreation of New York City Caden is building within the warehouse. The people of New York are hoping to escape the impending calamity by seeking refuge within the safety of the warehouse. Caden, ever the self-important artist, simply assumes they are just anxious to behold his work.

This is very troubling, as it demonstrates Caden’s inability to see the decaying state of life outside of his own mind. He has every opportunity to save the people of New York, but he can’t be bothered to take notice of that fact. And, as the film reaches its conclusion, we see that Caden’s obsession with his own rational self-interest allows for millions of lives to be snuffed out when they might have been spared.

The film never really resolves this plot element, unfortunately. We see Caden accept that he is not unique, but we never see how he dealt with the realization that he could have saved all of those lives — or if he even has that realization at all. This might be my only valid complaint regarding the film, but it is forgivable. It is already quite dense, and I suppose there just wasn’t enough time to tackle that aspect.

Solipsism As A Catalyst For Sexism

As mentioned earlier, Caden does very little in the way of parenting. It is established that Adele tends to the physical and emotional needs to Olive while Caden soaks in self-pity. Caden offers his wife no means of validation, yet weakly begs for all that Adele can spare. He wants her to admire him as an artist, even at the cost of ignoring her own aspirations to be a painter.

For instance: when Adele opts to miss the opening night of his re-staging of Death of a Salesman, so that she can meet her own deadline, Caden sets up shop in the town called Passive Aggression. Add to that, Caden fishes for Adele’s admiration after she does finally attend the play.

When Adele stands by her principles and denies Caden that validation (as she sees no merit in re-staging other people’s plays, which we infer to be Caden’s schtick), he sulks about like a scorned child. And therein lies the ultimate issue between the two: Where Caden should be a partner to Adele, some one who reciprocates the support he receives, he is instead like another child for Adele to raise and nurture. This is a particularly poignant character flaw, as it reflects the all-too-common issue that husbands have with their wives — a difference in the sexes granted not by nature, but by privilege.

Gender becomes a very integral aspect of the film, as it ties so perfectly to Kaufman’s thesis regarding Solipsism. Caden is a man who wants the women in his life to be the driving forces behind his brilliance. They are instruments to him, when they should be people. We might call this affliction the Muse Dilemma — the pathological need to attribute any greatness in ourselves to a woman we place on a pedestal, woefully viewing Her as some divine influence through which we achieve our greatness. The trouble with this view is three pronged:

  • First: We diminish in ourselves the ability to create without some heavenly catalyst.
  • Second: We refuse to see that the Muse, herself, longs to achieve her own aspirations and desires. She does not exist to simply inspire greatness in us.
  • Third: Viewing women (any person, really, but for the sake of the themes of the film, women specifically) as vessels for our potential breeds a penchant for solipsist thinking. We rob them of their own identities. We humor the idea of women being “others”.

Taking the above into consideration, it should come as no surprise that the story demands that Caden see existence through the eyes of a woman — an “other”. Kaufman provides this opportunity for Caden’s growth brilliantly, in the form of Ellen Bascomb.

Ellen, we learn, is the cleaning lady who services Adele’s Manhattan loft. Through the machinations of the narrative, Caden finds himself stepping into Ellen’s shoes. While he does so with the surreptitious intention of getting re-connected with Adele (writing letters under Ellen’s identity, even basking in the smell of her bed sheets), there is something much more important taking place beyond his knowledge — as well as our own. There is a subtle transformation taking place. Caden is unwittingly evolving.

The full effects of Caden’s charade are not revealed to him, nor to us, until Millicent takes over as the director of his play. Through her God-like direction (delivered to Caden through an ear piece, serving as a wonderfully, thematically ironic metaphor for divine guidance), Millicent steadily leads Caden to shed his own persona while adopting Ellen’s. What comes to pass is a heartbreaking sequence in which we learn about Ellen who, up until now, has been an unseen “Other” merely used by Caden for his own agenda.

In one of the most beautifully sullen monologues in recent film history, Ellen tells us of her life of woes. She is stuck in an unfulfilling marriage, wed to a husband who looks at her as a burden. We learn that her life-long dream was to have a daughter with whom she could enjoy picnics akin to those Ellen herself enjoyed with her mother. She wanted the warmth of companionship, the fulfillment of a loving family. For whatever reason, Ellen and her husband, Eric, never had that child. So they grow old together, drifting further apart with each passing day.

Caden is moved to tears, feeling some one else’s pain for the first time in the film — perhaps in his entire life. He sees so much of his own woes are shared by Ellen. Where she was the overlooked wife, Caden was the husband doing the overlooking. Where Ellen longs for a daughter she never had, Caden longs for the daughter he felt had been stolen from him. In fact, this tie that binds reveals an interesting twist that can easily be missed.

(This is an especially poignant scene, as Caden — who has lost the ability to cry genuine tears without medical aid, as a side effect of his mysterious illness — is able to cry of his own volition. It isn’t until he feels the very real pain of another person that he can manage this feat.)

During Caden’s visit to a dying Olive, she refuses to forgive him — but for what? Olive claims that Caden betrayed the family by running off to have anal sex with his gay lover, Eric. This is important, as Caden had already been impersonating Ellen well before this point in the film. Eric is, of course, Ellen’s husband.

One might deduce that the reason Ellen never had a daughter was to do with Eric’s insistence on having anal sex with Ellen (potentially because he did not love her enough to participate in a deeper intimacy), and thus never affording the opportunity to conceive a child. Even though this scene takes place long before Caden’s self realization, the line between Ellen and Caden has blurred to the point that they are essentially the same person.

The Moral Of The Story

You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone.” Millicent Weems, Act III

Herein lies the existential rub of the film: Caden comes to discover that he is Ellen. So, too, is he Adele, and Hazel, and any number of persons who populate this earth. Now, that is not to say that he is physically these people. He is Caden, and they are Adele, or Hazel, or Ellen. They are individuals who, taken on their own, represent the whole of humanity. Kaufman is telling us that individuals are synecdoches of the human race — mere slivers of the greater whole. Caden suffers because others suffer, because that is the nature of a living being. His woes are specific to himself, but they are common of every one.

Every one gets sick. Every person has his/her heart broken, or dreams crushed. And, in the end, every one dies. Caden is not unique, so he should not look at his own circumstances as being as such.

While it may be easy to mistake this moral for cynicism, it is actually quite beautiful. In making this statement, Kaufman is telling us all that we should be as mindful of the problems of others as we are the issues that plague ourselves. It’s enticing to get lost in self pity, and even more attractive to pursue our own self interests, but there is very little good that can come from such behavior. Only by seeing ourselves in the eyes of “the other” can humanity’s redeeming qualities outweigh it’s ills.

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14 Comments

  1. Thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis. I have only seen the film twice, but I never noticed the outside apocalypse you described, which goes to show how much this film has to offer through multiple viewings. You make a convincing argument for Caden being a solipsist at heart, and it definitely makes for a fascinating reading of an already enticing story. What I’m unsure of is whether you feel that these terribly negative facets of Caden’s character are redeemed in his final moments? You say that Caden and Ellen are practically the same person in the end, so does that make Ellen’s final monologue Caden’s own realisation as well or simply the authorial statement of Charlie Kaufman?

    Your analysis left me with a lot of food of thought, and I’ll definitely check out your other posts.

    Cheers

    – Christian

    • Christian,

      Thank you for reading, as well as for the kind reply. My apologies for taking so long to respond; things have been a bit hectic. I’m glad my amateur analysis provided some food for thought. As for Caden redeeming himself:

      I’m not sure that I would say he redeemed himself — not entirely, any way. While Ellen’s monologue spurred his realization, by then it was much too late for him to actively fix all the damage he had done. On the other hand, he did seem genuinely affected and sincere with his apology at the end. Perhaps he managed a kind of existential redemption, allowing for his soul to be allowed passage into… I hesitate to say “heaven”, but that might be the best word for it.

      One could view Caden’s languishing in his fictional New York as purgatory. Millicent said as much at one point (before she took over for Caden), stating that he was a man already dead and stuck in a middle ground. After he comes to terms with his “big lesson”, and after he apologizes to the actress who played Ellen’s mother (who served as a cipher for all of the “others”), Caden does give in to his final sleep and is embraced by a calming white light.

      So, really, I suppose my thoughts are as such: Caden redeemed himself spiritually/existentially, but could not physically redeem himself. If that makes any sense?

      I must admit that I never gave that as much thought as I should have, and I should thank you for brining up another facet of the story I hadn’t considered. There’s still so much to take away from the movie!

      • Definitely! I will have to see again sometime in the future, but I think I’ll let it age for a while first. I think I agree with you on the topic of redemption (even if it is a difficult one), and based on your article and your response to my comment, I am sure I’ll have a very different of Caden and his behaviour both in regards to himself (the artistic enity or god-like character he seems to build along with the houses) and others (the suicide of Sammy is the most disturbing scene to me, still). It’s a heavy film and a heavy subject, but it’s happily the sort of weight that leaves you stronger in its wake. I really do admire Kaufman’s work very much.

  2. You expressed some keen insights, and I learned about the film from what you wrote, but this film story is so convoluted that to simplify it to declare absolutes and “take sides” is probably a mistake. Art as much as it informs on life is not life, and artists – and even accountants, or anyone – can be so full of themselves as to view others as extras, but we’re all trapped within our bodies. We’re limited by our often astounding perspectives as our lives unfold and we alternately glimpse and feel full force some ever present universal facts of being.

    Caden ends up taking direction from the actors playing the people in his play, so he becomes kind of lost in his work as he is in life, but this was his exploratory intent to begin with. So in a way he actually succeeds as he seemingly simultaneously fails. No matter how much at times we may feel it, make sense of it, express it, share it, and despise or love it, life slips away from all of us.

    I take issue with your analysis summary that Adele had to take care of Caden and his solipsism drove her away, because, however accurate this might be, in your hammering this angle home you’ve completely neglected the cruelty of Adele to steal Olive for herself and prevent contact between her and Caden. He was willing to go to Berlin with Adele, so how unsupportive of her was he? Adele was having an affair. Your interpretation of this plot line avoids that her (re)action comes off as so much worse than any navel gazing he did to put her off. This is the most brutal episode he suffers that his artistic work seeks to unravel.

    As to what lovers mean to us at different points of our lives, and how they involve themselves in our coming of age hopes and talents, it may be too much of a chore to distinguish one person’s place and role within the continuum of our choices and happenstance. There are tremendous and delicate causes, effects, and random mixing. The ride is going and we’re all on it. Until we aren’t.

    This story is a dream world, so it’s hard to separate what happens in “real life” of the characters versus the play, and/or Caden’s thoughts. All of these boundaries are purposely blended and blurred so making definitive claims about any of the plot occurrences in it, and/or metaphors of the movie we watch, seems misguided.

    As for the society crumbling around the world of the warehouses’ introspection, well, take a look outside of the theaters, tv, cell phone, or computer screens. Our focus on entertainment, and all the profundities it delivers, may not be doing us a world of good. We can’t escape into any pretend of heroes who save us at the last instant, or climb inside a story to watch agony or happily ever after, and live there. To take the literal notion that Caden could’ve saved lives by bringing them into his replica begs the obvious comment: the war would follow them. In the closing scenes, there are bodies inside the Synecdoche. So this movie is like real life. Art doesn’t help people dying in the streets.

    Even if I heard Charlie Kaufman definitively declare whether for him the militaristic devolution of society around the play was “really happening,” I cannot delineate between it and the psychology of Caden Cotard. The same holds true for me about whether Sammy really leapt from a building and died, or if this was just something they acted in the play. Was the grass in the Berlin cafe scene really there? Was the pink box really in that dilapidated alley? Did Olives tattoos really change, and flake as she died? And who exactly was Ellen?

    So much of reality is imagined.

    • What I appreciate most about your comments is the insight that each human being (every living thing, and to get very existential, every rock or speck of dust) is a Synecdoche for every other one. Each particle in reality is licked by the same flame in the vast cold dark universe. Maybe we’re here to cleanse our souls.

      Your insight led me to reflect on something in the film — how we may find ourselves acting out apologies and kindnesses to individuals we seemingly have no strong connections to as a way of processing and healing our unresolved issues with others.

      The theme of apology in the movie takes on another dimension when Caden apologizes at his daughter’s death bed insistence for something he didn’t do, and she doesn’t forgive him.
      This is Kaufman’s briiliant, blunt, fine illustrating of a concept like original sin, a sense of a burden, a weight of worry, we carry with us every day of our existence. If we could shed this, how glorious a world this might be. This yearning for resolution may be the result of all our self indulgent actions, or it may be a longing built in to our plumbing.

      This is the crux of the movie, isn’t it, the search for a satisfactory calm. As self absorbed as he is, Caden capitulates to the suppositions and impositions of others throughout his life. He does this to appease, to build bonds, and to unfold mysteries. It doesn’t bring him a lot of satisfaction, but it shows a sweetness in him.

      • As for who Ellen is, correct me if I’m wrong, but we never see her. Caden is mistaken for her. The Ellen monologue is performed, ostensibly written by, Millicent, after she plays then becomes Caden (playing Ellen in a flash back or in real time) directing Caden, while Caden is playing then becoming Ellen who becomes Caden again.

        We can’t say for certain whether Ellen is a construct of Caden’s. The flashback of the picnic between Ellen and her mom is reminiscent of the commercial Caden watches after Adele leaves with Olive, before he scrubs clean Adele’s painting studio.

        Is he so messed up that his striving for artistic truth boils down to a commercial, and he becomes lost in that kind of false sentimentality?

        Is Caden so emasculated by losing his first wife and daughter that his attempts to recreate a similar family with Claire are hollow? We know he calls Olive his real daughter and us tormented about losing her. The priest’s monologue indicates Caden’s problem was that he was stuck in place and stunted after his divorce while life continued to flow around him.

        Does Caden ultimately act as Ellen to obfuscate the pain of his life, or to uncover it, clean it and feel it more from a new perspective as a new persona?

        Detaching what’s real from the constructed play is impossible. Just as a warehouse large enough to build a simulated city within it, that has a warehouse large enough to build a simulated city, etcetera is a Russian doll impossibility, so is it that Caden comes to live in this closet of the apartment of his ex wife without her knowing, and Millicent becomes this god figure who can direct Caden’s final days and final action, to die.

        And before he does, he apologizes to the actress who played Ellen’s mom in the flashback that was Millicent’s when she acted as Ellen. So what Caden is grappling with on some deep recess level at the end of his life is trying to understand his daughters? This makes some sense as the entire film is concerned and consumed primarily with Caden’s relationships with females, and unlike Willy Loman, he had no sons.


        On a humorous note – and there is a lot of comedy in Synecdoche, New York that gets overshsdowed by dramatic elements – considering that Ellen was a cleaning woman, I can’t shake the comparison between this movie and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Steve Martin’s much more whimsical inane flick pieced together scenes from various old detective movies in a cut up that somehow relates to what Kaufman does with theatre and reality. Both are self conscious movies, and DMDWP involved the German translation for cleaning woman. I can’t help but guess Charlie Kaufman must’ve watched it, and had notions of it bouncing in his head while he was inspired to the depths of his psychological delving cinematic tour de force.


        Watching Synecdoche, NY a second time, and catching all the early moments Sammy lurks in the background observing Caden, the world of the film becomes just that much more bizarre.

  3. I deeply enjoyed the film and found it incredibly stimulating on a philosophical level, so when I looked for a further exploration on Google i was delighted to see that you had had the same experience. One thing you haven’t mentioned, which I found slightly intriguing, was one scene with his therapist. He asks her why the four year old writer (they were currently talking about) killed himself. She replies with “I don’t know, why did you?”. He gets confused, and she rephrases to “I don’t know, why would you?”, as if she has accidentally revealed something. What do you think the significance of this is? And what is the true role of the therapist?

  4. Very thoughtful and intelligent analysis. Thank you very much for sharing this! It definitely helped me gain a better understanding of the film.

    p.s. Thank you for sharing that about Flannery O’Connor and A Good Man Is Hard To Find. That’s very interesting.

  5. This film and all sequential motives to induce dead reason would be eradicated if we introduced further existential thought—thinking on solipsism and the “philosophical psychopath” as Norman mailer had once put it; we can view the wonderment of our lost animality. Channeling our pains into a great heap of sensation… being the great, unrepressed man—living for yourself, being completely free and accepting and even glorifying death, reveling in the flames of death for life’s opposed capitulation producing again, life. Films like this, are so willingly intellectual; yet missing the big picture of new reality…(though there’s no turning back now)—we can only learn to live beautifully ourselves and spread this seemingly malicious desire to be free. Don’t repress others freedoms, but let them suffer, let them be their gods.

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