Bright Lights Film Journal

Against Interpretation: Synecdoche

Having recently bid a fond adieu to the post-DVD-release critical interest resurgence for Synecdoche, New York, it seems a ripe enough time for us to forget this dauntingly nebulous film until, say, maybe someone like Criterion comes along in 20 years and revives it via whatever the popular media might be at that point (movies shot directly into the brain via Janus Film electrode? Charlie Kaufman would no doubt speculate far more creatively). In any case, I’m a late comer to this gem and still soaking up the blogger butter Kaufman’s sure hand managed to churn (check out C Jerry Kutner’s superlative responses here and here from BLAD), so everyone will excuse the tardy analysis.

Synecdoche might have been 2008’s Mulholland Drive in that it inspired a diverse panoply of heady interpretations, most of which negate rather than complement each other. The film has been called yet another bloated excursion into Kaufman’s self-loathing, a Zen “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man” meditation, a Delillo-esque satire on the pop culture of death, and (as is the case with any formally or philosophically daring film) a cerebral wankfest. It might be all of those things, but our own C Jerry Kutner made a rather instructive comparison between Kaufman and Alain Resnais, and I think it’s appropriate in as far as Synecdoche – like Hiroshima, Mon Amour or Last Year at Marienbad, among others – seems formed from the amorphous meta-pulp of human memory, and offers an uneasy, mind-bending, Robbe-Grillet-like puzzle wherein the audience cannot readily decipher what did or did not happen, or when, or why.

The narrative structure of typical films appeal to us because our own minds are constantly rewriting and organizing perceived stimuli – the raw data of “events” – into orderly arcs of information. Actions are assigned consequences. Shapeless moments are sliced and squeezed into beginnings, middles, and endings. We’ve been trained – and there is surely some anthropological value to doing this – to remember our lives as though we’re the protagonists of our own stories. And thus stories with crucial elements that are missing, or even out of order, are bewildering — they seem to undermine the very cleanliness of our existence. Interpretations of “avant-garde” literature and cinema (including the aforementioned Mulholland Drive) too often view the books or films in question as somehow purposefully “broken”; criticism reassembles them for linear consumption, while praising the artist’s reasoning for fracturing his/her work and the curious sensations that result within the viewer.

Synecdoche appeals to me because I don’t think there’s an answer to the subjective riddle in the same way there was with, say, Jacob’s Ladder, or the bland Vanilla Sky, or any other film where we follow the protagonist down a mindfuck rodent hole only to find an illuminating pot o gold at the very bottom (arguably even Mulholland Drive). You can intellectualize a method for understanding the bizarre sequence of events in the film (as I’ll try to do in this blog post, paradoxically) but you don’t get the impression that the story was intended to be understood this way. Not that Kaufman has made the “uninterpretable” holy grail of films, impervious to all brain-fart criticism. Quite the contrary. Synecdoche is a stylized Humpty Dumpty, and all the King’s horses and men (Rex Reed is probably in the former category) can try with all their might to reassemble its shattered shell: all efforts will likely be in vain. But Kaufman may internally note with an impish grin that Synecdoche came to life as a disassembled husk; there was never any whole egg (or other metaphorical body) to destroy. This is because, quite singularly, the film’s very concept seems rooted in destruction; we are dealing with a protagonist whose narrative-forming mechanism is irreparably damaged, and may have been that way since birth (this reminds one of the subpar Science of Sleep, where Gondry actually attempted to legitimize his offbeat premise by giving the main character a phony neurological disorder).

While I think it would be erroneous to accept it as a literal “reading” of the film, watching the misadventures of Caden Cotard reminded me sharply of observing my great grandmother deteriorate from Alzheimer’s. The disease is most disorienting; undergoing it must be like watching your life slowly morph from a structured Frank Capra domestic tale to skewed Terry Gilliam sci-fi experiment. Your conception of time warps drastically: one minute you imagine yourself as a child, the next minute you’re being shoved before a dinner table and asked to eat with individuals (family members, of course) who you don’t recall ever meeting before. You lose control of your motor skills and become frequently frustrated with the simplest of tasks. As with Caden towards the end of the film, you wish desperately that someone would simply tell you what to do, how to behave, and most importantly who you are (some of this is educated speculation, although I heard my grandmother ask the former two questions on many occasions); but, conversely, you turn against those who would assist your sense of self with jaundice and anger. And as I would regard my grandmother so I also regarded Caden, and Kaufman in this film – they can’t help their behavior, it’s simply who they are right now.

Dementia is also – like Synecdoche – a hyperrealized illustration of the relationship between free will and determinism: it’s certain that you’re an actor in a play of sorts who can make his or her own choices, but the stage seems cluttered with the whims of such a cold, sinister director (fate? genetic predispositions?) that the very act of deciding often seems swaddled in futility.

Caden’s play – the “performance within a performance” — is, I think, the movie’s most accomplished element. Caden literally attempts to reenact and rewrite his entire existence by directing a massive cast on a scale-metropolis soundstage that Tati would peer upon with envy. The play is never performed for the public – the actors are the public – and like life, it’s linear rather than cyclical (we often see scenes that Caden has just undergone in reality being performed on the soundstage, by actors, in a matter of relative hours). And it’s when Caden relinquishes his directorial chair to an actor ostensibly playing him that Synecdoche poses its most heartbreaking ontological inquiry. As with an individual trapped, or perhaps better put, dominated, by Alzheimer’s, Caden
recognizes his powerlessness to manipulate his own destiny. But then, how much power did he have to begin with? How much power, indeed, would he, or any of us, have wanted?