Synecdoche, New York (2008, dir. Charlie Kaufman) at its core, is a film about death. It explores this central theme through multiple channels, and from these other themes are generated and in turn are further explored themselves. They then all link back to the initial idea of that universal brutal truth, which is that we are all going to die. Kaufman says “The whole point of writing something is to have people experience it” and further goes on to say that if he definitely states the message of the movie one way or another it would stop people being able to “interact with it on an individual basis.” (1) With this in mind, I’ll look at the more prominent themes of the film and what can be said about them, as well as what I take away from them and how they influence me personally.
Throughout the entirety of the film, death is omnipresent, and consistently plays a part in how the characters develop, and how the narrative is moved forward. The film opens with the sound of the main characters daughter, Olive, who is only four years old singing a morbid song about where she was born and where she will die. This is followed by a radio interview where a woman is discussing autumnal poetry which she describes as the “beginning of the end”. What is important about these sound clips is that we can’t see the direct source of them, and instead we will naturally focus on the visuals on screen where we see the central character, Caden, is getting out of bed one morning. Due to this, the sound becomes more passive, as it doesn’t match the action on screen, and although we hear it, we don’t fully take in what it means, not realising their significance until later on in the film. There are also a number of other motifs in the film that’s meaning can only be understood when the film is complete. “Cinema depicts death as alternately romantic, heroic, unexpected, graphic – but only occasionally depicts it as a prolonged and tedious experience, despite the fact that this seems to be how death is actually experienced by many people.” (Thomson, 2000) (2) Synecdoche is a film that for the most part, depicts death in a realistic manner, where the causes are natural, and also relate to the characters themselves. This is done because it allows the audience to develop their own ideas as the film progresses in a way that is more likely to be relatable to them, and any real life experiences that they may have had similar to what they are watching. Meaning how they interpret the idea of death in the film is not handed to them, and by the end, as there are so many varied depictions of death in the film, each person will come away with their own unique perspective and feelings on the issue.
The way in which each character dies is unique, and each situation is presented on screen in a different way. Olive dies in a mostly empty room, showing that what she did in life ended up being meaningless, and she won’t be remembered for anything she accomplished, the most notable item beside her deathbed is a stuffed toy, signifying the time she was truly happy, as a child with both of her parents. The room is also circular because it shows how her life never truly went in any direction. This is how the film looks at the idea of dying without leaving any sort of legacy behind, which is the notion that drives Caden’s actions throughout the film.
When Caden dies, he is resting his head on the shoulders of a woman, relating to the fact that for the duration of the film, he has attempted and failed to find someone who he can truly make a connection with and love. The setting appears to be an exterior, but takes place inside the replica world he has created; he has gotten so enveloped in his own creation that he can no longer escape it, and ends up having to die here. Furthermore, we also see that everyone else here has died as well by some unexplained catastrophe that had been gradually building up during the film, but Caden doesn’t seem to have noticed. However, right as he is about to die, he finally thinks of a way to finish the play he was producing. However, there can’t be a resolution to his play, because his life also can’t have a resolution, and the two have become so intertwined at this point that neither can exist without the other. (3) Synecdoche is saying how nobody can do absolutely everything in life, but we should aim to accomplish something meaningful and true to ourselves, and be contempt with that, rather than losing ourselves in all the things that we didn’t do. The colour palette used in this scene has a bleak look to it. The grey pavement; the muddy brick walls; his grey hair and clothing; the beige sofa he’s sitting on, there’s no colour here, and the lighting also adds to this, by making everything look deliberately flat, nothing is allowed to be presented in any detail, showing how nothing in his life really stands out as something he can be proud to leave behind.
One of the other main themes in Synecdoche is time, more specifically the way in which we let time slip between us, and lose track of it. Similarly to death, time is a constant factor in the film, right from the opening shot of a digital clock, it establishes that time will be an important aspect of the film that we should pay close attention to. The film distorts time, and often makes great leaps without letting the audience now unless they look closely at some of the smaller details. The first occasion where time seems to leap abruptly happens at the very beginning of the film, where the digital clock goes from 7:44am to 7:45 am, about eight seconds later, the clock can be seen going to 7:46 am, although it doesn’t seem that a whole minute has progressed yet. The first time a major jump occurs is when Caden is informed that his wife and daughter left the country a year ago, and he thinks it has only been a week. Often in films a fade will be used to show a passage of time between one scene and the next, for very long jumps they may use some sort of text on the screen or have something very clear informing us that what we are seeing is much further in the future than the previous scene. Synecdoche instead uses straight cuts as the transition even when great time has passed, as a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience’s sense of time. This is once again demonstrating how Caden is so wrapped up in his life and his art, that all sense of time is lost to him. Many years can pass from one scene to the next, and we’re only aware of it when another character mentions it in exposition, showing us that Caden probably didn’t even notice all the time that had passed, and he just let it slip away. Rather than showing Caden to move through time, we see his life through episodic moments as he moves through his spatial environments (4) as time itself seems to be distorted specifically around Caden, but passes by for all the other characters as it would for any of us in reality.
The main way in which the film has influenced me is in how it’s able to take a single, central theme, and break that down into many different subsections which can be each given time to be explored. Throughout the film we are given small clues as to what is coming that will most likely be missed on a first time viewing, as we are more likely trying to follow the story. I would like to try and emulate this myself, carefully selecting the items we see in the mise-en-scene so that they are all relevant to the plot and themes, even what may seem like typical props in an everyday setting can help create a more nuanced, layered film where the ideas are slowly built up as the narrative progresses. I want to try and make more use of the background as a space where the beginnings of ideas can be planted, and as they grow they slowly make their way into the foreground of the film, both in terms of screen location, and importance to the plot. Synecdoche does this by having the character of Sammy who isn’t introduced until over halfway into the film actually appear constantly before, observing Caden from the background, usually hidden behind something or out of focus. His appearances wouldn’t be noticed when watching the film for the first time, so I wish to do something similar where I would make a film that people can take away more from it after additional viewings.
In conclusion, Synecdoche, New York presents the idea of death as something inescapable, but also in reality, as very slow for most people, and shows how we should spend our lives doing something that has meaning to us, and leave behind something positive that people can remember us by. It has presented me with new ways of how to get a message across in a film, and how by meticulously planning minute details in every shot of you film can add up to give your audience a more meaningful and personal experience.
By James Edwards
(1) MovieWeb (2010) Synecdoche, New York – Exclusive: Charlie Kaufman and Catherine Keener. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbbvAqE25UA [Accessed 18th April 2016]
(2) Sullivan, J. Greenberg. (2013) Death in Classic and Contemporary Film: Fade to Black. Palgrave Macmillan US. Chapter 1: Introduction: When the lights go down, Page 3 [Accessed 18th Aril 2016]
(3) Gary J. Shipley. 2013. The Strangeness of Realism vs. the Realism of the Strange: Themes in Synecdoche, New York. [ONLINE] Available at: http://brightlightsfilm.com/the-strangeness-of-realism-vs-the-realism-of-the-strange-themes-in-synecdoche-new-york/#.VxjSEPkrLcv. [Accessed 18 April 2016].
(4) Greg Kennan. 2012. The Postmodern Subject in Synecdoche, New York. [ONLINE] Available at:https://gregkeenan.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/the-postmodern-subject-in-synecdoche-new-york/. [Accessed 18 April 2016].
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