“The end is built into the beginning.” – Hazel, Synecdoche, New York.
In Beyond Good and Evil Frederich Nietzsche asks us “Why couldn’t the world that concerns us be a fiction?”, an early precursor to the postmodern theory, and it is this question that a lot of postmodern fiction ask us*. One of the great intellectual legacies of Nietzsche was his declaration of the ‘death of God’, in doing so; (in true Nietzschean fashion) he was dispelling the two grandest metanarratives of them all: God and Truth. Continuing on from this, the postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard famously claimed that postmodernism could be defined as ‘an incredulity towards metanarratives’ as well as arguing that that we live in a world where the ‘real’ no longer exists, in so far as it the ‘real’ previously existed as a referent of definitive truth and knowledge. Nietzsche and Baudrillard both seem to agree that God as a concept has always been a sign without a real referent. A sign for a truth that is without a ‘real’ referent, thus rendering the entire concept of ‘truth’ ambiguous or meaningless.
Another postmodern theory that fits in rather nicely to Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film Synecdoche, New York is Baudrillard’s essay ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. A Simulacrum, in Baudrillard’s terms, is an object that is a copy of something that no longer has an original. His essay opens with a quote from Ecclesiastes that reads “The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is the truth that hides the fact there is none. The simulacrum is true”
Some examples of simulacra would include: The Matrix in The Matrix, Disneyworld (Baudrillard’s example), indoor shopping centres like Meadowhall and, fittingly, Caden Cotard’s to scale replica of New York. On Disneyland , Baudrillard wrote:
“Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulacra…everywhere in Disneyland the objective profile of America, down to the morphology of individuals and of the crowd, is drawn…Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland”
In essence, Disneyland (the simulacrum) is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest of American is real. It presents a perfect “reality” and posits that it is the “happiest place on Earth”, in fact it becomes so perfect that the America ‘outside’ of it cannot exist as a reality. Of course, a “perfect” America does not contain the flaws of a ‘real’ America, Disneyland masks over these cracks in such a powerful way that they cease to exist. Thus, it becomes a sort of truth instead of the America it tries to replicate. As is the case in Synecdoche, New York because Caden’s ‘New York’ and play that resides within it takeover his reality and conceals the “real” New York, the “real” world and his ‘real’ problems. As simulacra replace truth, an understanding of them is crucial to interpreting Synecdoche, New York.
In a postmodern world (and Synecdoche is certainly that) time becomes compressed and distorted. Currently existing technologies like phones, mobile and landline; cars; planes and internet effectively compress the time it takes for us to communicate with each other. For example, say two hundred years ago if I wanted to go to America it would take weeks on a boat but now I can travel there in under 12 hours. The same applies to messaging, the invention of email and text messages means that communication is instant. This process of temporal compression started around the time of industrialisation (with trains), then to modernisation and the information age. Theorist Frederic Jameson posited that because of this, modernised (or post-modernised?) civilisations currently live in a world where temporal differentiation has been supplanted by spatial differentiation. Time has become completely compressed and replaced by space. This is how the postmodern subject experiences time, as untruthful as the signs around it.
Let’s look at the opening of the film.
There is a sense of fluidity to time Synecdoche. The opening shot of the film is of a clock that shows 7:44 as the time which then changes to 7:45. On the radio, we hear that it is the “first day of fall” and a professor comes on to discuss why writers are so fascinated with the autumn (why indeed Charlie). She says that it is “the beginning of the end” and then reads a poem about death. This indicates the decay of Caden’s life, as Caden dies at 7:45. The end really is built into the beginning.
While this is happening Caden sits up in his bed and stares at himself in the mirror. What is important here is the mirror and how it reflects Caden, as it could be considered a simulacrum. Caden is obsessed with death, dying and his own mortality and his reflection confirms his suspicions that he an unhappy man. The simulacrum (his reflection) becomes his truth at an early stage. A ‘truth’ that he and he alone is the centre of the world, yet Jameson claims that due to fragmentation of the self, there has been a loss of centre. If alienation of the subject characterised modernism then it is fragmentation of the subject that characterises postmodernism. Furthermore, the mirror does not take up that much of the screen, it is small and thus we see a fragment of Caden, instead of his whole self.
“Well perhaps [it is harsh], but truthful” says the professor on the radio, and truth is what Caden/Kaufman are trying to attain when making their play/film. However, in a postmodern world, where we are incredulous toward metanarratives, where our very reality is questioned and a world where God is dead… How can there be any universal truths? Descartes’ infamous aphorism “I think therefore I am” postulates that the only truth you can believe in is your own. And In the words of the minister “And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create”. This echoes the thought of the preminent existential philosopher Jean Paul Satre and his claim that “Existence precedes essence”. The reverberations of this can even be felt in this years’ Noah where Tubal Cain says: “Man is not governed by the heavens, he is governed by his own will”. Kaufman is clearly aware of all these different philosophers and their ideas and incorporates them into Synecdoche
Continuing on, we then hear the radio announcer say that it is “October 15th” but the paper Caden is looking at clearly says “Friday, October 14th”. The radio also says other dates like “October 8th” and “November 1st” all within the a few minutes (or even seconds) of each other, and Caden is seemingly in the same place. Later, when visiting the doctor, it is Christmas. Indeed the film ends around 2035 without any upfront indication to the viewer. The radio in Caden’s house acts as monologue or stage direction (this is echoed later in the film) for the opening 10 ten minutes, acting as subtle hint at the metafiction to come. Kaufman’s disregard for temporal consistency cannot be by accident. Caden lives in episodic moments, his life is shown through the movements through his spatial environments (his house) as opposed to his movement through time as it is distorted in this opening section.
Additionally this highlights the self-centred solipsistic view that Caden has, he ignores his wife and child only talking about death and plays that he directed. This is reflected when, later, Caden says
“I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”
The word “synecdoche” is a word I doubt anybody will really be familiar with – I wasn’t before watching this film. It means a part is made to represent the whole, or the made to represent a part. It’s like calling policemen “the law” or saying “England were knocked out of the World Cup”, when you really mean “The England football team”. In the context of the film, Caden comes to represent the whole of humanity, and everyone else represents Caden and vice versa. Millicent captures this idea of synecdoche perfectly when she says:
“What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. 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. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this.”
His play expands exponentially until actors are playing themselves in replicas of their own homes. In Synecdoche, the play that Caden stages ultimately portrays a world that consists of many little interrelating narratives as opposed to a grand metanarrative that links them all**. Perhaps this, in Kaufman’s eyes is how one would go about attempting to attain truth. The synecdoche aspect shows us that empathy is our greatest tool in redeeming humanity. It teaches us to be empathetic and aware of the problems of others, that the interrelating narratives between people possess far more power than any grand narrative could ever hope to have.
Caden Cotard: I know what to do with this play now. I have an idea. I think…
Millicent Weems: [voice over] Die.
* Some examples include: The Matrix, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the work of Kurt Vonnegut, The Things They Carried
**For their own litte stories, they utilise many different language games (in a Wittgenstein sense). When talking about an “incredulity towards metanarratives” Lyotard drew up Wittgenstein’s theory.