synecdoche, new york- a film reading

This movie. Damn. It’s so utterly creative, complex and challenging that i’m not even going to try to write an analysis. This is the kind of movie that reminds the hermeneutic in me that there are no final interpretations. One could very possibly analyze and dissect this film forever. It’s as living and breathing as we are and so long as the meanings of life and death elude our understanding, so will this film.

Synecdoche. Is this not the figure of speech that inspired gestalt psychology? Or the notion of the Nietzschean truth/lie? When a part is taken for the whole and/or vice versa? Identity and difference? Indeed, we’ll see that the narrative is structured in such a way that one scene or plot element is always functioning as a part in a larger whole, whether it’s the idea of self-perception or life or death..

The film starts at 7:44. It ends at 7:45. The time that passed within the movie was but a moment. And yet it was infinite, for it spanned a lifetime. The runtime of the film was about 2 hours and it felt way longer. The temporal span of the film’s narrative was infinite, from the ‘beginning’ of time to the ‘end’, and yet it was all a single moment. 7:44 to 7:45. The widest and most encompassing structure of the film is Kierkegaardian. The idea that the moment is infinity. Which gives infinite weight to choice which is why the entire film brings us to the pivotal moment where a minister goes on a monologue-

“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.”

The minister’s speech starts off Kierkegaardian, then at the halfway mark it strikes at the heart of what the film is obsessed with- death. But to convey the idea in simple language, being and death are two sides of the same coin. The moment we are born we are dying, and this is what the film explores. That if life is simultaneously the experience of death, then how much more existentially important is it to cherish and value our choices? At the end of the day what else do we have other than the privacy of our thoughts? With every act of kindness or act of violence we birth or destroy our future. It’s the idea that every choice, every moment is a moment of infinity precisely because every choice carries infinite weight/significance.

I could probably spend forever analyzing that whole notion of death/moment/choice/infinity so let’s move on. Another interesting part of the film is its focus on the roles we play, self-perception, and notions of identity construction– the idea that we are all actors playing roles in this theater production we call life. Ok, simple enough. But Kaufman takes it to the next level…to hyper-reality! No, we’re not just clogs in the machine playing out our determined roles, we’ve become each and every one of us…the directors of our own lives. This is the whole ‘death of God’ motif. We’ve realized the farce of structuralism and signified truth and have taken meaning and truth into our own hands. Except by doing so we’ve divested ourselves of any presence and ‘force’, to borrow from Derrida. What I mean is, and what I think the film portrays brilliantly, is the nihilism and meaninglessness behind directing. Behind self-production. The meaninglessness of self-positing, of Being. This is what we do now, this is the essence behind phenomena like Facebook, the internet, and images in general. We give ourselves over to these simulacra, we assign actors to play our lives and we’ve become hyper-voyeuristic to the extent that we don’t just watch others’ lives, we watch our own.

Here’s a pertinent quote from the movie-

“I’ve watched you forever, Caden, but you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there’s nothing. There’s no more watching. There’s no more following. No love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time.”

We’re all too busy watching, and none of us as living anymore. We’ve become so far removed from [Being], from any notion of presence and love. This is the Sartrean gaze in a nutshell. By watching, we posit the world, we imagine ourselves as objects upon which we seek to assimilate into ourselves. We desire the self. So we posit the self as on object in order to possess it. In this sense we are all narcissistic, utterly self-interested. The self-interestedness of being cannot be divorced from a self-sexual-relationship for sex is part of our nature, being. To be is to-be-sexual. In this way the film also explores the nihilistic ends of our ‘homo-sexual’ existence, the outcomes of a self-referential existence that only posits the self and cannot reify the Other. For it evades the Other for what is Other, other than death, the death of the self? In the image below we see Caden’s character gazing upon the death of his self-projection, one of the many actors that play him, one of his simulacra. He watches himself die and he thinks, ‘shit now I have to find another actor to play me.’

Towards the end of the film, Caden gives up directing to become an actor within the play that is now being directed by one of his simulacrums. Twisted yea? But oh so relevant. So he’s no longer directing his own life, a self-projected image of himself is now directing his life. His image now determines his existence. What’s interesting in all this is that the role that Caden plays as an actor is the role of a woman. And his simulacrum who is now directing his life is also a woman. The feminine and sexual component of the film’s narrative is hard to figure out. Is it a reference to homo-sexuality, that we become the objects of our desires? That in the beginning, Caden’s desire was for himself, but that towards the end his desire became for the other-as-woman, for death? He knew all along that he was being-towards-death and yet evaded it for much of the film by positing his simulacrums and his theatrical play as distractions; but as the film’s time began to expire, Caden, who breaks the fourth wall, simultaneously realizes that death is imminent, precisely because the movie we’re watching is also close to coming to an end. Caden’s self-realization of the necessity of death comes at the same time as the movie itself comes to a close, at the same time he utters, “I know what to do with this play now…” and the narrative voice-over commands him, “die”. And the movie ends.

“Caden Cotard is a man already dead, living in a half-world between stasis and antistasis. Time is concentrated and chronology confused for him. Up until recently he has strived valiantly to make sense of his situation, but now he has turned to stone.”

This above quote is interesting and I’ll comment on it briefly. Stasis is Greek for standing, which is part of the structure of Dasein, as something that comes to a stand from itself. Essentially the quote is saying that Caden exists between being and not-being. And that he has strived with this tension but now has turned to stone. As i intimated in this Kant post, all ‘truth’ derives from tables, and become set in stone (mosaic law)- this is representative of the dubious metaphysical nature of being, of every method of scientific inquiry. I emphasize ‘stone’ here because of how it connotes a set, fixated quality of being. To be set in stone is to be ‘nothing’, for as being set in stone, one is fixed and no longer becoming. To be in stone is to not to-be. This play on words pops up in other parts of the film where characters are ‘stoned’ or talk about being ‘stoned’. It’s just interesting to note the double nature of the phrase ‘being stoned’. It can mean a certain evasion of the self and existence. It can also mean being victimized by being, that one’s life is cast in stone by the structures that determine it.

One last comment on the burning house motif in the film. There’s this house in the film that is perpetually burning. Clearly it’s symbolic and absurd, yet meaningful. In a film where so much attention is given to death and choices, it’s possible that the only person in the film to have made a genuine choice is Hazel, the woman that Caden realizes is his true love. For she is the only one in the film to have chose death by moving into a burning house. The real estate agent that sells her the burning home utters, “it’s a big decision, how one prefers to die.” Hazel is the perhaps the only character in the film to have embraced rather than evade death. Interesting stuff in this movie I’m telling ya! Alright, and I’ll end this post with that. Obviously there’s still so much more to explore especially with Caden’s relationship to the women in his life and the twisted sexual psychology inherent in all that. But this post is long enough and hopefully all this has interested whoever’s had the patience to read through all this to go and check out this film. I leave you with this haunting quote-

“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. As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving – not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are…Gone.”

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