Finding Reality in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

by Frances Campbell


Synecdoche, New York is a movie about everything. The directorial debut of critical darling Charlie Kaufman, who made a name for himself as a screenwriter tackling issues of identity and storytelling, Roger Ebert called it the best film of the decade when it came out in late 2008. Synecdoche, New York presents Caden Cotard, a theater director from Schenectady, New York who creates a theater piece that defies the laws of time and space, an untitled work that takes place inside a replica of New York City populated by 13 million actors. Accordingly, opposing timelines and realities disrupt the narrative of the film, challenging Caden’s authority as the lead character and the audience’s assumptions about whose point of view the film depicts. Synecdoche is a literary device that uses a part to refer to the whole or vice versa. Caden is both the part and the whole as one man in an ever-expanding cast of characters who are ultimately understood through Caden’s experience and serve as a distraction from Caden’s true identity as a woman.

Caden begins his journey as a married man with a child. Caden’s wife Adele is critical of him, calling him “a fucking tool of suburban, blue-haired regional-theater subscribers” on the opening night of his presentation of “Death of a Salesman” and confesses that she fantasizes about his death, to which Caden can only nod in affirmation that her comment “feels terrible.” When Adele announces that she will pursue her career as a painter in Germany and take their daughter Olive with her, Caden answers, “How do you think I’m supposed to respond to something like that?” Before she leaves, she insists that she loves Caden but is disappointed by him. In response, Caden cries and lets her go. Caden is emotionally vulnerable but verbally nonresponsive; his feelings are almost constantly hurt but he’s unable to talk about it or take action.

After Adele leaves, Caden is reeling. This is the most disorienting section of the film, as events seem to happen independently of each other and our understanding of time and space is disrupted. He resists the sexual advances of Hazel, a woman he works with at the theater, on the grounds that Adele has only been gone a week. Hazel points out that it’s been a year, adding “I’m gonna buy you a calendar.” Caden goes to Germany in search of Adele and Olive, believing that Olive is still four years old, when in fact she’s now eleven. Caden reads Olive’s journal, left under her pillow in Schenectady, as it magically fills with her thoughts and feelings about her life in Germany. Her diary reveals that Caden has a drinking problem, challenging our understanding of him as a loving father. Caden remains stuck emotionally in the time just before Adele and Olive’s departure. His refusal or reluctance to adapt to his reality without Adele and Olive is what makes the passage of time in the film confusing for the audience, as Caden is at odds with the rest of the characters. For everyone else, things continue to change. Olive gets older, Adele gets remarried and her career takes off. For Caden, his family is stabilizing and he is paralyzed in their absence. In the opening scene of the movie, Caden reads the morning paper over breakfast. According to the dates on the paper, milk cartons, and wishes for a happy Halloween over the radio, a month passes during one breakfast. Time passes quickly for Caden because he is secure in his identity as a father and husband, and a month of mornings seem to pass in an instant, with nothing to differentiate one from another except for the impersonal death of a historic figure described in that morning’s paper or the slow curdling of the milk in his fridge. The breakfast is not disorienting for the audience, although something seems vaguely off throughout the entirety of the film. Time can be denoted in a number of ways, and the audience can be disoriented if chronological time is at odds with Caden’s feelings. When Caden is feeling stuck in one place, time seems to move on without him. Caden’s state of mind creates the reality of the film, and the passage of time is indicative of whether Caden is at odds or in sync with reality.

Shortly after Adele and Olive’s departure, Caden receives the MacArthur Grant and wants to create a theater piece, “something big and true” that he can “finally put [his] real self into.” The MacArthur Grant gives Caden the chance to recover what he’s lost now that his family is gone. In creating the play, Caden reconstructs his identity and his reality but runs into problems trying to include everyone and everything. As Caden and the audience spend more and more time inside the warehouse where Caden’s play is staged, it becomes very difficult to discern what is real as more and more versions of Caden are brought to life and literally millions of actors are brought in to play many of the people in Caden’s life. It is tempting to become immersed in the never-ending metaphysical, postmodern exploration of identity and its relationship to art, however it is valuable to remain tethered to reality. In fact, the many versions of Caden and the inclusion of 13 million extras who are all “leads in their own story” who “have to be given their due” is a distraction from the facts about Caden that keep barging in. There remains a real world outside Caden’s play, the world Adele and Olive occupy. Olive reveals on her deathbed that it was not Adele who left Caden, but Caden who “abandoned [her] to have anal sex with [his] homosexual lover, Eric.” This accusation comes as a shock, and Caden seems neither to confirm nor deny it. What we have seen is that Caden has problems with sexual intimacy with women, crying each time. With Hazel, he weeps as he tells her he’s confused. Later, this scene repeats with the woman he casts to play Hazel, but this time Caden confesses that he wishes he could be pretty like a woman and that he thinks he would have been better at it.

The second half of the movie begins with Caden being mistaken for Adele’s cleaning lady, Ellen, when he visits her empty apartment in New York. He gets a key from the landlady and actually cleans Adele’s apartment. Caden takes on Ellen’s identity to some extent, communicating with Adele through notes he signs as Ellen: “Hi Adele. Relined the cabinets. Just wanted to let you know I won a MacArthur Grant and I’m mounting a play, which I think is going to be pure and truthful.” After his first visit to Adele’s apartment, Caden’s second wife Claire asks him if he’s wearing lipstick and says he smells like he’s menstruating. Caden seems to enjoy cleaning Adele’s apartment and Ellen becomes a character in his play, portrayed by a woman named Millicent Reems. Millicent hangs back for some time until both Hazel, whom Caden has grown very attatched to, and the actor playing Caden die. Not coincidentally, this is the same day that his daughter Olive dies and accuses him of having a homosexual affair. It is the very next day that Caden’s role begins to be played by a woman. Immediately, Millicent takes charge of her own directing duties, diving in in a way Caden has not so far. What Millicent produces is one of the most moving, dramatic scenes of the movie; a scene which depicts the funeral of the actor playing Caden, the actor Millicent has replaced, the male version of Caden. Millicent as Caden is able to do what Caden was never able to: to edit and create a cohesive, compelling moment. Shortly after, Caden retires altogether as the director and begins playing the part of Ellen. Caden as Ellen receives very special attention from Millicent/Caden, hearing constant direction through an earpiece. Caden/Ellen is told what to say and do (right down to when to wipe his/her ass), but is also given memories. Millicent/Caden tells Caden/Ellen about a picnic with Ellen’s mother and about Ellen’s husband, Eric. Once Caden/Ellen finds out that Adele has passed away, he leaves her apartment and enters an apocalyptic world. All the characters and sets that Caden created have crumbled, and the streets are empty. Caden passes through a slit in a plastic sheet, which calls to mind a birth, and then happens upon Ellen’s mother. Caden finds acceptance and comfort from this woman, dying in her arms as Ellen.

Eastern Michigan University's English Department senior student literary journal