Michael Joshua Rowin on Synecdoche, New York
As one of the few Hollywood screenwriters of the last decade to achieve the status of auteur, Charlie Kaufman has built his artistic reputation on bizarre and baroque narratives. And yet the last line of dialogue from his Synecdoche, New York is one of aggressive, devastating, succinct finality, a solitary word and plosive that at once enacts a protagonist’s inevitable demise, announces it, and fulfills a brutal, film-long program of unsolicited ego-surrender. “Die,” says Dianne Wiest’s enigmatic Millicent Weems, the actress who switches roles with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s slowly disintegrating theater maestro Caden Cotard, the recipient and performer of this most definitive of stage directions. That Kaufman chooses such a harsh word to conclude his directorial debut is less significant than the manner in which he has chosen to communicate it. Because for someone who has also built his screenwriting reputation on literary, concept-heavy wit, Kaufman demonstrates with the execution of this single word—and all that leads up to it—a mastery of dialogue as sound, and sound as delivered through the cinema-specific device of voiceover narration.
The resigning “Die” holds deep implications for the trajectory of Kaufman’s macrocosmic artistic project. Call it genius or call it pretension, call it strength or call it weakness, call it all-encompassing or call it bombastic—Kaufman wants to include everything in his movies. And “everything” in this sense doesn’t just mean the screenwriter’s most personal predilections and fancies; it means, literally, the whole of creation. “Darwin writes that we all come from the very first single-cell organism,” muses Adaptation’s blocked Charlie Kaufman (the character, played by Nicolas Cage) to himself in voiceover as he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. “Yet here I am. And there’s LaRoche. There’s Orlean. And there’s the ghost orchid. All trapped in our own bodies, in moments in history. That’s it. That’s what I need to do. Tie all of history together.” Kaufman the character—and, thereby, Kaufman the writer of Kaufman the character—then attempts to cram all of time and existence into this nascent work: “Start right before life begins on the planet!” Kaufman excitedly yells into his tape recorder, and he goes on to cover everything from the first fish to walk onto land to dinosaurs to primates to homo sapiens to the history of civilization, “hunting and gathering, farming, war, love, religion, heartbreak, disease, loneliness, technology . . . This is great! This is the breakthrough I’ve been looking for!” Kaufman listens back to this last part on the tape recorder. It sounds like the ravings of a madman—chaotic, sprawling, shapeless. He is despondent.
Why does Kaufman drive himself—and, thereby, so much of his audience—crazy with the Quixotic desire to capture the universe? The answer lies in a theme that runs through every one of Kaufman’s scripts, even those that don’t try for the cosmological. Frustrated by the boundaries of subjectivity, the creative protagonists/surrogates of his stories attempt to break free but discover the near impossibility of transcending their locked individual consciousnesses. In Adaptation, Kaufman’s most unabashedly autobiographical film, Kaufman the character rebuffs conventional forms of screenwriting that reduce a full spectrum of possibilities to soft clichés and predictable paths of action. But Kaufman eventually jettisons his attempt to go the opposite route and include everything, deciding instead to make himself a character in his own screenplay who makes himself a character in his own screenplay ad infinitum; soon thereafter a preposterous Hollywood-style climax both mocks and employs the very clichéd devices the fictional Kaufman (and, one supposes, the real Kaufman) had previously rejected. Not surprisingly, Kaufman’s journey of artistic adaptation mirrors his personal one. While he may reach a cautiously optimistic epiphany after a film-long battle with self-pity and self-doubt, the confusion of character and real-life screenwriter makes the means to that conclusion especially troubling. Both fictional and real screenwriter long to express everything, but the result of Adaptation is a return to the limits of the self.
That self is primarily expressed through voice, detached from the body like a god’s, yet muttering, insecure, and rambling like a mortal’s. In the films of Charlie Kaufman, first-person voiceover narration usually functions in a conspicuously different manner than in the majority of cinematic narratives. Rather than an authoritative, spellbinding, meditative, or even unreliable tone, the voiceovers that relate the thoughts and feelings of Kaufman’s male protagonists in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are doubting, irritating, and pathetically self-conscious. More than appropriate, then, that the auto-critical Adaptation should attack cinematic inner monologue and its integrity as a device by which to clearly express and communicate subjectivity. “And God help you if you use voiceover in your work, my friends!” thunders screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) to a seminar of scribes, interrupting Kaufman’s own voice-over self-recriminations for attending such a seminar. “Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character!” More than a clever meta-joke, McKee’s disapproval cuts to the core of Kaufman’s solipsism as a self-obsessed wretch and a self-obsessed artist. But since it so heavily relies on voiceover, Adaptation can only chide itself before finally and fully justifying its methods. “I know how to finish the script now,” says Kaufman at the very end of the film, once again in voiceover. “It ends with Kaufman driving home after his lunch with Amelia, thinking he knows how to finish the script. Shit, that’s voiceover. McKee would not approve. How else can I show his thoughts? I don’t know. Oh, who cares what McKee says? It feels right. Conclusive. I wonder who’s gonna play me.” Voiceover—instrument for the expression of the ego—having been affirmed, the self is fortified, even vainly triumphant.
Six years later, Kaufman made his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York, a film that shares with Adaptation the same concerns about artistic and creative integrity, purpose, responsibility, and possibility. It also interrogates the artistic ego by interrogating the function of voiceover, but in an even more radical manner, and precisely because it refuses mere self-reflexivity. In Synecdoche the protagonist is once again an artist obsessed with including everything in his art. Significantly, this time he is not a screenwriter but a Schenectady theater director, Caden Cotard (Hoffman), who receives a MacArthur Grant that gives him the chance to swing for the fences with an epic production inside a mammoth New York City warehouse. Caden’s warehouse is big enough to house a city unto itself, one that replicates exactly the architecture, layout, and bustle of the real one, to the point where a second warehouse is built inside the first, and so on.
In essence, this untitled, impossible to finish, increasingly yet never perfectly accurate magnum opus allows Caden to play the ultimate artist-god. But rather than doing so to compensate for the disappointment of his personal life (a two-divorce, child-estranged, collapsed-health disaster) with complete and near-omniscient artistic control, Caden uses this theater-piece-to-end-all-theater-pieces to get to the “brutal truth” of reality by eventually transcending his fixed subjective view of it. Late in Synecdoche Caden tells assistant and romantic interest Hazel (Samantha Morton), “There are nearly 13 million people in the world. [A catastrophe mysteriously unfolding beyond the warehouse walls has drastically reduced the global population.] I mean, can you imagine that many people? And none of those people is an extra. They’re all leads in their own stories. And they have to be given their due.”
It’s not enough for Caden to recreate the whole world. He must make everything in it of equal importance, and thus undertakes this aspect of the project by inhabiting roles beyond his own. Roughly halfway through the film Caden takes over the real life role of Ellen, cleaning lady for his divorced first wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), and spends his nights making sparkling fresh Adele’s oddly uninhabited apartment. Even odder is that it is never entirely clear who Ellen really is. At one point we see that Adele has painted a miniature portrait of Ellen; she looks just like Millicent Weems (Wiest), an actress who eventually auditions to play the role of Ellen in Caden’s production. “Ellen,” then, would seem to be an absent presence, a placeholder through whom others can create an identity. And around the time Caden assumes Ellen’s identity (he has already been frequently mistaken for a woman) is the time voiceover begins to assume an enormously important, unconventional role in Synecdoche, New York.
Considering this is a story about a director who uses his voice to command actors on his stage-world, it’s ironic that Caden has only a single, short section of voiceover narration in the film we watch. Instead, most of Synecdoche is narrated by women—Adele, Caden’s first daughter Olive (Robin Weigert), Weems. Their voices command and baffle Caden. The first comes from Caden’s unctuously insensitive and constantly interrupting therapist Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), whose jargon-laden self-help book offers no aid to his myriad troubles. As Caden reads the book on a plane, the sound of Gravis’s assured, mellifluous voice spouting nonsensical psychobabble suddenly tells him to look to his left. Caden looks over and spots Gravis. “I’m not sure I’m getting the book,” Caden says. “Oh, but it’s getting you,” Gravis replies. “You’re almost non-recognizable now.”
Not only is voiceover disrupted and foregrounded as a device at this moment, but it sets up the manner in which Caden will become less and less recognizable as female voiceovers instigate and influence his transformation. (In this sense Synecdoche reverses at the same time as it critiques the film with which it is in direct conversation, Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. In Fellini’s film the aging, health-obsessed director Guido comes to understand the various women of his life through his subjective memories, dreams, and fantasies—Guido’s besieged creative consciousness isn’t taken over so much as it is buttressed by their presence.) At the behest of Sammy (Tom Noonan)—the man who has spent his life following Caden so he can play him in the production—Caden surreptitiously takes up Ellen’s cleaning job: “I want to follow you there,” Sammy explains, “And see how you lose even more of yourself.” Caden indeed forfeits his identity and free agency by acting according to Adele’s handwritten instructions, communicated via voiceover (in terms of tone and grain, these voiceovers are the film’s strangest—Keener’s readings, always addressed to “Ellen” and never Caden, are drenched with rushed condescension and punctuated by coughing). In performing Ellen’s job, Caden seems to physically become Ellen. Second wife Claire (Michelle Williams) even notices lipstick and smells menstrual blood on him.
Is the real-life role of elderly, subordinate cleaning woman the one for which Caden was truly born? Earlier he had scrubbed his Schenectady house clean to alleviate his misery after being abandoned by Adele; later on he will confide to Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress who plays Hazel, his wish to look pretty like her. “Sometimes I think I might have been better at [being a girl],” he admits. But rather than hinting at a crisis of gender identity or repressed homosexuality, Caden’s longing to be a woman and the efforts on his part to make good on this longing speak to a profound but never articulated understanding that the best way to realize his theater production—to give every person his or her “due”—is by taking up real-life roles beyond his own. The director recognizes that to honor the extras of life one must become one himself, taking orders from others (contrast this with what he says earlier when he tells his cast and crew that he will hire an actor to play himself: “The notes I will give him will correspond to the notes I am given everyday from my god!”) Voiceover, then, must not come from Caden, but from the person or people now directing the director.
Late in the film and on the heels of Hazel’s death, an aged Caden relinquishes all directorial control of his still-incomplete masterpiece. In his place Weems takes over by first playing the role of Caden in the production and then by taking up the director’s real- life duties. Since Weems had previously played Ellen, Caden now plays the cleaning lady, this time in the production, and takes his orders via earpiece directly from Weems-as-director. Thus ensues in the last ten minutes of Synecdoche a remarkably complicated series of distortions, mergings, and splittings of identity. We hear Weems’s directions to Caden in voiceover as she initially explains to him his character’s motivations: “There was supposed to be something else. You were supposed to have something—calm, love, children, a child at least, children, meaning.” But then we receive a flashback from Weems’s point of view of her depressed husband, over which Weems speaks in the first-person of his disappointment in her. Since the film continually exacerbates the confusion between Weems and Ellen, this shift of register conflates the expression of Weems’s personal experience with the commands she issues to represent Ellen’s own (or shared?) personal experience. Voiceover, then, no longer serves as a vehicle to either confess the self or direct others, but accomplishes both functions simultaneously.
Similarly, identity becomes fluid: Weems is Ellen is Caden is Weems etc. Weems’s admittance of her husband’s disappointment triggers a memory of Adele from Caden’s point of view, but her voiceover again summons her own memories, this time of herself as a young girl picnicking with her mother (what we see of this picnic is later revealed to be a staged reenactment, a portion of the now Weems-helmed production). This in turn trigger’s Caden’s memory of daughter Olive, but when he learns Adele has died, he is directed by Weems to think of Ellen’s memories of Adele, not his own: “Remember the times she got you to pose for one of her paintings. How she told you how beautiful you were. How she made you feel pretty for a little while. Think how you’ll miss her.” Finally, Caden is told to venture outside the apartment set representing Adele’s place, where his warehouse-studio and its personnel have been destroyed by the unnamed cataclysm that has been unfolding at the periphery of the film’s story. Thus transpires the film’s most important piece of dialogue as Weems directs Caden-as-Ellen through the crumbling, corpse-ridden warehouse:
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.
A few moments later Weems will tell Caden: “ . . . 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 . . . “ The self is no longer attached to a body, a vision, a maker, a voice. It is free-floating, endlessly malleable and adaptable. And if Caden ultimately adheres to orders issued from a voice, it is because he still cannot let go of his stubborn self. Until the bitter end he is still thinking of new ways to “do the play now,” right up to the point when Weems must direct him to die and force him to give his self over to the most dramatic of identity-blurring transformations: death. Thus Synecdoche is on the surface the most hopeless of Kaufman’s films while underneath the most forward-looking. Where the Kaufman of Adaptation unsuccessfully attempts to relinquish his ego in order to capture the universe—only to more forcefully reestablish his own personality—Caden comes closer to enlightened knowledge, to the acceptance that giving up the assertive, directorial ego and walking empathetically in others’ shoes (rather than controlling them) is the best way to give the world its due. That Caden still needs a guide to do so, and that he can only partially let go, is what makes Synecdoche such a painful, difficult film. While lauded and loved in many corners, one wonders if Synecdoche was so ambivalently met by critics and brutally received at the box office not because of its supposedly unrelenting despair or exceedingly demanding form, but because of its challenges to the very foundation and stability of identity. For viewers so tightly clinging to the false security of self, Weems’s final voiceover—“Die”—is not meant for Caden alone.