“When your wait is over this room will still exist and it will continue to hold shoes and dresses and boxes and maybe someday another waiting person. And maybe not. The room doesn’t care either.”
As eloquent as it is befuddling, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a film of great vision. Building a city in a New York theatre district warehouse, tortured genius Caden Cotard, a brilliant theatre director longing for an opportunity to put himself into his work, is nothing if not ambitious.
Plagued by an ever increasing fear of death (be it injury or illness, or the deterioration of material objects: fax machines, taps, milk), Caden attempts to direct a theatrical interpretation of life and its mundanities, no matter the personal and monetary cost. Whilst the financial burden of the production is lifted by Caden’s reception of the MacArthur Fellowship, the personal implications of his work are catastrophic: both his wives leave him, his parents both die in horrifying ways (his father; cancer. His mother; murdered during a home invasion) and his estranged daughter dies despising him. Deeply affected by these various tragedies, Caden puts them into his play, allowing himself the opportunity to explore – and wallow in – his failings as a husband, a father and a son.
Synecdoche, New York has drawn comparisons to Federico Fellini’s 8½, another film about a tortured genius looking to direct his masterpiece, and these comparisons are appropriate. But Kaufman isn’t concerned with the dangers of a lack of ambition like Fellini was. He was interested in quite the opposite: the dangers of over-ambition. With 8½, Fellini showed how family problems can affect a director’s work – with the character of Guido, the director, struggling to find a reason to work on his film due to the impact of his marital problems. Kaufman shows us how a director can lose everything he loves for the sake of his art, and he seems troubled by the dangers of this balancing act, and his film shows this. The nature of Caden’s ambition is what, eventually, causes the deaths of many people in his life, be them cast members or family members. Eventually, even he succumbs to his own artistic endeavour and dies, just as he thinks up a new idea for his play.
At one point in the film, Caden says to his actors: “I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t”. This heavyhearted speech perfectly sums up Synecdoche, New York: It’s a film about the transience of life and the inevitability of death. In Kaufman’s world, wasted life is the ultimate tragedy. Death is absolute, and it’s what you do with your time that matters.