The Strangeness of Realism vs. the Realism of the Strange: Themes in Synecdoche, New York


As I sit here writing this, there's somebody sitting behind me making sure I do it correctly. He isn't proofing the words I write but rather proofing my writing of the words I write: my posture, my pauses, the position of my coffee cup, the way I tap the keys, &tc. So far he's pleased, but I'm not so sure he should be.

Only the contrived ever seems real to a viewer, a reader, an audience. Realism as formula-for-artistic-construct must always negate its goal if it's ever to convince an audience of its credentials. Realism must always devolve on something other than reality in order to appear real. Distortion is the retinaculum of reality.

I'm glad he can't read this; he wouldn't agree.

Taking a drag on my hand-rolled cigarette, I hear a loud tut. All I can say is that it felt right, but as he so often informs me, he's the one that can see it, not me.

The doer is blind.

In Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, Caden Cotard limps across a bare stage like an old, wounded lion and tells his collection of weary actors what he expects of them:

I won't settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal.1

In other words, he won't settle for settling. He will not, can not, settle. His ostensibly finite project is couched in infinitude. He's safe in the unavoidability of his failure and of that failure's tragic status. That's the brutal truth, the veiled source of his adamantine mission. In fact, the entire film(script) can be understood as a commentary on a line from E. M. Cioran: "He who does not believe in the impossibility of truth, or does not rejoice in it, has only one road to salvation, which he will, however, never find."2 The whole notion of brute truth is a convenient lie, an amenity Caden is not unfamiliar with.

Trying to explain plumbing to his daughter Olive, Caden tells her that the pipes in houses are just like the veins and capillaries inside her that carry blood around her body. This disturbs her:

I don't want blood! I don't want blood!
You don't have to worry, honey. You don't have blood.
I don't think you should tell her she doesn't have blood.3

Caden doesn't think it's a good idea to hold off confronting their young daughter with the truth until she is better able to assimilate it, because unlike his wife, Adele, he knows that such a time will never arrive. There is no future time when the truth becomes your friend. Later in the film -- when Olive, now a woman, is dying from her infected tattoos -- she forces her father to lie to her, feeding him the lines and pressuring him to repeat them, to admit to being a homosexual and having abandoned her to be with his male lover. Once again, Caden consents to untruth in order to spare her feelings. There is no psychological utility in truth, but then, lies are just mechanisms of control and control is, after all, Caden's ever-elusive quarry.

The actress playing Caden's love interest Hazel says of Sammy, the man playing Caden in Caden's play:

He's supposed to like me.4

Caden cannot control the re-creations of his life any more than he can his actual life. And now it does not even make much sense to say that, because there is no actual life existing outside the re-creations: they are one and the same, all flawed, clumsy, unsatisfying, contumacious -- pointless.

Caden recreates his life and then recreates the recreated life and so on until he justifies his own impotence. This potentially infinite regression of perspectives on a single life -- and the perspectives on those perspectives, &tc. -- is a manifestation of empty frustration, a violation of the control Caden originally seeks, a destruction dressed up as creation.

I can hear the rustle of his high collar as he shakes his head in disapproval. A tight-lipped expulsion of air: the sound of his ideals being punctured.

I try again.

Caden is the incarnation of a stammer, a state of indecision; he embodies his own uncertainty, second-guessing himself into a tic.

Caden has an unhealthy fear of death -- whatever that is.

For Martin Heidegger, being-a-whole was the mark of authenticity. Only by truly grasping death as one's uttermost possibility can Dasein -- no longer lost in the they-self -- be itself individual and complete (or whole).

As Heidegger puts it:

The existential projection in which anticipation has been delimited, has made visible the ontological possibility of an existential Being-towards-death which is authentic. Therewith, however, the possibility of Dasein's having an authentic potentiality-for-Being-a-whole emerges, but only as an ontological possibility.5

For Heidegger, "death reveals itself as that possibility which is one's ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped [unüberholbare]."6 But what does truly confronting one's own death, and the associated anxiety that ensues from such a confrontation, have to do with completeness? Death is not completeness but rather a seal on incompleteness as the following lines from Paul Celan's poem "You Were My Death" suggest:

YOU WERE my death:
you I could hold,
when all fell from me.7

The similarities to Heidegger's point are clear enough, especially when you consider the weight that death is made to carry for Heidegger. It replaces God as man's ultimate frontier. But in Synecdoche, New York, Caden is not even allowed to die his own death. Instead, he dies on cue, instructed to do so by the final line of the film:


And he dies, or so we imagine, as we watch him fade to white along with the film itself. Also, he's given this cue at the moment he thinks he knows how to finish the variously titled play-within-the-film (Verisimilitudinous; The Obscure Moon Lighting an Obscure World; Infectious Diseases In Cattle; Unknown, Unkissed, and Lost, &tc). As soon as he sees completion as a solution, he dies. Scared, Caden makes death into something else: a reference point for his doppelgängers, a cue to follow, a theatrical device. He passes control of his death over to someone else. He shares his death with others, multiplies it, believing the spread will somehow dilute its threat.

The script itself -- like all scripts, a sort of doppelgänger for the film -- ends not with Caden's death but with this realization of possible resolution:

I know what to do with this play now. I have an idea. I think --
The screen goes black fast.

There can be no resolution to Caden's play because there can be no resolution to Caden's life or, by extension, any life. In the film, resolution -- not even a fleeting approximation of itself -- is nothing more than nullification, nothing more than death. Whereas the filmscript curtails Caden's revelation with the accelerated blackening of a screen, the film makes the same curtailment with a gradual fade to white, Caden's death-cue being issued at the precise moment that he ceases to be visible. In both cases, though, Caden appears inseparable from the medium: he ends when they end. And while these differences are, for the most part, only ones of perspective since we witness the connate irresolvablity of human existence, Kaufman's addition of the death-cue is not without significance. Appending Caden's off-screen death echoes Ludwig Wittgenstein's claim about death not being an event in life and, therefore, symbolizes a shift in the relation between Caden and his work. Caden's declaration precipitates the end of the filmscript whereas his declaration in the film not only precipitates the end of the film but also his own end, as if the two somehow become separable. Caden has become a character in his own work and is, therefore, susceptible to the cues of that work. He can no longer just share its end but must be killed by it. He must document his own death, but by documenting it in this way, he becomes part of something that he was formerly equal to. In short, Caden goes from being the omnipresent lead in a play about "everything," to a bit player in a play about his own life.

The synecdochic relations prevalent throughout Synecdoche -- between real lives and the scripted, re-enacted lives, for example (although this distinction is frequently questioned and the two camps blend into one) -- can also be understood as representative of the relationship all filmscripts have to their subsequently produced film and the way that text is regarded as only ever part to the film's whole, a pre-production ghost in comparison to the fleshy corporeality of the film, its partial death, its deferring of actuality enacted in the existential primacy of its post-production counterpart.

Ultimately, though, this hierarchy is something Synecdoche manages to question, if not successfully militate against.

The production excesses in Caden's play serve to personate the distorting processes of repeated replication, exploring the tendency duplicates have to become less and less reliable the further they get from their source: the play soon becomes a cancer on the reality it is designed to capture. The more inclusive the play becomes, the more it needs to replicate, and the more it replicates the further it distances itself from the original sources: eventually the cancer becomes reality (the mutated replications become the point of origin) and reality becomes the cancer (ground-level points of origin become mutated replications of their replicators). All sense of capturing the truth is lost in an extended succession of deferred existences, each layer of characterological drones subverting its actuality by disseminating its independence to the layers preceding and (inevitably) succeeding it. Here we have what amounts to the reversal of the notion of the script as pre-production ghost, as each character is scripted by the person they play and is in turn scripting the person playing them. The script of the play, then, is given an uncommon dominance, and the reason for this is that the play can never reach production; it must always remain nothing more than a continuous rehearsal, thereby allowing the script to achieve a level of primacy that the script of the film itself can only realize in part, and which scripts in general almost never realize.

Walking through New York's reconstructed streets he says of his play to Hazel,

It's about everything.10

But there's no such thing as everything. He's telling us that the play is about un-attainability; it's about necessary failure; it's about the importance of creative impotence; it's about the subjective untruth of truth; it's about attempting to locate meaning in anything but the perpetual attempt to locate meaning. A virtue must be made of incompleteness. The self should not be escaped but rather structured into something inherently meaningful, something of ordered open-endedness, something that maneuvers its boundless possibilities as it strives toward no end beyond open-endedness itself.

He speaks for the first time in a long time; he says, "I'm just not convinced. I see you making an effort, but ... I see you making an effort."

"What do you suggest?" I say.

"Practice, plenty of practice."

"And if that doesn't do it?"

The man shrugs. "When it looks right on the outside, it'll be right on the inside."

"I always thought it was the other way around."

"It is."

  1. Synecdoche, New York, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Sony Pictures, 2008), 01:01:59 - 01:02:08.
  2. E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair (U of Chicago P, 1996), 112.
  3. Synecdoche, New York, 00:08:41 - 00:08:47.
  4. Synecdoche, New York, 01:33:19 - 01:33:20.
  5. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Blackwell, 1962), 311.
  6. ibid., 294.
  7. Paul Celan, Selections (Ed. Pierre Joris. U of California P, 2005), 117.
  8. Synecdoche, New York, 02:01:01.
  9. A version of the Synecdoche, New York shooting script is available (Newmarket, 2008), and a readily-accessible version can be found here:,-New-York.html (8 April 2010. IMSDb, n.d.).
  10. Synecdoche, New York, 01:24:22 - 01:24:23.

Citation: Shipley, Gary. 14 March 2013. "The Strangeness of Realism vs. the Realism of the Strange: Themes in Synecdoche, New York." (accessed [PDT / -7:00]).

Updated: March 14, 2013 at 7:54 pm (PDT / -7:00)

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