The introverted genius of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

The writer/director’s hyperreal 2008 debut remains a transformative study of life, love and loneliness.


Eli Zeger

The outside world of Synecdoche, New York has a marvellous, absurdly dystopian feel to it (think Terry Gilliam circa Brazil), but it’s seldom reflected on screen. In fact, there are only a handful of moments where we actually get to glimpse this world: in one scene a group of derelicts are forced onto a bus headed to a place called “Funland”; in another a majestic zeppelin surveils the New York night sky. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s protagonist appears oblivious to the calamitous nature of the world around him – of course, there is a chance that it is all just part of an elaborate stage production.

Synecdoche, New York is imbued with a phenomenon that director Charlie Kaufman dealt with in his screenplay for Adaptation.: hyperreality, the inexplicable blending of what’s real and what’s not. In Adaptation., Nicolas Cage plays a version of Kaufman who’s assigned to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel ‘The Orchid Thief’. Throughout the film Kaufman experiments with varying degrees of fiction (Cage also plays Charlie’s made-up twin brother, Donald) and nonfiction (actual events from ‘The Orchid Thief’ are acted-out by Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and other supporting actors). Unlike Adaptation., Synecdoche, New York is independent from the actual world, in that its hyperreality is reliant upon elements that exist solely within the film’s own realm. (While comparisons have been drawn between Synecdoche, New York and Kaufman’s own life, they’re not as conspicuous as those evident in Adaptation.)

Hoffman’s character is playwright Caden Cotard, who’s been endowed with a MacArthur Fellowship for his staging of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’. The fellowship enables Cotard to purchase and refurbish a dilapidated arena, which becomes the setting for his follow-up work, a production about his life. Hyperreality is conceived by the fusion of indoors and outdoors – the arena and the outside world.

Over the course of the subsequent decades, Cotard transcribes all of his affairs, conflicts and daily minutiae into the arena. There’s an exact-scale representation of his neighbourhood, as well as actors playing the people who live in proximity. Later on, though, there are some uncanny occurrences. Over the phone and in an apartment hallway, Cotard gets mistaken for a cleaning lady named Ellen. Then, near the end of the film, he permanently trades his title as director for the role of Ellen in the play (initially taken by Dianne Wiest’s character, Millicent).

What happens outside the arena gets vacuumed inside and converted into material for the production’s plotline. It was at some time during this process that the outside and inside converged.

Along with hyperreality, Synecdoche, New York thrives on its various manifestations of insularity. Cotard only gives a shit about his own “little” life and is constantly found critiquing the tiniest details of the performances of a cast of hundreds (since this slows down progress, no one has any idea when the play will ever be viewed by the public). Tom Noonan’s character, a Cotard savant, is similarly pedantic. After stalking and carefully studying him for 20 years, Noonan auditioned for Cotard’s role. “I’ve learned everything about you by following you,” Noonan tells him. “So hire me, and you’ll see who you truly are.” After a moment of awe-stricken deliberation, Cotard hires him.

Synecdoche, New York’s leitmotif is another form of littleness, titled ‘Little Person’ (written by Kaufman and the film’s composer, Jon Brion). Just before he receives the fellowship, and a year after his wife (Catherine Keener) has left him to pursue painting in Germany, Hoffman finds himself in a bar with Samantha Morton’s Hazel. As the two converse, a jazz trio onstage performs the leitmotif. Vocalist Deanna Storey coos: “I’m just a little person / one person in a sea / of many little people / who are not aware of me/ I do my little job / and live my little life / Eat my little meals / miss my little kid and wife.”

While the endeavour reaches epic, visually daunting proportions, it’s essentially a solipsistic indulgence: Cotard is staging what he himself calls a “lonely, fucked-up being.” We’re not being duped, however, into enduring watching a man casually go about his lonely life for two hours. Instead, we’re witnessing a lonely life become theatricalised as it’s adapted for the stage. Kaufman’s directorial debut encapsulates a person’s glorification of littleness; Caden Cotard paddles through the twilight zone of his misery, just beneath the stage lights.

Published 10 Mar 2016

Tags: Charlie Kaufman

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