Movies

Collapsed Time, Restaging and Repetition in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York”

In his article “McTaggart at the Movies,” Gregory Currie argues for the tenselessness of images in film and the presence, instead, of “temporal relations.” In other words: there is no past, present, or future, at least not in relation to the movie-watcher. But what we see can have order. Things can come before, during, or after other things.

Currie uses tenselessness as a context for further investigation of flashbacks and flashforwards, or what he calls “anachrony” in film. Currie’s discussions of representation in film and the role of the audience in the context of temporality particularly interest me in regards to the 2008 Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York.

Something to balance out the wordiness of those first paragraphs: Philip Seymour Hoffman and some interior design porn.

Synecdoche, New York centers on Caden Cotard, a stage director with a wife, Adele, and young daughter, Olive. Caden is unhappy in his marriage, is participating in an unconsummated flirtation with a box office employee named Hazel, and is constantly convinced that he’s ill. (His surname has to be a nod to Cotard delusion, a neurological and psychological disorder that leads an individual to believe that he or she either does not exist, is dead, or is in the process of physical decay.) Caden stages a successful production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but shortly thereafter the chronically disappointed Adele leaves their home in Schenectady for Berlin, taking Olive with her. The trip is meant to be temporary, but Adele becomes a famous artist and chooses not to return.

Caden, lost and lonelier than ever, receives a MacArthur Genius Grant and decides to create something “truthful:” he buys a giant glass warehouse in Manhattan where he will recreate the city’s architecture, its people, and its events. He hires countless actors and begins rehearsals. At first, the actors work on a flat warehouse floor without walls and with few props, but eventually whole buildings are constructed, natural light pours in, streets are paved and the line between reality and representation is blurred. Caden hires an actor to play himself and an actress to play Hazel, who is now his assistant. He and Hazel walk behind “Actor Caden” and “Actor Hazel,” observing their behavior, making rehearsal notes. A warehouse is built inside of the main warehouse, with yet another “Actor Caden” and “Actor Hazel” inside. Inside of that warehouse, another warehouse is built. And so on, and so on. An estimated forty years pass. The play is never named. An audience is never invited in. Caden’s work is perpetually in rehearsal. His own life is pure confusion: he searches for his lost daughter, he marries and divorces an actress, he loves Hazel but cannot be with her. New York descends into war and chaos, and Caden is unable to conceive of a way to finish his play.

Kaufman is famous for first orienting the viewer in time and space simply to build a foundation for a later disorientation – he gives us a rug just so he can pull it out from under us. The film’s first image is an alarm clock switching from 7:44 to 7:45. As we see the protagonist rise from bed, the film’s first words of dialogue come from a voice on a clock radio: “…on this beautiful, almost balmy 22nd of September in Schenectady.” But we’re given a warning about the film’s conception of time: the radio announcer conducts an interview with a professor of literature about the use of autumn in poetry. The professor states, “[Fall] is seen as the beginning of the end, really. If a year is a life, then September, the beginning of fall, is when the bloom is off the rose and things start to die.”

Though chronological order is clear and there are few flashbacks to be found in the film, the velocity of time is unstable. Furthermore, this instability often goes unnoticed by the film’s characters and may not be indicated by their surroundings. One meal can take place over several months. Time often appears to be collapsed upon itself, kaleidoscopic. As his love affair ends with Hazel ends, Caden says, “I’m aching for it being over.” Echoing one of Kaufman’s primary concerns, Hazel says, “The end is built into the beginning.”

Kaufman establishes the narrative’s odd relationship with time in the film’s first extended scene, which takes place around the breakfast table in Caden’s home. Within the span of four minutes of viewing time and what appear to be four minutes of narrative time, nearly two months pass. Here is how it unfolds: we begin with Caden waking as the radio announces that it is the first day of fall, September 22nd. Caden walks downstairs to the kitchen. The radio announcer informs us that it is October 8th and an earthquake has killed 73,000 people in Kashmir, making the year 2005. Caden checks the mail outside. We then see him sitting at the kitchen table and opening his newspaper, which is dated October 14th, 2005. At the same time that Caden opens the paper, the announcer informs us that there was a march in Washington “today, October 15th.” We cut away from Caden briefly to focus on his daughter and wife, only to return to him reading the paper, which now has a date of October 17. Caden turns on the television. He opens the fridge and sniffs a carton of milk dated October 20. “Milk’s expired,” he says. We cut to a shot of a clock that reads 8:15. Its face says, “Time will tell.” The radio announcer says, “Happy Halloween, Schenectady.” We see Caden’s newspaper again, which now has a date of November 2, 2005. The radio announcer says it is November 1st.

The camera movement is not fluid throughout this scene. This is not one continuous shot, so it would be reasonable to ask, “Is this really one breakfast, or several similar breakfast scenes cut together to imply something about repetition in suburban life?” There are several rebuttals to this question: the specific concerns of the characters do not change, the clothing does not change, and the program on the television does not change. In addition, this strange speeding up of time does not end with the mundane breakfast table scene. After breakfast, Caden has a violent shaving accident that sends him to the emergency room. The hospital is full of Christmas decorations and “Jingle Bells” plays in the background. Caden’s emergency room doctor refers him to an ophthalmologist. In the car ride home from the hospital, “Auld Lang Syne” plays on the radio and we hear that people are lined up in Times Square. Olive sings, “Today is Tuesday! Momma, is today Tuesday?” Adele replies, “No, honey, today’s Friday.” Caden goes to the ophthalmologist his doctor recommended, saying, “Thanks for getting me in right away,” but a calendar on the wall behind him says it is March 2006.

Because many of these dates flash across the screen quickly or are noted quietly by the radio announcer in the background, they could be missed on first viewing. But Kaufman also employs obvious visual surrealism as a way of indicating collapsed time. Hazel pulls up to a house that is for sale—and also on fire. She and the realtor enter anyway, touring the smoky living room and kitchen. As the realtor tries to convince her to purchase the house, Hazel explains her hesitation. “I like it, I really do,” she says, “I’m just very concerned about dying in the fire.” The realtor replies, “It’s a big decision, how one prefers to die.” Hazel does buy the house, and each time we see it over the next forty years, it continues to burn quietly. Hazel, of course, dies of smoke inhalation at an old age, lying in her bed.

This sense of inevitability and of “knowing” permeates the film. The characters make their decisions with some understanding of their “script.” Because time is collapsed, everything is laid out before them. They must make sense of the script without completely shutting down due to fear or confusion. This is Caden’s project, in which he ultimately fails. Near the film’s end, one of the actresses in the warehouse sums up the “character” of Caden. She says that for him, “Time is concentrated, chronology confused. Up until recently he’s strived valiantly to make sense of his situation, but now he’s turned to stone.”

[Sidenote: Interestingly, Hazel is shown reading the first page of Swann’s Way, another work by an author (Proust) who has “strived valiantly to make sense of his situation” within a confused chronology. Both In Search of Lost Time and Caden’s production are impossible, practically incomplete (semi)autobiographical works.]

In the film’s final scene, as elderly Caden walks through the dying city, a clock drawn onto a brick wall shows that the film’s story ends at 7:45, the same time where it began. This indication of circularity plays with the idea that all of the events of the film have taken place in one day. Or perhaps an entire life has taken place in the span of a year, as the literature professor stated metaphorically at the beginning of the film. After Hazel’s death, Caden calls her phone to leave her a message stating that he has finally figured it out: “I know how to do the play now,” he says, “It’ll all take place over the course of one day and that day will be the day before you died. It was the happiest day of my life. And I’ll be able to relive it forever.”

THE LAYERING OF REALITY AND FICTION

Currie recognizes what is captured in photography and moving film: “[Cinematic images] represent the real as well as the fictional. By brute causation they represent actors, sets, natural scenes, or whatever it was that projected or deflected light into the lens of the camera. By intention they represent fictional things and events.” Intention is key for Currie; he argues that filmmakers mean for us to forget that the “real” is also being shown on screen. But Kaufman is doing something quite different in his film: he does not want us to forget that we are watching both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Caden Cotard.

In the film, Caden purposefully cast young actors to play older adults in his production of Death of a Salesman. He says to the actor playing Willy Loman, “Try to keep in mind that a young person playing Willy Loman thinks he’s only pretending to be at the end of a life full of despair. But the tragedy is that [the audience] will know that you, the young actor, will end up in this very place of desolation.”

This layering of reality with fiction is precisely what leads to the frustrating boundlessness of Caden’s project. The infinite warehouses are like an infinite number of Russian dolls. The film, of course, asks for a huge suspension of disbelief in its illustration of this boundlessness. The warehouses are of infinite size; the actors stand next to life-size recreations of actual New York buildings. Warehouse 2, Warehouse 3 and Warehouse 4 do not contain recreations of the city in miniature. Once a warehouse is entered, everything is full-sized again. The entering of a warehouse is akin to entering a film – all of the visuals are right, but the world is weird, off somehow.

Currie is interested in the way viewers move within the film and its narrative. As he explores the viewer’s perception of tense, he considers how they may conceive of themselves as both voyeurs and participants. Explaining a “general view about the nature of cinematic experience,” he writes, “the viewer images himself within the space of the fictional events represented on screen, watching them as they occur.” Though Caden is creating a stage play, the concept of audience member as participant is still valid, perhaps even more so because the action of the actors occurs in a measurable spatial proximity to the audience; it isn’t imagined, as in film. Caden conceives of his project as a communal theater where audience members and actors are one, where reality and fiction collide. He wants “all of us, players and patrons alike, to soak in the communal bath of it.”

Kaufman, however, wants to go one step further by exploring how a viewer can become a specific character, or how a patron can become a specific player. Identities are stacked, like the warehouses. People are repeated, are redundant. Cotard delusion, mentioned earlier, is thought to have neurological underpinnings similar to those of Capgras syndrome, in which an individual comes to believe that the people in their lives have been replaced by people who are identical in appearance. The delusion may extend to their self-belief: some who suffer from Capgras syndrome believe they are their own double. Kaufman is aware of this disorder: Capgras’s name appears in the film as the name of a tenant in Adele’s apartment building.

A man named Sammy Barnathan auditions to play Caden in warehouse 1. He wins the part and eventually becomes tangled in Caden’s “restaged” personal life, ruining his marriage by constantly touching Caden’s actress wife (who plays herself in the warehouse). Within warehouse 2, Sammy walks around directing the actors, who are twice removed from reality. In real New York, they have real lives. In warehouse 1, they are playing roles. In warehouse 2, they inhabit yet another role. When the director in warehouse 2 (Sammy playing Caden) gives them notes and they break character, they do not break into their “real New York” selves, but into their warehouse 1 selves.

Eventually an actor is hired to work within warehouse 2 and play Sammy playing Caden. And so identity becomes further confused. Caden’s work will never be finished because in order to make sense of his life he must show “the gesture itself, not an account of it” (Currie quoting Robbe-Grillet). But Caden can never do this. Everything is representation in the warehouse; everything is a restaging of reality. Each copy is a little less accurate, a little farther from the “truth” that Caden seeks.

Early in the film, when Adele attends Caden’s Death of a Salesman, she remarks, “I can’t get excited about your restaging someone else’s old play. It’s just…there’s nothing personal in it.” His solution is not to (intentionally) create new fiction, but to stage and restage his own world. By the time his mother dies, Caden must stage the scene of her funeral in warehouse 1, then restage it in warehouse 2 and warehouse 3 and so on, through each of the levels. And in doing so, he does create fiction: in warehouse 2, dramatic music plays while an actor playing an actor playing a minister reminds us, “Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born.” This speech was not part of Caden’s mother’s funeral. Reality represented is not reality. So there is no end to the play, no “answer,” no true mirror for Caden.

Moments before Caden dies, the director to whom Caden hands over the production says, “Everyone’s everyone.” Everything is contained within Caden, all people, all architecture and art, and sound, and all time. And it is time that is the ultimate enemy, time that frustrates the act of “sense-making.” Finally, Caden realizes that the only way to end the play is to die. Early in the film, a cartoon on television tells us, “In death, there is no time.” Sammy decides to kill himself in the warehouse, breaking the play’s rules of mimesis (because Caden has not killed himself). Before jumping to his death, he shouts to Caden, “Watch me learn that after death there’s nothing. There’s no more watching. There’s no more following. No love…None of us has much time.” As Caden sits on the bench at the film’s end, he says, “I know how to do this play now.” As soon as he’s said it, the director tells him, “Die.” He closes his eyes, and the film fades to white.

TENSE AND NARRATION

Despite Kaufman’s removal of barriers between the play’s audience (the people of New York City) and play characters (also the people of New York City), which is meant to mirror the thin line between film viewer and film character, there is still no “present tense” discernable by the viewer in Synecdoche, New York. The events occur in the character’s present, but the only “present” for the viewer is the act of viewing; events in the film are not organized for us by tense, but by chronology. The film’s narrative is entirely guided by the before/during/after relationship of events. We are able to recognize flashbacks when they occur because this recognition is dependent on an understanding of event order, not tense, but there is no key to what is present. Because there is no present, there can be no past or future. We are working in McTaggart’s B-series, with temporal relations that are unchanging.

Though I’m intrigued by the theory Currie presents (and rejects) regarding the presentness of “all images” for the viewer, whose temporal position may be changed as narrative occur in the film, I do not believe that the barrier between viewer and participant is entirely erased, even in this film. I agree that the act of watching film is an act of immersing the self in “make-believe,” in an “imagining” that does not remove our awareness of our own temporality and reality, just as Olive is able to enjoy the childhood game of “fairies” that she plays with her father without literally believing that she has grown wings.

When Currie discusses the concept of flashback, he considers invisible narrators in film. Who is the narrator in a film without voiceovers? Who is showing us the events on the screen? This is particularly interesting for Synecdoche. Our protagonist, Caden, shows the world several recreations of New York and his life in the multiple warehouses. The “real” New York in which all of these warehouses exist could be called warehouse 0, where the “real gestures” have occurred. So the narrator, the person showing us “warehouse 0” (and each the warehouses within it) could presumably be another version of Caden. Perhaps the Caden we’ve assumed to be “the real Caden” is an actor as well. In film, viewers are meant to ignore the doubleness of characters, ignore the “real” actor who embodies the character. The character is all that is intended to be “real” for us. Viewers are meant to ignore this cinematic Capgras syndrome, this recognition of a doppelganger. Kaufman, however, asks us to be fully aware of our disbelief, aware of the layers of fiction and reality. Caden discovers that in an attempt at mimesis, the desire to include the creator and the act of creating within the frame leads only to frustration, to uncontrolled growth. To gain stasis, something, namely, the self, must be left out when we try to mirror the world.

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2 thoughts on “Collapsed Time, Restaging and Repetition in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York”

  1. After watching this movie, I immediately went to the Internet to find someone who could help me understand it. Your article is one of the best I’ve found. Thank you.

    I’d like to add my own two cents’ worth, in the hopes that it helps anyone else to understand this film a little better. It’s more profound than Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and even harder (for me at least) to understand.

    As the actor playing an actor playing a minister says, our life occupies a fraction of a fraction of a second. Could this illuminate the significance of the time perennially being 7:45 in the morning? Some commentators think that Caden has died, or is dying, at that time, and that some version of his life is flashing before his eyes, in a sense; but I think it may indicate that our whole life passes in but a moment. Life flashes by us. Hell, months pass while Caden has his breakfast.

    One theme that I haven’t noticed any comments about thus far is that Caden’s first double, Sammy, seems to be happier and more positive in his life than Caden is, at least until he commits suicide. He is dealt essentially the very same cards as Caden is, but plays them more skillfully, it seems to me–which indicates that Caden’s misery is self-created and quite unnecessary. After all, he is a talented director who has won a “genius grant.” His own unnecessary negativity ruins his life. It may be that Sammy’s suicide, even, indicates his greater skillfulness in life, as it shows that his heart is more open, and that he is more capable of being deeply moved.

    I still don’t pretend to understand why or how Caden trades lives with a cleaning woman, however. It seems more than just a Jungian emergence of his own anima. Her humble station in life contrasts with Caden’s “successful” position as a stage director; on the other hand, they are similar in that both were unsuccessful at relationships, and at parenting a daughter. I just don’t get it.

    Again, thank you for your sensitive and perceptive take on this film. I don’t like not understanding what interests me, and so you’ve spared me some humiliation. 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for writing this insightful essay! I wasn’t following the multiple warehouse structure too well so your explanation helps. It isn’t that clear in the film which warehouse the scenes are happening in. At the end he clearly goes 4 warehouses deep where he meets Ellen’s dream mother (or at least the woman playing Ellen’s mother). So if Caden is completely Ellen at this point, does Caden truly die? Or by having Millicent become Caden and commanding him to die at the end, it might be considered a suicide.

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