Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is equal parts fever dream, Cronenberg-esque body horror, and funeral dirge. It tells the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a playwright whose life (more literally, his body) begins to fall apart around him one morning. It starts with him busting his head open on the bathroom faucet, but before long he is seeing a parade of doctors, pissing blood, obsessively rooting through his stool, has bleeding gums, and a tremor in his leg.
Over the next few years, Caden’s life and career become a descent into hell as he tries to divine meaning from his experience. As such, he attempts to mount a massive stage production about his life and the pursuit of great art. He watches in abject horror as he loses his first family, starts another with a burgeoning young actress, chases a daughter whose childhood he missed while his new, younger daughter never ages, realizes who his true love is, and eventually dies.
The first time I saw “Synecdoche, New York,” I was in college. I was at my mother’s house for the weekend. She lives in a small town in East Texas called Lufkin: pop. 30,000 (hometown of Dez Bryant). The independent film scene there was mostly non-existent. I saw David Mamet’s “Red Belt” in the local mall theater, and I needed a whole hand’s worth of fingers to count the crowd in that one. When I saw “Synecdoche” a few months later, all I needed was one finger. I like to pretend I was the only person who saw the film that whole week. It makes my experience feel more unique.
Like most mall theaters, this one felt like an air-conditioned shed before the film started. The film reeks of quiet despair from the jump, so the theater almost immediately begins to feel like a prison. As characters age and break down, it starts to feel like a coffin. A scene where lovely, quiet Hazel (Samantha Morton) moves into a house that’s constantly burning made the theater feel as though you were warming your hands by a dumpster fire.
You could watch this movie every few years and the natural rhythms of life would do nothing to diminish the power of it. When I saw the film the first time, I was a twenty-seven year old college kid who had suffered no profound losses, but seven years later, it’s a different story. This summer, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. The day after her mastectomy, my childhood best friend died of a heart attack. The two events are not related except that they alter your perception of time and how much of it we have.
Time is the ultimate horror in “Synedoche, New York.” The worst moments stretch to an interminable length. Having too much Time turns life into an enemy. It allows the people around you to start dying. It allows our bodies the chance to fail us. Cruelly, if we live long enough, we get to watch all of it, and at the end, we miss the forest for the trees. We have so much time to figure out the point of life, and yet we never do.
“Synedoche” isn’t a slasher film, but make no mistake, Time is a ghoul that stalks its protagonists. The perpetually burning house I mentioned earlier is a metaphor for the human body. Like a nubile teen in a slasher film, the house is a cowering structure, just waiting for the flames to give it that one good lick that’ll kill it once and for all. It can kill you fast or slow—Jason or Jigsaw—and the suspense is tangible. Ironically, the worst case scenario isn’t the slash. The worst case scenario is that the burning house will fill up with smoke and asphyxiate you slowly. That is what happens metaphorically to Caden and literally to his love Hazel.
Maybe “Synedoche” is more like a ghost story. Two ghosts certainly haunt Caden: his daughters.
His older daughter Olive ages and eventually dies in the film. He obsesses over her life and her death. This haunts me. I imagined long ago that I’d have a family of my own by this point. I don’t and it’s because I know I’m not ready, but I wonder if every day that passes means that the family I want is less of a reality and more of a ghost I’ll end up chasing … like Olive, something that I’ll always have to mourn. And suddenly, Time has jumped off the screen and it’s a real life horror.
I haven’t even mentioned the younger daughter, the one who never ages. This is a completely different kind of ghost. Our children are always out children to us. They grow, they may die, but somewhere in your memory banks, there is a perfect image of your child that makes them immortal to you. A perfect age, a moment, where everything about life told you that you’d be together forever.
The final ghoul is Caden’s perception that he doesn’t have any courage. I disagree. Caden never hit a home run in life, but he took a lot of big swings. He failed, but he tried to look for meaning. That’s brave, being out there like that. This concept jumped off the screen for me too, because suddenly, I’m aware that I don’t have Caden’s courage to try and fail. Certainly not in comparison to my sister and my friend. They have families; they got bad news and raw deals. But it didn’t stop them from embracing life and putting themselves out there. And knowing them, knowing what was to come wouldn’t have stopped them. I know that much.
So after watching “Synecdoche, New York” in a mall theater in Texas, I walk out thinking two things: I don’t have courage and I may be wasting my time. The film and recent events should prompt me to go out there and be brave, be messy, but I’ll probably just talk myself into being sad, telling myself that the certainty of heartbreak and regret just isn’t worth it.
In another seven years, this post might be a lot longer and filled with a lot more observations about what it’s like to live life as an armchair quarterback, to be passive in your own story. That’s what makes this film so terrifying to me.