Synecdoche, New York is hard-core postmodernist: metafiction or fiction about fiction (What is art? What should art be about?), a play within a play within a play and so on (mise-en-abîme as the French call this trick), a narrative which deconstructs itself (Is Caden Ellen? Is Ellen Caden? Or is Ellen Alan and Alan Caden?) and a lot of playing with the boundaries between fiction and reality. I have read some reviews and interpretations on the internet and I noticed that some people are desperate to reconstruct a plot for the film, but I don’t think that’s the key to understand this little masterpiece about the little lives of little people. It’s not what is told, but how it is told and furthermore the small details and symbols are far more important than an overall narrative message. Obviously the interpretation of such a hermetical story will reveal more about ourselves than about the movie itself.
As Synecdoche is metafiction, what is the message about art? One of the key moments is when Caden gives an emotional speech to his actors about how he thinks that his play in the warehouse should be: “I won't settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal. Each day I'll hand you a paper, it'll tell you what happened to you that day. You felt a lump in your breast. You looked at your wife and saw a stranger, […]“So art should show us “the brutal truth” but truth doesn’t exist in the postmodernist philosophy. Truth is a personal projection and always the perspective of one person so Caden Cotard begins to stage all the miserable scenes from his own life as this is the only perspective that he truly knows. So this art is autobiographical or even essentially narcistic. Of course there is also what one could call the “truth trap”. Cotard starts to stage his life, but as he is dedicating his life to staging his life, he has to tell the story of this staging of his life also so you get a warehouse on the set inside a warehouse and actors who play other actors and so on. This truth view of art doesn’t solve anything, but even makes reality more confusing. The longing to tell the absolute truth also doesn’t work for actors. When a brilliant actress like Claire in the movie has to play herself, she fails and she leaves the set.
It is as if Kaufman is telling us that artists who want to show the brutal truth, always tell only the story about themselves in order to find the truth about themselves, but this only makes everything more complex whereas the only truth that we really know, is that we all end up dead. This is also the first theme that Caden Cotard gives to his actors when he starts the warehouse project.
Some critics have labelled this film as “surrealist”, but the narrative style (with a house afire all the time or with Caden seeing himself portrayed in television cartoons and so so) reminds me more of the stories by Marquez and Allende. I would call Kaufman’s style magical realism. We don’t see reality as it is, but the subjective (Caden’s) view of a reality coming alive.
Some reviewers on the internet try to unravel the Gordian knot of the story by stating that Caden is an actor who took his role too seriously or that Caden is an invention by Ellen and that she is the real main character. I would like to reverse these views. It’s not Caden Coward who is fictional, but most of the other characters and scenes in the movie are. Although most of them reflect essential moments and important persons in Caden’s life, they are just fictional characters made up by Caden to find the “brutal truth” about himself and he let them enact key moments in his life recycling the debris and the wreckage of his own life as all writers do.
It is as if Kaufman shows us how the themes and motifs in a piece of art reveal the existential problems of the author. The author keeps writing about the “brutal truths” in his or her own life. So over and over again with different settings and with different actors you find the next themes and motifs in the movie and in the stories within the stories: for instance a woman with her little daughter leaves her husband (Adèle - Olive / Claire - Ariel), the attraction of having an affair (the Hazel story line), cleaning stuff gives a sense of fulfillment, loneliness and a sense of being lost, feeling guilty (he asks for forgiveness all the time), narcissism (being blind to the needs of other people), hypochondria (the logical outcome of narcissism as you are obsessed with the decay of your own body), having the unfulfilled feeling as an artist that you still have to make your final masterpiece (the warehouse project), the fear and the insecure feelings of having not an artistic vision as an artist (Caden Cotard remarks:‘I don’t know what I am doing”) and the dangers of treating life as if it was a play.
Although characters like Adèle, Olive, Hazel, Maria, Ellen, Eric, Sammy and so on may be real persons in Caden’s real life, he recycles them in his theatrical world, turns them into fictional characters so that they can play the roles as he views them or likes to reinvent them and so that they can replay the key moments or problems from his own life. This also explains why one of the actors says in this fictional art project (made to do so by Caden's imagination):” When are we gonna get an audience in here? It's been seventeen years.” This is logical as we are in the head of Caden Cotard and he is making this all up.
So for instance Sammy might be an old man who he sees a lot in his real life and as Caden is so narcistic and consequently a bit paranoid, he then turns this real old man into “a character who has been shadowing him for twenty years and a second ego for him to reveal the brutal truth” although the real Sammy is just an old man who lives close to him. Hazel could be for instance just a young, ambitious girl who works in the box office and Caden has a fantasy about having an affair with her. I am not sure whether this affair took place or not. Caden uses this real life experience to invent a whole life for her which just reflects his own theme of being lonely and miserable. This also explains why all characters in the warehouse project reflect himself as they were made up in his imagination to some extent. So it’s logical that Caden makes Ellen say to himself:” So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It's yours. It is time for you to understand this.” They are now characters in his own play and being so reveals something of himself as he is the author.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to tell which are the ‘real’ characters and events in Caden’s life and which are parts of stories or plays that Caden invented about these real persons and his real life experiences, although when something impossible happens (like a house being afire all the time) this should be a clue that Caden is making this up. This doesn’t matter as the overall message of the film is that we never can fully grasp the reality of our life as we see life only from our own perspective and we all turn our life experiences into “the story of our own life” which is always fictional too some extent. As the minister remarks in one of the final scenes:"Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won't know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it's what you create."
As some critics have pointed out, I believe that Synecdoche: New York shows us the last thoughts that Caden Cotard had just before he died between 7.43 until 7.45. These thoughts are a confusing stream of key moments in his real life mixed with a fantasy about the big art project that he would have undertaken but he never had a chance to do so. As a real director he only staged old plays with young actors. Obviously this narration is confusing as the fictional story of the warehouse, which reflects the key moments in his life and for which Caden recycles real persons from his real life to play a role in this fictional warehouse project, is being mixed with real moments from his life and moments from his life which were changed by his own imagination. This warehouse project should have helped him to find the brutal truth about himself which he couldn’t find in his real life. He can only meet himself by turning his life experiences into theatre.
The outcome of this search for truth is a beautiful paradox. During his whole life Caden Cotard has tried to come to terms with himself by turning his core life experiences into theatre or staging existing plays to solve real problems (he is for instance watching Adèle’s reaction to his staging of “Death of a Salesman” which is obviously about the degeneration of his own marriage with Willy Loman as himself). This didn’t save his marriage and he concluded that he failed because he never did his real art project and that was turning his own life into a piece of theatre instead of using other plays to tell something about himself. He then imagines just before he dies how this project would have been. As this art project in his imagination doesn’t really solve anything, he imagines that he even starts to stage himself in this project as an actor (playing Ellen) getting stage directions from a fictional director who he invented.
Yet just before dying, Caden Cotard learns the next truth:”I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.” He has treated his whole life as a play featuring only himself as the main role while neglecting the feelings and problems of the other people as if they were just some extras in a play who don’t matter for plot of the play. He feels angry because nobody paid enough attention to his problems whereas he has the main role as the minister expresses this frustration in one of the final scenes: “But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn't really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I've felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I've been pretending I'm OK, just to get along, just for, I don't know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.”
It’s this narcissism or self-centeredness which had alienated him from the others. He could only understand this when he had become an actor himself playing the role of an extra in his imaginary warehouse project. The paradox is that he has learnt that you may not treat life as a piece of theatre and people as just actors in your own tragedy, but he needed a piece of theatre to realize this. He then finds peace and comfort by laying his head on the fictional shoulder of his fictional mother in an imaginary play that only took place inside his head.