The Artist’s Dystopian Mind in Synecdoche, New York

by Alexander Davis

“I think it was Thomas Mann who said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people,”….which I thought was pretty cool” – Charlie Kaufman, 2011

The work of Charlie Kaufman is almost synonymous with creative frustrations. Indeed, the first scene of his feature debut, Being John Malkovich (1999, Gramercy), depicts an artist’s (in this case a puppeteer) performance titled “Dance of Disillusionment and Despair,” while the entirety of 2002’s Adaptation. (Columbia) is based on Kaufman’s own writer’s block. But his work often goes beyond the simple frustrations of an artist’s creative process, most particularly and intensely in his 2008 film, Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics). In this film, Kaufman’s directorial debut, he presents the life of an artist as incredibly tortured, tragically unfulfilled, and profoundly depressing. Kaufman creates a world that mirrors the artist’s nightmares; in Synecdoche, this artist, a theatre director, is Caden Cotard, whose insecurities and paranoia played out as realities.

The aim of this essay, then, is to examine the various ways in which Kaufman explores the mind of the artist, revealing it as immensely neurotic and massively miserable. Given the intense pain that the life of the artist, as depicted by Kaufman, is filled with, one must ask why Caden (and the artist in general) continues his attempts to create. I believe that the answer to this question lies in the myth of Sisyphus. In Albert Camus’ reading of the Sisyphus myth he proposes that while life is ultimately meaningless, or absurd, we must still live it to the fullest. Kaufman similarly, in his “myth” of Caden, seems to propose that while the creative task is never truly (or even closely) completed, we must continue to try anyway, regardless (or in spite of) the intense despair that might come within. For Kaufman, the mind of the artist is an almost unfathomably dystopian one, yet one which must nonetheless be inhabited with deep perseverance.

Cinematic Nightmares

  Before moving on to a deeper investigation of the philosophical implications of the film, it is important to briefly examine how exactly Kaufman merges the external, more literally dystopian world within which the story of Synecdoche, New York takes place, with the internally tortured psychology of the artist. Throughout the film there are two parallel worlds shown: that of the world outside, not directly related to Caden’s life, which increasingly moves toward destruction, and the specific worlds of Caden’s life, that is the various warehouses and his personal relationships.

Over the course of the film, as Caden constructs the increasingly intricate and detailed version of New York in his warehouse, the “real” New York in which the film is set devolves further and further into chaos and anarchy, culminating in an unexplained event near the end of the film (we are only given the angered shouts of people and the noise of an explosion as hints) which leaves this “real” New York, and the one within Caden’s warehouse, in a post-apocalyptic state. It is my belief that this disintegration of the society outside, without any direct reference to it in the film, is to stress Caden’s self-involvement with his own project. In a way, Kaufman is emphasizing the isolation of the artist, one so far removed from reality that he is oblivious to its destruction.

  However, the continual decay of the outside world also serves to mirror Caden’s own decaying physical and mental life. Caden Cotard shares a surname with the French neurologist Jules Cotard, the discoverer of a rare neurological disorder that makes its sufferers believe they are dead, decomposing, or internally decaying. Throughout Synecdoche, New York, Caden’s body is shown in various states of decay, and significant portions of the film show him in various doctors’ offices, surgeries, and medical emergencies (his seizure after calling Adele, his heart attack after finding his thrown-out gift to Olive, among others). Just as Kafka makes subjective realities objective ones in his The Metamorphosis, turning Gregor Samsa’s feelings of alienation and repulsion into his becoming an insect, so too does Kaufman turn Caden’s lack of fulfillment, alienation, and repulsion into a dystopian environment and decrepit body which impose similar feelings on him.

Creative Boulders

“I have a title: The Obscure Moon Lighting and Obscure World” whispers Caden to Hazel on their final night together, only to have her reply “I think it might be too much.” Caden’s continual search throughout the film to find an appropriate title for his project is never completed; constant suggestions meet constant rejections, yet Caden persistently keeps searching, up until the moment of his death. Caden’s attempts to title his piece are the closest literal parallel we get to the Greek legend of Sisyphus, a man condemned by the Gods to the eternal fate of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down, and the project to begin again. Yet over the course of Synecdoche, New York Kaufman depicts the struggles of the artist as similar to those of Sisyphus. As mentioned earlier, for Kaufman, and by extension Caden, the artist’s work is never completed, never satisfactory, and one of intense pain, yet one which needs to be continued.

There are numerous aspects of the film which underscore the circular nature of the Sisyphus myth and the artistic process; the never-ending cycle that is the creative process and Sisyphus’ fate. The film as a whole can be viewed as a circular narrative. As the film opens, we fade from a black to grey screen, before opening on the image of an alarm clock, reading 7:44am, quickly clicking to 7:45. Similarly, near the close of the film, as Caden wanders around the remnants of his warehouses and sits on a couch with another character (self-identified as the mother in Ellen’s dream), a spray-painted clock on a wall also reads 7:45. The image slowly whites itself out, fading to a soft grey that then slowly fades to a black over the course of the end credits. The overall structure of the film is thus very similar to that of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), another work largely based on dream logic, and which opens and closes with two halves of the same sentence.

This conclusion to the film can make the film’s narrative as a whole parallel to one of Sisyphus’ trips up the hill, with Caden’s theater project as his boulder. As Caden sits on the couch mentioned earlier, his head on the shoulder of Ellen’s dream mother, he states “I know how to do this play now… I have an idea… I think… if everyone…” Here he gets cut off, as he’s instructed to die by Ellen’s voice. By visually and temporally linking the opening and closing of the film, Kaufman allows, in a way, for Caden’s rebirth with each subsequent watching of it. Unlike most narratives, this is not a closed one. Caden’s story does not simply repeat with each viewing, but is instead recycled. While these two terms are only minimally distinct, this distinction is incredibly important. Both Caden and Sisyphus’ story is not of one single boulder being pushed up a hill, or one artistic experiment being created, but an infinite series, each of which is necessarily relived by their respective characters each time. Kaufman’s narrative structure masterfully allows this, creating a film which grows and expands with each viewing, instead of simple repeats.

A Conscious Caden

“If this myth [of Sisyphus] is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” asks Camus in his essay on the subject. One must similarly ask whether or not the story of Caden is tragic. If Caden truly is an artistic, modern equivalent of Sisyphus, one must wonder if he is conscious of his constant struggles and failures.

After Hazel’s death, Caden calls her voicemail to leave one final message: “It’ll all take place over the course of one day… that day will be the day before you died…it was the happiest day of my life… now I’ll be able to really live forever… see you soon.” Here, I believe we get a slight glimmer of hope from Kaufman that Caden’s character is not conscious of his plight. Caden constantly perceives his project as achievable despite his previous failures; even up until his last breath he conceives of new ideas to complete it. As Camus would have put it: “One always finds one’s burden again… The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”