“So people can look up ‘synecdoche’ if they want. And if they do, they might think about some things it might correspond to in the movie, and if it opens up another understanding of the film for them, that would be great.”
--Charlie Kaufman in the press kit for Synecdoche, New York
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, synecdoche is a noun which means, “a figure in which a part stands in for the whole; the whole for the part.” There is an argument that certainly could be made that the part that this whole movie stands in for is the moment just before Caden wakes up on that first morning. The film begins with the time on the alarm clock, and as it is nearing its end, a clock is painted on a wall bearing the same time. Other clues abound. The fact that everything in the film adheres to the same solipsistic logic that Caden’s play does would seem to suggest that it was all happening in his mind if the same couldn’t be said for the protagonist of almost every other Kaufman script. That Kaufman specifically rejects the idea in the press kit—“Let me make it very clear that this film is not a dream”—doesn’t necessarily make it true; I just happen to agree with him.
The metaphor that I believe to be at play with the use of the word synecdoche in the title is that every moment in a person’s life contains within it the entirety of that life. Whether the body of the film “really” takes place in a dream—or in Caden’s mind as he reads the newspaper that morning (giving everything that takes place later resonsance with the world events and medical difficulties he is thinking about right then), or is supposed to be read as an “actual” description of his entire life, or is all a fantasy in the mind of Millicent Weems as she looks out the window and contemplates her own depressing life, or is a metaphoric representation of Caden’s secret life as a homosexual (a theory posited by at least one blogger), or stands in for Caden's suffering from Cotard's Delusion, the syndrome which bears his last name—is inconsequential to me. What matters is that each individual, brilliantly polished scene represents the whole story, just as each moment in our lives is also our entire life in miniature. Paradoxically, that’s why Caden’s play has to have everything in it. Every aspect of life has to be represented, or else none of it can be. Caden doesn’t get the essential lesson that the film is teaching. Each moment is its own meaning. Each specific is the universal. Kaufman says of Caden, “He has a difficult time being present in any situation,” because he is always trying to step back from it and see the big picture, not realizing that those moments he’s missing are the big picture.
It would take a serious amount of critical gymnastics to justify my assertion above that every scene in the film is representative of its whole, but here are a few of the examples that spring readily to mind:
--The art show of Adele’s that Caden attends (“Women I Love”) has paintings of all the women in her life. That they are tiny representations of entire people—they have to be viewed through a microscope—is not a coincidence. Adele has even done a portrait of Millicent Weems, the women Caden hired to play the role of Ellen, Adele’s cleaning woman (a role that Caden plays in real life).
--On her deathbed, Olive does what many do in that situation: look back on their entire life and try to make it adhere to one throughline, one narrative. It is her own life’s retrospective, just as that particular art show was for Adele. And the conversation Caden has with her as she is dying is on the topic of their entire relationship. What is at issue is the essential nature of the betrayal that took place in their family, the moment that has irreperably scarred both of them, and come to represent the entire family history in Caden’s mind.
--Hazel’s house is burning down even before she buys it because “the end is built into the beginning.” The real estate woman advises her that choosing how you’re going to die is an important decision in a person’s life. Both moments, the dying in the fire and the buying the house, are both little portraits of Hazel’s entire life. It burns down for the whole movie because buying then house and dying in that fire defined her.
Please weigh in with your opinions on this one—and point out any factual innacuracies that my single viewing of the film may have caused.