The act of creation, if we are truly image bearers of the Divine, is deeply imprinted on our very being. Few films explore the consuming, and neurotic compulsion that is the creative process as deeply (and terrifyingly) as Synecdoche, New York. The 2002 Charlie Kaufman movie follows Caden Cotard, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s most incredible displays (which is saying quite a bit considering his body of work) as an actor, and his pursuit to create a play that is meaningful and honest –all while dealing with the collapse of his families, love, and the ever-hanging dark cloud of death.
The movie itself is a free flowing blend of reality and the avant-garde; the characters bounce between robust examples of humanity and caricatures, as does the imagery of the film – some are hyperbolic, some confusing, others straight forward, but it all adds to a punch to the gut. This movie does not leave people on the fence of uncertainty… it is loved, or hated.
Kaufman sets the stage for a traditional family drama with personal creative struggles as the backdrop, but as the film travels further in, deeper down the rabbit hole, and Caden’s life begins to unravel, so does the arc of the film. We move deeper into the point at which the artist’s creation touches his own life, where it blurs the lines of detachment and eventually becomes the possession of others (those who view and add to creations). We move from complete indwelling and disconnection from the world to the universality of the “human experience,” but it happens so suddenly and strangely that the epiphany is not always there upon first viewing. I count myself as one who hated it the first time I saw it, but after discussing it with a friend my perspective shifted.
What changed my mind? Viewing the movie as both the reality, and a metaphor, of the creative process.
When my friend said this I did not even have to re-watch it for the movie to click, for things that seemed so absurd and dark to fall into their proper perspective. This movie is about the painful reality of trying to fulfill the creative aspirations imprinted on our souls. It is, like all of Kaufman’s work, obsessive, neurotic, and profoundly accurate.
C.S. Lewis said, “I was with book, as a woman is with child.” There is, in many ways, an all-consuming nature to creative work. Look at any genius author, painter, scientist, or otherwise, and you will likely find a person possessed by the very medium they work within. The question must be asked: Are they living a life, or observing a life from which to create one?
That is the line Caden blurs as he undertakes the task of an expanding play that follows his life and the lives of those around him. He casts actors to play himself and his assistant putting the play together, and even hires actors to play the actors playing him – this is comic at first, but becomes increasingly dark as you become confused about the whole question of what differentiates the play and reality… but the further on we go, the more they merge.
We witness how this creative obsession destroys the relationships around him, and, consequentially, fuels Caden’s creativity – it is as though disaster were his personal muse. And in Caden’s defense it is not only his creative desires, but those of his estranged wife and her friend. Not only do they abscond to Europe, but they take his daughter with them and dump her into a world of dehumanization – in which the importance of the art itself supersedes the importance of the people it reflects and ought to impact.
Maybe this is why Catherine Keener’s Adel – the wife of Caden – paints such small portraits. She is the fruition of Tom Wolfe’s prediction that the true displays of visual art will become the critics’ words and the artist’s meanings rather than the quality of the art itself and what it stirs in each of us. Adele and Maria turn Cotard’s daughter into an object; for Maria she is a 13-year-old sexual muse. They have become so lost in their art that pedophilia is twisted into something beautiful and powerful (this is something further explored by people like Lewis in The Abolition of Man and Walker Percy in Thanatos Syndrome).
This poses a great challenge: When does good turn bad? Our creative nature is a gift, but where is the line drawn. In fact all of our sins began as gifts turned sour; where in our hearts does this turn? It does not just occur in art either, but maybe is first recognized there. Consider the real life examples of Brock Turner and his family’s defense, or California’s introduction of legalized assisted suicide. We could go further, we could go into more subtle and heated issues, but the reality is, as Chesterton puts it: “Art, like morality, begins by drawing the line somewhere.”
And still th’ abysses infinite
Surround the peak from which we gaze.
Deep calls to deep, and blackest night
Giddies the soul with blinding daze
That dares to cast its searching sight
On being’s dread and vacant maze.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Nondum
The spiritual context of this film is important to understand. This is at best an agnostic movie, more than likely an atheist one, so the overwhelming sense of darkness and the impending fear of death and the sense of hopelessness are, in my mind, signs of health. Kaufman understands that in the absence of God, where there can be only nothing, only the abyss, despair is the only response that correlates to reality.
Even in believers we know this sensation all too well, that overwhelming vastness and our small place within it. Most of the prophets cried out to God in anguish over this, the poets of all ages do (even priests such as Hopkins). Stare out over the ocean where there is only wave upon wave as far as the eye can see and that dizziness that follows is you standing on the ledge.
Synecdoche practically dives right into this. There are fleeting comforts, and things you hope work out, and true and absolute moments of beauty amidst the chaos and struggle and death, but without the hope of Christ there is only the blackness, and as Stephen Hawking put it, “…an afterlife is fairytale for those who are afraid of the dark.”
To many this seems bleak (I agree that it is), but it is not as bleak as the false hope in pseudo-religions. The abyss is also the easiest place to see the light, if you can turn from the darkness for a moment and catch a glimpse. But how can one sit in the abyss and turn to the light if they think they have found it somewhere buried within? Synecdoche is sad, and dark for these reasons, but it is true as well. If there is no God, what is there besides our compulsions? How do we reconcile life without meaning? These are questions only a searcher can ask, are we ready to answer?
I feel like I could quote extensively and exclusively from Hopkins in relation to this movie:
Creation the making out of nothing, bringing from nothing into being: once there was nothing, then lo, this huge world was there. How great a work of power! The loaf is made with flour; the house with bricks; the plough, the cannon, the locomotive, the warship/ of iron – all of things that were before, of matter; but the world, with the flour, the grain, the wheatear, the seed, the ground, the sun, the rain with the bricks, the clay, the earth; with the iron and the mine, the fuel and the furnace, was made from nothing. And they are made in time and with labour, the world in no time with a word. Man cannot create a single speck, God creates all that is besides himself. But men of genius are said to create, a painting, a poem, a tale, a tune, a policy; not indeed the colours and the canvas, not the words or notes, but the design, the character, the air, the plan. How then? – from themselves, from their own minds. And they themselves, their minds and all, are creatures of God: if the tree created much more the flower and the fruit.
– Gerard Manly Hopkins, from The Principle or Foundation: An Address Based on the Opening of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola
This is the limitation of our ability to create. There is something fundamental, and we are not it. As one attempting to write a novel I found the most poignant moments in the repeated “epiphanies” experienced by Caden: he continually states, “I know how it’s going to end now.” I cannot count how many times I have thought and/or said this, only to find that was not the end but just the gateway into the next stage.
Not only is our creative ability limited in terms of production, but our time and capacity to move to that next stage is a thing often passed on to another. Caden relinquishes more and more creative control to others, to actors, to outside voices. This is the fate of all creation (even God’s to some extent, though this is done so willfully and in our case it is often not), whether it is a critic (such as myself) interpreting a movie into their own image, or a reader having a book become a part of their life in a way the author never intended (both good and bad instances have been known to occur).
When this happens we do not simply wonder if we lost our voice, or had it usurped by others, we wonder if it was ever even ours to begin with. In a sense these creations take on a life of their own as they fuse with the minds and hearts of others.
To Know and Be Known
This relates incredibly to the Hebrew word Yada which means to know. Often we understand this as the deepest form of sexual congress (or in crude jokes: I knew her… in the biblical sense), but it is more than that; it is the very literal essence of full knowledge (not just carnal, but spiritual; a knowledge of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos fused) of an other. This is the picture of God walking with Adam and Eve in Genesis. This is a thing lost that we are (whether aware or unwittingly) constantly in pursuit of regaining – not to mention that this is also God’s pursuit of man, a desire to regain and restore our Yada with His (hence all the bridegroom and wedding imagery).
Art, our creation, is an extension of this. We seek to be known in a way that words and occupying time and space together do not always accomplish. Unfortunately, in our Fall, this may not occur, but when it does – when we connect with somebody else’s creation in this way – we are overcome by its beauty because we catch a glimpse of that moment when all masks and pretense fall away and we see our true faces.
Although Synecdoche “misses this” it also reaches this point more than any other movie I can think of at this time (maybe Tree of Life, or Babette’s Feast comes close, but neither as raw as Synecdoche). That is why this is such a melancholy movie for me… it seems so close, in its pursuit of truth, to touching THE Truth, but so distant from it in the same breadth.
Fitting considering synecdoche is defined as: a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in Cleveland won by six runs (meaning “Cleveland’s baseball team”).