Owen Steinberger discusses stories, Synecdoche, New York, and the end of all things.
EVERY story is a journey—from here to there and back again. Protagonists learn that something is amiss and this discovery of a lack, be it within themselves or their family, within their community or consuming the entire world, is the trigger, their call to adventure. Will they accept it? Who wouldn’t?
Joseph Campbell’s 1949 The Hero With A Thousand Faces set out the model of the “monomyth,” the quest at the centre of every story throughout history. We echo the quest in our art, even without noticing. We embody it in our lives, implicitly, formatted through our thoughts, deep under the neural surface.
Our lives—our social circles, jobs, classes, politics, etc.—only make sense when there are heroes and villains. We’re our own protagonists. This is a chief cause of conspiracy theories, for instance, as the bizarre becomes believable once there’s a plausible narrative behind it.
We as human beings hear the call throughout our lives. Each day and night hold, at their centres, infinite possibilities. Listen and you may hear the call from behind closed doors, from a poster on a wall, from down a dark alleyway, from deep in your heart.
At the end of their journey the hero is supposed to have gotten something in return for their suffering. Some talisman of time spent. So what happens if they don’t? And what happens when we fail? When ambition exceeds our grasp, when we’ve stretched ourselves so far out that, by the time we look around ourselves, time has passed, and it’s all been done and said. What happens then?
Charlie Kaufman, “the most gifted screenwriter of the 2000s,” according to Roger Ebert, made his directorial debut in 2008 with Synecdoche, New York. It is his magnum opus, a towering work that ranges over so much of human experience that its affect is to overwhelm its audience entirely.
“Each day and night hold, at their centres, infinite possibilities. Listen and you may hear the call from behind closed doors, from a poster on a wall, from down a dark alleyway, from deep in your heart.”
Synecdoche deals in themes both broad and deeply personal. It is a film about psychosis, or perhaps early-onset dementia. It is also a film about the loss of a family, about insecurity in daily life, about unrequited love, about the fear of change and of death, about the world itself, and about you.
As Ebert wrote in his 2008 review: “I think you have to see Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York twice…. The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman.” Watching this film is a journey in itself.
Caden Cotard (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director who, after a successful rendition of Death of A Salesman, receives the MacArthur grant, a blank cheque to “create something unflinchingly true.” He hires an ensemble cast for a vast performance, the size of a football field, where all act simultaneously.
Stages stack atop one another, merge, expand, until the performance becomes almost a Synecdoche of its own; actors are hired to play Caden and his assistants, subsuming him into his own creation, a world of his own imagining. A microcosm of a city comes to life. “The magnificent sets,” Ebert writes, “are the compartments we assign to our life’s enterprises. The actors are the people in roles we cast from our point of view.”
We all play the role of the theatre director in our lives, he argues, constructing our worlds around us, compartmentalizing as a means towards understanding. We all perform the role of the protagonist, and others around us may be allies or enemies, mentors or nemeses or anything, anything at all.
In Synecdoche, consciousness revolves around a core of truth, suspended in a haze of fiction and white lies. Caden reconstructs his failed relationships, his awkwardness, his fears and his hopes; he reconstructs his reconstructions, worlds growing within worlds; he reconstructs himself, as a function of his past mistakes.
As in Synecdoche, we cannot escape our pasts. An unnamed voice asks during a radio programme: “Why do so many people write about the fall?” We are obsessed, the responder suggests, with “the beginning of the end.”
“It is a film about the loss of a family, about insecurity in daily life, about unrequited love, about the fear of change and of death, about the world itself, and about you.”
Synecdoche is a film that, in a sense, is ending as soon as it’s begun. The cliché, of course, is that we are all dying as soon as we’ve been born; but this film makes the impending reality of death a part of its narrative, ingesting it in its meaning.
Like peeling against the edge of a black hole, we never feel ourselves aging. We merely sense the approach, at the rim of consciousness, of a cliff face that is surely on its way, that we’ve got to prepare for, someday, but one that won’t be here just yet; no, not just yet.
Endings are unreal. That the monomyth might fail—that our own journey might not come around full circle—is an affront to our sense of reality. How can we see ourselves out gracefully if the very idea of leaving is incomprehensible? We are born with the impending trauma of death already within us.
Synecdoche, New York is an exceptional film in that it faces the manifold horrors of living, and of death, head on. So it is a fitting topic, and a high recommendation, in a climate of many endings: the fall of the status quo, of individualism, of culture, possibly of the planet, all crashing to the floor, leaving us to wonder what we got out of all of this anyhow.