Synecdoche, New York (2008) – Approaching Death via Denial

The film Synecdoche, New York [1,2] has been highly acclaimed by film critics, appearing on numerous “best films of 2008”, “best films of the decade”, and even “best films of all time.” [3] But the film was a commercial disaster, costing over $20 million to make, but grossing only about $3M [4]. The reasons for this failure are likely due to an aspect of the film captured by a quote from Film Critic Christopher Orr in The Atlantic, “It is an immersive experience, far too much movie to be fully digested in a single sitting or, in my case, even two. And, yes, that may be taken as a compliment, a complaint, or both.” [5]

Clearly, this is a film that only a small audience of intellectuals is likely to appreciate, and even for them only if they are willing to take the time to give it multiple viewings. It overflows with themes, symbols, and allusions to postmodern philosophy. [6] To date I have only watched the film twice, and will not pretend that I have fully unpacked its dense layers of meaning. What I want to focus on in this commentary is one specific theme in the film  — approaches to impending death.

The lead character in the film, named Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), feels that he is dying and chooses to use whatever time he has left to produce and direct a play about his own life. Early in the film Caden explains the purpose of putting on this play to the assembled cast and crew, “Regardless of how this whole thing works out, I will be dying, and so will you, and so will everyone else here. And that’s what I’d like to explore.” [7] The remainder of the film shows us the play being prepared — roles filled, rehearsals performed, sets being built. It is pretty obvious from several aspects of the way the film plays out that the actual physical production of this play is not meant to be taken literally, but is more appropriately considered a metaphor for preparing for death. And I don’t think much of a SPOILER ALERT is necessary as I reveal now that once the play is actually performed what we will see is the death of Caden.

So what is the approach that Caden takes to dealing with his own death while launching this play? The key to understanding this approach can be deduced from one of the names Caden considers using as the title of his play, Simulacra. This name is an allusion to a well known essay titled Simulacra and Simulation by postmodernist French philosopher and social theorist Jean Baudrillard. [8]

In order to elucidate the significance of this allusion, I am going to have to digress and give a brief primer on one of the key differences between Modernism and Postmodernism.

 

Modernism, Models, and Simulations

Modernism provides the historical philosophical underpinning for the idea that some truths about reality (laws of nature) can be discovered or better understood by building models and carrying out simulations. A good example of using a physical model as an aid to understanding a scientific question is Watson and Crick’s construction of a double helix made out of cardboard pieces that led to a Nobel Prize winning scientific breakthrough in our understanding of how DNA works.
DNA
Models are valuable not only for scientific discoveries, but also for advances in technology. Consider a flight simulator built to train pilots. A full-scale model of a cockpit is constructed in such a way that when a pilot sits in the model he or she can have an experience that simulates what would happen if that pilot were actually flying a plane. Most of us would probably agree that flight simulators are valuable. Simply ask yourself the question of what you would choose between: a) flying on an plane where the pilot had extensive prior training on a flight simulator; b) flying on a plane with a pilot who was receiving on-the-job training by flying your plane.

More generally, the approach of using models and simulation has made large contributions to scientific and technical progress — design of automobiles, jet airplanes, bullet trains, nuclear reactors, high definition televisions, mobile phone devices, skyscrapers, bridges over deep canyons and large expanses of water, etc.

 

Postmodernism, Simulacra, and Simulations

Another term for a model is ‘simulacrum’, and since that is the term used by Baudrillard in his postmodern treatise, [8] I will use it in the remainder of this essay. Baudrillard argues that simulacra do not reveal truths about a reality that is being simulated. Instead, they are used to depict things that have no reality. But, he argues, they do serve a social/cultural purpose. They can be used to conceal the fact that there is no truth to be revealed.

Once again, these abstract ideas can be made more apparent with a concrete example. Consider a visit to Main Street in Disney Land. On the surface, one might think this simulacrum (Main Street) allows us to simulate the experience of being somewhere on a ‘real main street’. However, Baudrillard argues that the actual function performed by visiting Main Street in Disneyland is that it allows us to hide the truth that there never was and never will be a ‘real main street’. A truth revealed by a simulacrum is a sort of paradox, a truth which conceals that there is none. [9]

The examples I am giving here may give the impression that we are contrasting ‘apples and oranges’ since the Modernist examples I used are primarily attempts to model physical structures while the Postmodern simulacra example I use here is an attempt to model social-cultural concepts. However that would be a mistaken impression. The Postmodernism position argues that scientific models are no different than social-cultural models in this regard. Having spent my entire career as an academic scientist, I have a biased point of view regarding the relative merits of the Modernist/Scientific and Postmodernist positions. However, in this essay I am simply trying to make the differences between the two positions clear, not to get involved in the academic cultural wars swirling around these issues. [10]

 

Denial as a Postmodernist Approach to Death

With that background we can now summarize the way the film Synecdoche, New York characterizes Caden’s attempts to approach his own death. He constructs a play about his own life. It has an elaborate set (a simulacrum) and the rehearsals provide a rich simulation of his life. On the surface (or if one adopts a Modernist point of view), one might think this approach will allow Caden to reveal truths about the meaning of his life as he approaches death. But from a Postmodernist perspective, what this approach accomplishes is that it allows Caden to hide (deny) the truth that in reality his life and death has no meaning. Alternatively, speaking from a psychological perspective, it might be stated that Caden approaches death via Denial.

Ron Boothe
psyrgb@emory.edu

NOTES

1. During the month of November the Tacoma film club watched and then discussed three films in which the main character was confronted with impending death. The separate ways the characters approached death in these films can be associated with three psychological terms, Depression, Denial, and Delusion. The current commentary is for Synecdoche, New York (2008) — Approaching Death via Denial
The other two films are:
Melancholia (2011) – Approaching Death via Depression
Birdman (2014) – Approaching Death via Delusion

2. The film’s title is a clever play on words. The film takes place in Schenectady, New York and the plot involves a ‘synecdoche’, defined as something where a part represents a whole, or vice versa.

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synecdoche,_New_York

4. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=synecdochenewyork.htm

5. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2008/11/the-movie-review-synecdoche-new-york/69621/

6. Hermione Hoby, in review titled “The ultimate postmodern novel is a film”

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/may/13/synechdoche-postmodern-novel-film

asserts that Synecdoche, New York “uses tricks that will be familiar to readers of postmodern fiction, but performs them better than any book.”

7 .The fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman, the lead actor in Synecdoche, New York is now dead from a drug overdose gives added poignancy to this line of dialog.

8. http://web.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Baudrillard/Baudrillard_Simulacra.html

9. This apparent paradox arises because of a peculiarity of some kinds of recursion (self referencing). This is a topic that the writer/director of Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman, has developed more fully in some of his screenplays for earlier films: Being John Malkovitch (1999), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). I have discussed this topic in more detail in a previous film commentary:

http://www.tacomafilmclub.org/commentaries/Eternal_Sunshine/Boothe.htm

10. For a good example of the kinds of conflicts that have been ongoing in academia in recent decades between Modernist Scientists and Postmodernists, see:

The Sokal Hoax: The Sham that Shook the Academy, Edited by the editors of Lingua Franca, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2000.

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About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2014 Discussion Films, Synecdoche New York and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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