I knew What Is This Light couldn't be done with this movie. Thankfully, my friend Evan Cook chimed in on the Synechdoche, New York post and put some new ideas out there so I tossed some other ideas back. Hope you'll find it takes the original post a step or two or seven further.
“While this may have something to do with the fact that I saw it alone on a Monday as opposed to a Sunday night—a film far less polymorphous than Synecdoche could have easily changed its connotation in twenty-four hours—I still think you missed it.
I do think you got closer than Manohla did though.
You’re right; Synecdoche is not a film that is, “a call to life.” That’s too easy. It isn’t a, “wise up, get-out-of-bed Eeyore, and go see all that beauty that’s out there,” kind of affair. Yet it’s also not the antithesis, either. It’s a film that—by bestowing us with the perspective of a hero who has either forever lost or never had one—champions equilibrium. A film that, through its defiance of it, begs us to find a balance between family and work, self and community, love and lust, sycosis and health, humor and psychosis and most visibly art and life.
Caden is, as so many of us become in our darkest moments (when we let one thought, person, or project get the better of us), a man without ballast. Living exclusively in the tiny, extreme moments of his life when the pendulum of time has frozen at the apex of its respective side, and then proceeding to ignore the happenings that occur along the way to its next pause, he loses everything he loves. Years pass by him (and eventually us) without notice. He jumps from one honed obsession to the next, sitting shiva for one corner of his life while everything else in the room suffers.
Take the beginning. We meet Caden when he is already steadily on an uneven keel. His perseverating over his staging of Death of a Salesman has led him to where we first encounter him: alone in a family. Although we never see it, we can presume that Caden’s unbiased focus on his work has led to the host of other problems we see pop-up into his life like the pustules and other diseases he “falls” victim to, namely his failing marriage. While his art is his overarching obsession throughout the film, an addiction that worsens as it goes on; at the film’s start he still has a chance at recovery. Adele may be well down the path to leaving him, but Olive is still there, he has the choice to fight for her. Instead, when Adele tells him she’s going to go to Berlin alone (and I’m paraphrasing here cause I don’t quite remember which he jumps into first) he cycles through fixating on treatment, other women and eventually his gesamtkunstwerk, only turning his obsession to Olive when it screams at him across the ocean through a magazine. Even then, as opposed to pursuing a balance, he (more than once) abandons his work and his new family to fly across the world to immerse his focus completely. And just like every time before and each time after, when Caden neglects one thing for another, he is punished by what he ignores.
And this is why he’s punished—not because life is wholly unmitigating, or because it’s courageously beautiful if you just take the time to look—both of which can seem true sometimes—but because life requires symmetry. Lame metaphor alert—look at it as if “life” were a patient with renal failure and “art” was a dialysis machine (stay with me now…). Without art, life is sick, unable to distill the quotidian toxins. Without life, art is just a machine, an object that has the potential to save but isn’t doing so. Only when they’re entwined, transfusing one another, are they alive. A synecdoche fails without the part that represents the whole—a car is not a car without its “wheels”—and without the whole to represent the part, it is just that: just a part.
I don’t know… Maybe you’re not evaluating what he’s trying to say at all… Maybe you’re just saying that Kauffman attempts to give us that “get out of bed” emotion and just fails to do so properly because you walk out of the movie feeling like the only place you’ll be okay is exactly there—in bed…”
I think the problem I have with Dargis' reading of the film is fundamentally the same problem I have with your reading of it. Let me try and shake this thing out: Dargis says that Synechdoche is a call to life by way of Caden so pitifully rejecting it. Even if I agreed with this argument about the film (and my post I hope clearly indicates that I think Caden does indeed engage in life) well I still would take issue with the power and clarity of the film's "call to life" and I would take issue with it for, surprisingly, the same reason I can't feel this movie the way you did.
You say the film is a call to equilibrium by way of Caden living in the extremes. And I like this idea because, though I never thought Caden was pure victim and though I realize his serious inability to multi-task and though I saw his internal inertia building building building until he's again wound up in tragedy, you really pushed forward the idea that Caden Cotard is an agent in his own implosion. So, really, a sincere thanks; I feel like the next time I see this thing (geez, will I be able to swallow and stomach it another time?) I'll be much better queued into Caden's willful negligence of everything outside of the one thing he's currently, passionately, destructively obsessed with.
But, like I said at the start, I see a similarity between your and Dargis' reading that (I think?) explains both of your love of this movie as well as the fact that I sincerely respect it but can't 'love' it. For quite different reasons, you and Dargis find this movie to be a call to something (life, a better life in equilibrium) by way of Caden's inability to do just that, but I'm over here finding it extremely difficult to learn from negative examples. I do horribly with it and I always have. I didn't include this idea in my original post but I tried to hint at it when I said, I really can't feel this movie as a call to life...Maybe this sentiment resides somewhere in the film, but for me this lesson gets lost and obscured by the extent of cruelty and tragedy to which Caden Cotard is subjected. For this same reason, I can't feel this movie as a call to equilibrium either. I choose that subjective wording carefully because I really do think this springs right from my taste, right from the way I can and can't learn something. And wow, Evan, now we're here swimming in the molten core of criticism--subjectivity! opinions! what!?!?! But really, what might work on others has a history of failing on me. When I see depression on screen, I hardly ever think Martha, Note To Self: Don't Be Depressed! And when I see people make mistakes on screen, I think That Is Tragedy or That Is Misery or That Is Trouble, never I Will Do Better. And I know I'm rendering a pretty unconscious interpretive process painfully literal with these trite little phrases, but there is something to this; At one point you say "Maybe you're just saying that Kauffman attempts to give us that 'get out of bed' emotion and just fails to do so properly because you walk out of the movie feeling like the only place you'll be okay is exactly there—in bed…" But, I hope it's clear by now, I don't think it failed at its message because I don't see its message as a kind of leading by negative example the way you and Dargis do. I don't feel these types of calls to other life-styles. I think this film succeeded! (Hugely! Impressively! Memorably!) as a valuable meditation on human mis-steps and mis-prioritization (thanks to you), and on human grief and inability to step up to the cruelty the world can dish out, and on getting so lost in so much that we end up decaying alone.
Now, I don't want the above laundry list of human misery for myself, it's true, but the fact that the movie didn't empower me in anyway to avoid it--there's I think where any lesson of being better than Caden Cotard gets lost. Here, I'm clinging to my point about Caden's efforts at facing the real world being met with the film's most poignant cruelties. I see his reaching out points, with his wife, with his daughter, with Hazel as, yeah, maybe the other end of a dangerous pendulum swing, but still worth something. Still sincere. Still the best of Caden Cotard. And the fact that these moments are met with such tragedy, well right there any hypothetical (again, I don't think it exists) call-to-better-living from Charlie Kaufman gets swallowed and drowned for me. Synechdoche records the life of a faulted human being in a cruel universe and I feel a deep urge to (with all my will for masochistic viewing power) feel this and sit with it instead of flipping it around and looking at its mirror image and seeing some sort of backward inspirational emerge. So, I guess that's just what I'll do.