Synecdoche, New York and the Problem of Writing Realism

Spoiler Warning: This post discusses the content of the film Synecdoche, New York, including many plot details.

I recently watched for the first time and fell in love with Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. The film is heavily layered with themes, but one which stands out to me on each repeated viewing is the difficulty of creating a “true-to-life” work of art.Throughout the film playwright Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) struggles to make good use of his MacArthur Fellowship and create a stage play which will be a “piece of brutal realism and honesty.” Initially, Cotard focuses on coaching his actors to realistically convey the emotions and daily struggles of their characters, but over the course of the film his vision expands as he strives to create a perfect reflection of the real world within his expansive warehouse set, complete with doppelganger actors playing himself, his family and his friends. As Cotard’s mental state deteriorates toward the end of the film the play takes on an additional layer, with actors playing doppelgangers of Cotard and his associates’ own doppelgangers as the characters within the play begin to create a mirror version of the play in which they themselves are starring. The play balloons out of control until the viewer of the film–and, perhaps, Cotard himself–can easily lose track of where the real world of the film ends and Cotard’s play begins.

End Spoilers

This complicated and confusing mess makes the film quite difficult to comprehend on a first viewing, but it fascinatingly conveys a reality of art, writing, and all creative work which might take a stab at realistically describing the world; all descriptions must be summary in nature, they cannot contain the whole of that which they describe, otherwise they become redundant and useless. To borrow an example from the excellent book The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis, a cartographer does not set out to create a perfect representation of the landscape which she is mapping, rather she strives to reduce in size and complexity that landscape while retaining the important details and conveying a true impression of it. A person who is using a map wants it to provide a summary of the landscape as it is so that the reader of the map might better understand the landscape. But a map which matched on a one-to-one scale–that is, an ultimately realistic map–would be useless, for it would be just as big and difficult to read as the landscape which it strives to simplify and convey. Similarly, art or writing which attempts to convey some truth about reality–which aspires to realism–cannot fully and completely contain and convey all of reality itself. Attempts to do so inevitably fall short–conveying not reality in all its complexity and detail but only a ghost of reality, something eminently frustrating to the realist–or become unwieldy in their scope and useless as a work of art like Cotard’s play in Synecdoche, New York.

To get around this problem, the artist or writer must be selective in focus. It is possible to capture an essence of some aspect of reality without importing reality in its entire into one’s work. Arguably, any real thing will be too complex to be adequately dealt with in a single work of art, but an impression of some aspect of reality, or a perspective on the truth of something can be contained in a creative work. So, when creating art reflective of reality, it is important to keep and contain one’s focus, selecting some particular aspect of reality to attempt to convey and choosing carefully which details to include as a means of conveying it, much as a mapmaker must choose which aspect of the landscape to map–waterways, elevation, roads, etc.–and which details will be useful to those who would make use of the map. When this is done a single, poignant and honest scene can more accurately convey the truths of reality more potently than even Caden Cotard’s brutally realistic, cripplingly accurate magnum opus.

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2 thoughts on “Synecdoche, New York and the Problem of Writing Realism

  1. I was curious, so I watched the film for the first time last night before reading your blog post this morning. I probably need to watch it again, because as you state, it is rather confusing because of the descent of Cotard in the latter parts of the movie. Your post made me think of analogies in science. One of the basic pursuits of science is to explain reality by developing theories that capture important principles of how the universe works. These theories do not completely explain physical or ‘brutal’ reality and many break down at some scale. However, their utility comes from distilling reality down to something understandable and comprehensible yet is verifiably ‘true’. Similarly, as you point out, it seems that a role of art is to draw out some aspect of reality that resonates with our experience of reality that helps us to better understand our world, ourselves, and our lives.

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    • Cool! Glad you checked out the movie.

      I think once many of the basic principles of postmodernism (such as the inherent fallibility and incompleteness of human comprehension, the distinction between “functional knowledge/knowledge-as-useful-model” and “knowledge simpliciter/knowledge-as-accurate comprehension”) are admitted, then similarities between the work done by artists, scientists, historians, and so on become apparent. We’re all on some level trying to make sense of something too complex for us to completely grasp, and some level of reduction, simplification, or metaphor is necessary to get a mental handhold on the world.

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