In Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kauffman’s wildly imaginative navel-gazing epic, the main character Caden Cotard is a perpetually ill, malaise-ridden, theatre director who wins a MacArthur Grant and decides to create a piece of theatre. His concept, it seems, is to create a world that looks exactly like Caden’s world. Actors play him and those he loves in an immense space with sets that look like the spaces he occupies in real life. The rehearsal process lasts for the remainder of Caden’s life. Eventually, actors portraying the important people in his life, become a part of his life. And therefore, Caden must hire actors to play the role of actors playing the role of people in his life.
The film is truly about our conscious effort to live life. It explores the fact that any attention given to our own existence somehow makes it less authentic. In trying to be true to ourselves, we become someone other than ourselves trying too hard to be whoever we think we are.
There’s a particularly funny and razor sharp moment where an actor walks by Caden on the immense set of the “play”. The actor is not, as far as we know, on stage in that moment, and yet, Caden stops him with the director’s note “No one would ever walk like that.” The actor apologizes, goes back a few paces and tries again, looking far less authentic and far more self-conscious than he was the first time. “No,” Caden remarks, “Keep working on it.” Before we cut to another scene we see the actor cross once more, this time more ridiculously than either of the previous attempts. The film is a metaphysical/anthropological refutation of statements like “act natural” and “just be yourself.”
For any other film, this would be more than enough thematic meat to sustain a feature length story. But this is a Charlie Kaufman film. At the same time that he notes the absurdity of self-awareness and authenticity, he notes the immensity and necessity of other-awareness. Part of the problem with Caden’s theatre piece is that in trying to tell his own story he finds himself telling hundreds of other people’s stories. In a funeral service that we see twice (once lived, and once performed), the eulogy includes these words; “There are billions of people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”
I don’t know if you remember the moment in your early childhood when this realization first crystallized, but I do. At age five or six, I visited New York City. The buildings that stretched relentlessly down the boulevards reminded me of the mirrors on opposite walls at the barbershop where the reflections of me never ended. But on the streets of Manhattan, it was not me continuing into infinity, it was others. Millions of others. It suddenly occurred to me the world I experienced, the colors, the moods, the smells and memories that were all going on inside me, was just one cosmic speck in a galaxy of awarenesses. Solar systems and constellations of consciousness came into view. It was overwhelming, and quite frankly, it was something I needed to put out of my mind in order to function. The rest of my life has been a constant remembering and de-remembering of my place in the universe of human kind.
As an actor, I’m inconsistent at best when it comes to portraying me. And even more amazing is that I am performing in the midst of countless other one-person plays, just as poorly cast.
I’ve taught acting classes where I have students do “character walks.” They must, in character, walk around the room, interacting with each other and the objects in the room. And I stand at the center of the room admonishing, “Good, James, I like the tension in your shoulders.” “Becky, how does your character react to people of higher status? Lower status?” “Good Jenny, that looks real!” I have been an actor in those exercises as well. And I find most of my energy is spent desperately trying not to be performing for the director, because my character wouldn’t be trying to get accolades for being themselves. Or would they?
Perhaps the most authentic me I can be is one that recognizes my contrived effort at authenticity as the truest thing about me.
This video contains the haunting end credits song watch it and read along with the lyrics
I'm just a little person,
One person in a sea
Of many little people
Who are not aware of me.
I do my little job
And live my little
Eat my little meals,
Miss my little kid and wife
somewhere, maybe someday,
Maybe somewhere far away,
I'll find a second
who will look at me and say,
"I know you
the one I've waited for.
Let's have some fun."
Life is precious
and more precious with you in it,
so let's have some fun
We'll take a road trip way out west. You're the one I like the best.
I'm glad I've found you,
Like hanging around you
You're the one I
like the best.
Somewhere, maybe someday,
Maybe somewhere far away,
I'll meet a second little person
And we'll go out and play.