Synecdoche, New York presents an appropriately disorienting formal representation of its protagonist, Caden Cotard’s, subjective reality. A number of shifts occur from the film’s initial, quirky yet naturalistic early scenes, before reaching intensified levels of strangeness. From the outset, in a space of domesticity, there is a gradual movement towards chaos, attaching Caden’s personal experience of temporal dislocation to a broader critique of life in contemporary America.
From the breakneck exposition of the film, to the narrative plotting and the dialogues between characters, everything happens absurdly quickly. Sometimes, things have happened without the people involved even knowing. Since Synecdoche is presented from Caden’s perspective, and while only he perceives things as being too fast, he is distinguished from the uniformity of others. It is in this sense that we might view Caden’s condition as representative of what Thomas Elsaesser termed a ‘productive pathology’: the upturning of affliction to asset through a hyper-sensitivity to changes in the environment (2009: 26). Patricia Pisters’ ‘neuroimage’ also makes a connection between contemporary US cinema’s interest in the dysfunctional brain and the mechanisms of neoliberal capitalism (Pisters, 2012). Synecdoche registers this dysfunctional/critical potential early on in the film through a complex mode of montage and sound editing. In doing so, a subversive formal approach to social commentary occurs, taking us from narration (being told about an event) to experience (encountering the event).
This is evident from the outset: the confusion and intensity of Caden’s breakfast table is expressed through a heightening of speed in visual and sonic montage. The four audio-visual technologies – the radio, newspaper, telephone, and television – are involved in a supersonic interplay. The complexity of their appearance comes down to the composition of the editing, which in this case is sped up to exaggerate pace and foreground the ephemerality of Caden’s – and, thus, our own – lived experience. In this way, this scene could be said to foreground the pervasive formation of a contemporary American culture of excess and consumption, making this a matter of temporality. On a quotidian level but also (as the familiar stage of bourgeois, bohemian suburbia so often suggests) on a far broader social and economic level, life is too fast to take. Without departing from the realms of classical fiction altogether, the intensity of Synecdoche’s speed presents a well-trodden cultural critique from a perspective as peculiar formally as it is narratively.