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.
Speed and socio-cultural critique
Great example, James, of how cinematic speed can be productively linked to socio-political/ cultural critique. It's a good counterpoint to the idea of slow cinema as being more politically attuned to the world. I was wondering if there are other examples of films from this time period that do a similar thing, in terms of the kind of supersonic interplay you describe?
Speed, montage, critique
A really thought provoking question, Tanya! My briefly-considered feeling is, no, not in the way Kaufman does here. It does in many ways relate to an authorial style. For example, a notably similar, weird editing pattern recurs in Eternal Sunshine, but Synecdoche's more avowed concern with one's struggle for artistic/social agency seems to attach the frenzied time passing (in the film) to the contemporary, middle class, Western experience, folding in all those bourgeois clichés for comic (but nonetheless, critical) measure. One sequence that does come to mind from recent years is the opening credits sequence from World War Z (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQaSS1_EnI0), which rapidly moves through a number of real-world ecological catastrophes and counterbalances them with scenes from everyday life in a propagandistic manner, through similarly supersonic but very different visual means. In spite of the difference in style and effect, it is striking how both rely on an increasingly high speed to foreground the 'out of control', too much/too fast, unbearability of everyday life.
This is great, James (and one of my favourite films!). This scene is very intriguing because, in addition to the fast pace of the visual and sonic montage that you perfectly describe, it still conforms to an extent to the principles of continuity editing. But while continuity editing is often employed to disguise the fragmentation of shots and give the illusion that a scene is spatiotemporally continuous, here it is used to convey (almost imperceptibly) the passing of time in a way that reinforces its monotony over a month. So would you say that continuity editing is being here subverted from within?
Thank you Tiago. You raise an essential point. That's precisely how I see editing functioning throughout the film. Antagonising from within that classical mode (rather than stepping outside of it more radically, like some others working adjacent to Hollywood) allows him to stage, then intensify (and therefore thwart) its illusion of spatiotemporal harmony. This, I think, reflects a narrative that is all about staging then thwarting a number of conventions (from authorship, to family, to sanity). It also bears a striking dissimilarity to the more familiar form of intensification in continuity editing, written of by David Bordwell (2002). The extremely pronounced subjective reality in Kaufman's films departs from the omniscient narration in the films referred to in that article, producing a quite radical shift from the classical style - even while that style is being utilised. We might say the same of Caden's play, which is an intensification of mimetic drama that escapes convention and ultimately overthrows known realities. It's a fascinating film on many levels, much of which is down to the way it repurposes - rather than rejects - the Hollywood mode.
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