I’ve got post ideas for some of the deeper themes of Synecdoche, NY, but figured it might be more fun to open debate on one of the possibly sillier themes. Synecdoche is obviously a movie about the “small horrors”, the horrors that occur to a person naturally through the course of decay. Decay is an obvious, deep theme of the movie. The film was always meant to be that sort of a horror film, as from this Synecdoche interview at AICN:
…what happened was that Spike [Jonze] and I originally were approached by Sony to do… to do a horror movie, and we talked about ideas and we wanted to do something that sort of wasn’t attached to the genre notion of horror, and so we were talking about things that are scary in the real world, and in our lives…
I think that perhaps the truly amazing part of Synecdoche is that it also merits the debate over whether or not the movie also contains large horrors. The movie wraps us up in all of the small horrors, but then leaves enough ambiguity if you start to wonder about what is happening at a larger level that there is certainly room for interpretation. I shall provide one interpretation, what I consider a “silly” interpretation and I certainly have very little idea about its overall validity, but it is a fascinating angle of the film to talk about: I think that Synecdoche is “secretly” a movie about a Zombie Apocalypse, and if it is, well then I think it may truly be a hallmark film for Zombie Apocalypse films.
First of all, I think its important to start from the realization that the point of view of the film is largely Caden’s, and even when Caden is not directly involved in a scene (and I know of only one important scene where that is the case), his (and his second’s) shadow looms large over the picture. I very much feel that Synecdoche is just about the closest film I’ve seen get to a first person novel’s perspective, and much more importantly: an unreliable first person narrative. Secondly, and related to the concept of an unreliable first person narrative: Charlie Kaufman continues to suggest that the more surreal elements of the film should be examined as serious or true to the film’s reality (albeit, perhaps only to Caden himself) rather than deeply metaphorical or even facetious.
I posit in this theory of mine, that much of the more fantastical elements of the film may be examined as coping mechanisms of Caden’s mind upon trying to parse larger and deeper horrors. There is a running ‘virus’ thread through the film (“infectious diseases in cattle”), and it is my impression that the deep horror ravaging New York City through at least the second half of the film is a Zombie outbreak, filtered through Caden’s tunnel vision of the world at large.
If that is indeed the case, I cannot think of any other film that so dramatically skews the perception of both the audience and the protagonist that we get within throwing distance of real psychological breakdown from real humor. Imagine if I Am Legend had Will Smith’s mannequin externalizations actually talking back to him, if his spiral to deeper insanity left the audience questioning their own experiences of the events. I’ve got a feeling that Synecdoche is currently the closest film to just that.
Here’s a possible timeline (possible spoilers, watch the movie first for the second time, if you haven’t already) that I’ve concocted:
Early into Caden’s warehouse project an outbreak of a “flesh eating virus” throws New York City into panic. New York’s large low-to-middle ‘actorly’ class, the many in New York City with any sort of acting talent at all, seek refuge in Caden’s warehouse. As long as they put up with Caden’s stage direction they could live full time in the warehouse in a simulacrum of New York as it was just before all hell started to break loose.
Eventually the government catches up to the crisis. The poor and untalented, but otherwise uninfected, that couldn’t pass Caden’s not-very-rigorous auditions get corralled up by, seemingly, government vehicles and sent to a quarantine camp, euphemistically called ‘Funland’.
Here we hear pleas of “When will it open?” and we filter it through Caden’s ego and assume that these people are desperate to get in, because they are desperate to see great art. Or we filter it through Caden’s self-doubt and assume they are mocking Caden’s ambitions. The masterstroke is that in the objective reality they may in fact simply be (pun intended) dying to get in.
Near the worst, Caden follows Hazel back out into the real New York. By this point New York is a war torn shell of what it once was. Caden’s memory happily fills in Hazel’s neighborhood as a timeless version, but his mind can’t escape at least some of the effects of time upon his obsessions: Hazel and her house. It’s possible that the earlier manifestations of the house under fire are merely psuedo-memories backward extrapolated to provide sense to a brutal truth of the destroyed and decaying present.
Under the control of Caden’s female replacement the warehouse becomes more serious and less of the silly fun of Caden’s ever-present bathos (‘b’ intended). It’s possible that she, Caden’s anima, seeks to fast forward the simulation to the devastation of New York. There are ‘Freedom Riots’ and the actors rebel against their direction. Perhaps some actors escape, and many die. Caden himself is too exhausted, too deep in his own thoughts, to let the final horrors sink in. The final horrors of so many dead actors slip past what remain of Caden’s filters, but it is too late for them to have as much of an impact as they should.
Certainly those are the important keys to the Zombie theory, and other dangling ideas (perhaps Olive’s disease is related to the Zombie Virus, perhaps the psychiatrist was experiencing an early variant, perhaps even some of Caden’s own decay is related in some fashion). Certainly the film is ambiguous enough that this is just one interpretation of events.
It’s also, perhaps, tenuous that the disaster afflicting New York is in fact Zombies or a Zombie-like plague. I can only offer the brief fly by of ‘flesh eating virus’ as reason enough to prefer a Zombie interpretation over other similar apocalyptic occurrences. With the recent popularity of Zombie films, I think that whether or not the ‘large horror’ of the film is a Zombie Apocalypse the film offers a particularly strong comparison to recent Zombie films.
I’m curious if anyone else finds the Zombie Theory interesting.