“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”
― Lloyd Alexander
Life can only contain so many fleeting moments before it all comes to an end. A brutal fact that everyone must accept at some point I suppose. Few films demonstrate a perspective of life filled with such existential melancholy as found with Synecdoche, New York. This entry into Charlie Kaufman’s collection of philosophical films (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Anomalisa) unravels the tale of Caden Cotard a theater director portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as he attempts to create a play that encompasses an authentic portrayal of all life has to offer. While the entire film is of Caden’s perspective it’s natural to consider him the main protagonist, but he might be far from the film’s most important character.
I’ve read and watched many great analysis and interpretations on Synecdoche especially the ongoing series by Adam from YMS but one significant factor that still seems to allude most is a solid answer towards this question “who is Ellen?”. Ellen has a complex introduction to the story both being here own character but also being a secondary identify for Caden who throughout is often mistaken for being Ellen. While many have interpreted her to be some manifestation or extension of his personality; however, what would seem outlandish for any other film I have a different hypothesis. What if Caden is a fictional character, not one created by Kaufman but by Ellen? Absurd, maybe; but what if the evidence is there.
Preface: This theory is less about the truth but rather trying to accumulate enough to sufficiently construct another way to engage with the film. We’ll be discussing minute details of a dense film. I’d highly encourage you watch give it a watch before carrying onward.
The Theory: The world of Synecdoche, New York is conjured up by Ellen, a lonely depressed cleaning lady who hopes to finally escape her insignificance by writing a play that unabashedly carries an authentic depiction of grim reality. In attempts to deeper the raw realism of the play, she progressively blurs the lines between her fiction and reality and that of creator versus creation.
To say that Sammy Barnathan is a method actor still feels like an understatement. Sammy is portrayed through the first half of the film stalking in the background appearing in numerous scenes in an ominous fashion. However, it is not until Sammy auditions to play Caden do we begin to get to know him. Sammy of course gets the part not because of his acting ability but his ability to understand Caden; after 20 years of observing him it has given him almost omnipotent foresight into Caden’s mind.
As the actor portraying Caden, Sammy like many actors becomes synonymous with the character he’s portraying. As much as a character is much a product of their creator, the actor which portrays that character consumes that identity. As much as J.K. Rowling and George Lucas put aspects of themselves into Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker those characters’ identities have merged with that of Daniel Radcliff and Mark Hamill respectively. It’s rather odd that Sammy barely alters his appearance to play Caden and while it’s subtle It appears that Caden is equally mimicking Sammy in mannerisms and appearances. This point is more clearly demonstrated when Millicent/Ellen takes over the role of Caden and Caden again sports a new hairstyle to match her.
Sammy tries to attempt to grasp the character that is Caden by attempting to voyeuristically enter his life as a method actor would, hence stalking him. Sammy can read Caden’s thoughts because he is a part of Caden as an actor can be the driving force of a character. However, in Sammy’s efforts to understand the pain and sadness that Ellen wishes to capture with Caden does he commit suicide unable to handle the unrequited love that anguishes Caden.
I didn’t jump, Sammy! A man stopped me before I jumped! Get up! I didn’t jump.
Caden lashes out in anger over Sammy’s suicide because of Ellen’s failure to see anyone else besides herself. While she’s written Caden a Deus Ex Machina to save him from death the actor who has shared in Caden’s emotional turmoil couldn’t be saved. Ellen is offended that her personal emotional weight that she rested on Sammy’s shoulders caused him to end it all which stares her back in the mirror. How could someone this miserable carry on living?
Caden’s daughter is an essential piece to understanding Caden and by extension Ellen as a person. In this theory I’ve struggled to concretely establish the exact fate of Ellen’s real daughter. However, the film has led me to believe that Ellen’s daughter died in childhood or never existed. Time had alluded here, and she reached old age never having birthed a child.
In Millicent’s monologue does she proclaim what it is she desired in life and opens about that longing she’s missed out on:
“There was supposed to be something else. I was supposed to have something… Children. A child at least.
It’s quite possible that Ellen had always wanted to be a mother, of all the relationships explored in the films, the one between a parent and child is quite possible the most significant. Ellen with her monologue is finally peeling back the layers of deception and is going into her inspirations and muses for her writings. Her miserable marriage is what inspired Adele and her memory of the picnic with her mother inspired her to conjure up here own daughter. We see her begin to weep as she gazes outside the window. The movie already demonstrated the importance of windows when Caden insists that they construct a wall between him and Claire when they recreate Claire’s departure from the play. Ellen can only stare outwards at her desires but there exists a barrier preventing her from obtaining it.
The great writing advice to “write about what you know” or that each story grows from the author’s own experiences it would make sense that Caden’s journey is metaphoric for grieving her lost child. When Caden attends his father’s funeral, the casket is peculiarly noteworthy in how small it is. Surely, not large enough to fit his father… it goes unexplained unless you consider Ellen is writing this story with references to her own experiences. Caden’s father’s funeral is modeled after her own experiences going to funerals and in that instance the casket was small, child-sized. Olive also references her own death by stating:
“Now I have to die… I have to and you’ll have to wait a million years to see me again and I’ll be put in a box”
Caden throughout the movie can’t see his daughter as she grows older and more damaged as demonstrated by her increasing tattoo count. Ironic the one time he sees his daughter, where else would she be but in a glass box as he is unable to communicate with her. However, given that Caden is Ellen’s fiction she writes what she never could get and that is to make peace with her daughter on her death bed. Ellen’s perspective is so poisoned with despair that she won’t make this moment satisfying one. Instead this scene is the pinnacle of guilt and it turns into Caden being forced to confess his homosexual relationship with Eric. While this confession seems to be FAKE NEWS it’s important to recognize that an Eric actually does appear in this story in a blink and you’ll miss it moment.
Eric is introduced when he appears in Millicent’s monologue as who else but her husband. The confession that Caden gives Olive is not Caden but Ellen confessing. The confession is Ellen having to admit that she loved Eric, she was in love with someone who fostered her feelings of inadequacy and caused her to live a life of regret. Ellen is always portrayed as the true identity with residue proving such. Caden is addressed numerous times as Ellen when picking up the phone or by people mistaking him for her. Adele’s portrait for Caden is a painting of Ellen. Eric appears in a kitchen vaguely similar to the one at the beginning of the film and all that really is elaborated with him is that he appears emotionally distant and Ellen insists that he hates her. Given this small scene is the hidden truth underneath all the layers of deception does it become clear where all of Ellen’s bitterness has been fostered from.
To see Caden as a fictional manifestation of anxiety and self-loathing would make sense of the film’s rather dreamscape settings and logic without having to resort to the done to death purgatory claim. The way time and dates spring forward rapidly in the films opening to Caden’s ability to construct a micro-universe within a warehouse. In Caden’s relationships with the women throughout the film have less to do with Ellen harboring lesbian feelings but more that she’s writing them for what they represent. (Though one of the posted notes that Caden gives Claire could suggest otherwise). Instead these women represent three drastically different relationships: Adele an un-supportive and destructive one, Hazel a relationship built on a soulful connection and compassion and Claire who represents a relationship built on admiration and appreciations for one’s efforts. The film does a remarkable job at emphasizing the weaknesses of all these relationships models and how everyone becomes disappointing the more you get to know them.
Caden abides by rules of fantasy and is often misidentified as being Ellen in situations where he is clearly not. Caden suffers from multiple forms of miscommunication; Caden is for all intents and purposes greatly misunderstood. Not just in conversation but when Millicent describes Caden she proves that she understands Caden more than anyone else.
“Caden Cotard is a man already dead, living in a half-world between stasis and antistasis. Time is concentrated and chronology confused for him. Up until recently he has strived valiantly to make sense of his situation, but now he has turned to stone”
YMS already brought up in his analysis of how wardrobe plays a symbolic meaning in that with gray demonstrates death and vibrant colors and floral patterns being death. Millicent wears both in this scene proving that she understands the complexity of Caden the fact that he is mentally alive but spiritually and emotionally dead. Even the producers who sits next to Caden is confused by her reveal claiming that he doesn’t see it within the script. This could be a peer into Ellen breaking the illusion showing an example of her real struggle to convince producers that she is necessary to capture this sentiment with the character as she states an “unusual casting choice” and just like Caden this real life experience has worked its way into the art.
So, what exactly makes Caden the creation, how exactly do we know that he is the fiction and not vice-versa. I think two scenes solidify the legitimacy of this theory, the second I will get into in the next section about Millicent/Ellen, but this comes from mid-way through the film. After attempting and failing to meet his daughter, Caden ends up in some dump and he finds the bright pink “nose” box that he had gifted Olive earlier in the film. An emotional moment where Caden sees a sentimental gift among meaningless rubbish, he himself at his lowest. No one would blame him if he were to breakdown and cry, but he doesn’t and what he does next is rather odd. Instead Caden pulls out eye drops to work as tear substitutes as he drops them into his eyes to give the illusion of tears. This tiny detail points at a major premise, Caden is sort of a performance. Caden is artificial and cannot generate enough genuine emotion to be moved to tears. No matter how genuine a fictional character feels, they are still performing unlike the very real tears that are shed by Millicent when she shares with Caden her regret for not achieving more in life.
To be clear while the character is technically Millicent who’s hired to portray the never seen Ellen it is clearly supposed to be Ellen herself as evident by the end credits that has oddly enough has Dianne Wiest credited as both Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems. Despite almost every actor playing some sort of “other” character this is the only one that’s given credit and the only example of a character credited without being directly shown.
In the film’s conclusion, the layers of deception referenced in the “Song For Caden” as Ellen gives Caden an earpiece so that she can direct his final moments becoming an almost voice of God or inner monologue. With this she flat out reveals to Caden:
“Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this”
Not only does she not ever say you are Caden, but instead emphasizes with a dramatic pause that “you are Ellen”. Not only that but she implies that he’s inherited her traits. To truly be the authentic depiction that Ellen wanted to create, Caden must represent Ellen in mind, body, and soul. Caden even notices during this what appears to be another version of him laying dead on the table. A possible reference to a discarded draft of Caden seen earlier in the film cementing his transformation throughout the creative process.
In the end, at a brittle old age Ellen writes a conclusion that she wants to give herself. Of all the characters for Caden to run into at the end, it seems like a completely bizarre choice to have it be the actress that played Ellen’s mother. She has no real significance to Caden, but to Ellen who during her tearful monologue made it apparently clear how guilty she felt towards her unkempt promise to her mother. Watch this scene and tell me it is not the dialogue for a mother comforting her daughter on death’s door. Caden even shares he has Ellen’s remorse; he states how he always wanted to do that picnic with his daughter and fears that he disappointed her. After all the pervasive sadness, all the anguish, and depression all Ellen wanted was the type of comfort that only a mother could supply.
So with the final seconds is Caden cut off with a chilling declaration by Ellen who just says “die”. I think under the current stream of theorizing this could mean two different ending depending on how optimistic you want to be. The first is that Ellen has reached death herself and with it nobody’s work is ever finished. However, it could just be more about the death of an idea than the author behind it. Caden ends receiving another epiphany on how he should do the play, Caden was an artistic emotional outlet for Ellen and by projecting her negative emotions onto them was she able to purge them. Ellen has ultimately come to the conclusion that Caden has served his purpose and therefore his story is no longer necessary. In order for her to begin a new story, she must end Caden’s; Every time one door opens another close or how this film phrases it the end is tied into the beginning. Caden has said this statement before, usually before some sort of revision or new direction to take his play but at this point it genuinely feels as though having been aligned closer to Ellen is their little he can do to become more of her. Instead, Ellen has finally recognized that perfection is futile and through her comforting mother scene realized that she can let go and explore a different aspect of herself through another character leaving Caden in the gray of non-existence.
I could literally talk all day about each detail of this film the layered craftsmanship in all the ways it comes together makes it truly a special film. I’ve appreciated how tight-lipped Charlie Kaufman has been with this film encouraging others to find their own interpretation. I don’t want this to be me imposing this theory that I’m not quite sure I even believe was the intent of the film on you guys. I thought this was an interesting way to look at an underappreciated film that hopefully can implore you guys to give this one a watch or re-watch to come to your own conclusion on its validity. Despite it causing me to somewhat spiral into an existential crisis listening to the soundtrack writing this up but I’d love to continue to encourage conversation or interpretations of this film. Below I will be linking to some other great breakdowns or interpretations and please feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments. Thank you for listening to what this little person had to say, I appreciate your time, unfortunately this mark another fleeting moment that must come to an end.
Images and clips are from Synecdoche, New York [credit: Sony Pictures]
Synecdoche New York but done better: