I don’t want blood.
— Olive (Sadie Goldstein)
“Mommy, daddy has blood.” Four-year-old Olive (Sadie Goldstein) is right on so many levels. At the moment, she’s looking at Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) bleed profusely: his head’s been split open, as they say, in a bathroom accident. Conscious and also slightly dazed, he’s moaning under the care of mommy, Adele (Catherine Keener). Neither of them is happy — this much is clear from their breakfast-time interactions just moments before — but now they have an unforeseen, shared goal, namely, his survival.
In another movie, Caden’s mishap might be comic, or perhaps tragic. In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, it’s hard to know what it is. As Caden holds a red-soaked towel to his forehead, the shot of Olive in the doorway is at once startling, sensible, and ineffably sad, her observation childishly straightforward and utterly profound. Daddy has blood (brutally, suddenly visible), which means as well that daddy has life, at least for now, a physical existence in which he is connected to and also separate from his family. At the emergency room, Caden asks the doctor about to stitch him, “Will there be a scar? I would prefer there not to be a scar.” The doctor, seeking out symptoms of an unknown condition, asks back, “Have you had a change in bowel movements?”
The exchange is odd, but mostly, it makes you recall how odd everything in the scene at Caden’s home has been, and helps you be ready for how odd everything going forward will be. If the accident that reveals Caden’s blood provokes action and response, it also underscores the lack of same in the previous scene. Back at home, the newspaper in Caden’s hands changes dates (September 22, October 14) as he reads. Distracted and depressed, he half-hears a banal radio interview (“Autumn is the beginning of the end. If a year is a life, in September, the bloom is off the rose”), while the background TV shows an animated Mr. Virus and Adele gazes miserably out the kitchen window. “I don’t feel well,” says Caden. No kidding.
Much like protagonists in previous Kaufman scripts (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation), Caden is an artist in search of his art. Technically, he’s a local theater director in Schenectady, depressed, irritated, maybe suicidal, as he hints to his therapist Madeleine (Hope Davis). (It’s possible that he has already killed himself, and the movie is recapitulating his life, unlived, imagined, or over.) His latest production, Death of a Salesman with “a young Willy and Linda,” is grinding: watching rehearsals, Caden nods as an actor enacts the car accident: “I was trying something different,” he explains, “I was crashing differently, I was crashing ambivalently.” It’s the perfectly absurd correlative for Caden’s own effort — artistic, spiritual, and, at least in his mind, broadly cultural.
His quest and frustration find a sort of parallel in Adele, a painter of Francis Baconish miniatures. But she proceeds to act on her desire for an elsewhere and otherwise (“Can I say something awful,” she asks Madeline during a couples session, “I fantasized about Caden dying, so I could start again, guilt-free”): Adele scoops up Olive and departs for Berlin, where she has a successful show and never returns. Abandoned and perhaps freed, Caden is seduced by his theater’s sensuous, brilliantly optimistic ticket taker, Hazel (Samantha Morton); and he is awarded a MacArthur genius grant. Now, Caden proclaims, he will mount an utterly original production, “something big and true,” he asserts, “Or something.”
To that end, he rents a mammoth, blocks-long warehouse in New York (which is supposed to represent “New York”), where he sets in motion a literal analogous existence, hiring actors to perform his experience, external and internal (all complemented by Jon Brion’s elegant and eerie score). These include Caden’s own longtime, self-admitted stalker, Sammy (Tom Noonan), as “Caden,” the uncannily Hazel-like Tammy (Emily Watson) as “Hazel,” and his former Linda, Claire (Michelle Williams) as “Adele.” Predictably and perversely, the show replicates and refracts Caden’s own replications and refractions: his romance with Claire results in another child, whose speed-aging underlines the lack of temporal logic throughout Caden’s show/life.
A movie about self-obsession, Synecdoche, New York spends a lot of time with Caden’s. Still, it takes an occasional detour, most strikingly when Hazel determines to purchase her own home. The fact that it’s on fire — smoke-filled, smoldering, here and there actually flaming — doesn’t distract from its appeal. “I never thought I’d buy a house,” she tells the realtor. “I’m 36, and I wonder what it is I’m waiting for.” Certainly not Caden, whose ambivalence abides. Unable to commit, Caden may or may not be irretrievably wounded by a long-gone mother: this storyline, conditioned by Caden’s decision to cede his role as creator/director to Millicent (Dianne Wiest) as yet another “Caden,” is almost unbearably corny (“I’m out of ideas, I’m dead,” he sighs, inspiring Millicent to offer, “I can take over as you”). Yet it makes a certain sense that Caden, in search of “the brutal truth,” falls back on cliché, accepting at last that in some strange, disappointing, and inevitable way, his own show/life is itself a synecdoche for another experience. It’s a brutal truth, in its unsurprising way.