Time’s Effect on The Body in Synecdoche, New York: Connecting Contemporary Film to Contemporary Art

Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York follows aging theater director Caden Cotard in his vain attempt to produce his magnum opus that mimics his life in a way that is too close for comfort. In the film, time is accelerated in a surreal way; within the two hours that the viewer experiences the film, Caden has aged 50 years. Although events take place chronologically, they are sped up and interwoven in a way that is often confusing. Throughout the course of the film, Caden is also constantly reminded of how the passing of time is taking its effect on his body; how humans age and how their health declines culminating in their deaths. Caden becomes riddled with various physical ailments as the film goes on, and his mental health suffers as he faces various personal problems. The overarching theme of the film implies the inevitability of time and death serve as a synecdoche for life. As humans, the sum of our life ends in our death, but death is only part of our life.

The theme of time is present from the very first moment of the film when Caden wakes up to his alarm clock radio. It shows the time as seven forty-four a.m. and plays a talk show about autumn as a prominent theme in literature because it represents the beginning of death. These few opening minutes set the tone for the entire film: Caden himself is entering the autumn of his life. From this cue, there are a myriad of references to Caden’s obsession with time, with aging, and with particularly dying. Viewers are made hyperaware to the passing of time as the film leaps forward so quickly, which makes them mindful of not only Caden’s impending death at the end of the film, but their own death as well.

A related work that raises viewers’ consciousness of time is Fèlix González-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers) from 1987-1990. The piece consists of two identical clocks that initially keep time together, but eventually desynchronize when one falls out of time and stops before the other. Using the clocks as representations of people, González-Torres shows how we as humans have a limited amount of time, and will eventually run out of time and die before our loved ones or vice versa. Caden experiences this himself in Synecdoche, New York.  The irony of Caden’s death is while he spends the whole film preoccupied with the fear of his death and tries to evade it, he is one of the last people in the warehouse alive at the end of the film. Time takes its effect on every significant person in Caden’s life, and eventually Caden himself.

perfect lovers.jpg
Félix González-Torres, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990

The way in which the body is explored in Synecdoche, New York is in relation to time: how the body changes when it ages, how death can be accelerated by illness. Within the minutes that set the tone of the film, Caden receives a magazine in the mail called Attending Your Illness, and his daughter Olive watches a t.v. show about viruses and illness. He also sees a myriad of doctors throughout the film, from a dentist, to an ophthalmologist, to his shrink to whom he laments he has various ailments and worries he won’t do anything worthwhile with his life before he dies. Caden’s last name is a reference to the Cotard delusion in which patients believe that they are already dead or their internal organs are failing. Caden worries his body is in critical condition due to his age, and that time will slip away from him and he will die before accomplishing his goals.

Viewers watch Caden age and his health fail over the course of 50 years in the film. Connected in theme is Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, an ongoing portrait photography project documenting his wife and her sisters from 1975, covering the breadth of over 40 years. When viewing the photographs in succession, time is evident on the sisters’ bodies: wrinkles form around their eyes and mouths, their hair grows gray. The inevitability of the sister’s death looms in the back of the viewers’ minds. What will happen when one of the sisters dies? Will Nixon end the project and choose to show his representation of the sisters as a complete unit? Or will he continue to photograph them with the deceased sister’s absence, just as life itself will go on for the rest of the sisters? In Synecdoche, New York, viewers watch time’s effect on Caden as he ages just as in The Brown Sisters project, however they also see the ultimate effect of time on Caden: his death.

Caden spends the entirety of the film worrying about the consequences of time on his body: his aging, his illness, his death. He tells his cast and crew, “We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” Caden knows he will die because it is his fate as a human being, and the thought consumes him, yet he does not want to accept his fate. Hazel buys a house eternally on fire conscious she will die of smoke inhalation, but accepts this because she will die regardless. While this may seem somewhat bleak, it sums the entirety of the film. We all are, indeed, hurtling towards death, but it is simply how time works on the human body, and an unavoidable part of life.

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