Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

(Obviously, SPOILERS. One image used to support a point contains nudity. The nudity is blurred for the usual reasons of public safety.)

A movie about a director in experimental theater who receives a Macarthur genius grant, allowing him to work on an increasingly complex theater project, whose rehearsal space eventually takes up several city blocks, all part of his obsession of exactly detailing his own life.

I know of some of the analyses of this film, though my reading is very incomplete. Any examination, I think, must rest on one specific, crucial detail of the film. Any further examination follows from this.

THE MOST CRUCIAL DETAIL OF SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

The lead character, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), commits suicide before the movie starts, dying at the very moment of the time of the digital clock at the beginning, 7:45 am.

seven forty five on digital clock

His time in the film is spent in purgatory, his world formed by details of his past memories. It is this which gives the movie its title, with the synecdoche, the representative details of the past life, recreated and expanded in this transitory plane. Also, it is this purgatorial state which allows for so much of the film’s surreality to take place.

The theme is made almost thuddingly obvious in dialogue and visual allusions.

Perhaps the most explicit is the following segement with Cotard and his therapist, Madeline Gravis, when they talk about the book “Little Winky”:

COTARD
Wow. Written by a four year old.

MADELINE
That’s because he killed himself when he was five.

COTARD
Why did he kill himself?

MADELINE
I don’t know. Why did you?

COTARD
What?

MADELINE
I said: why would you?

COTARD
Oh, I dunno.

This context is key: the child wrote this book at four, with the book expanding out on his imagined life past the age of five when he kills himself. The very same thing takes place with Cotard, the purgatory consisting of a life imagined, after the point of suicide.

The similarity between these two, Little Winky and Caden, is made humorously obvious here:

Cotard and Winky poster at bus stop

When Millicent (Dianne Wiest) is asked about the character of Caden Cotard, she gives the following answer:

MILLICENT
Caden Cotard is a man already dead. He lives in a half-world between stasis and anti-stasis. Time is concentrated. Chronology confused. Up until recently, he’s strived valiantly to make sense of his situation but now he’s, he’s turned to stone.

This shattered chronology of the movie starts from the beginning. In the opening scene, Caden wakes up, and the radio mentions that it’s the second of September, and there is a reading of a poem for the beginning of fall.

When Caden reaches his kitchen, starts breakfast, where everything seems to take place right after he woke up, we’re suddenly in October, based on the newspaper he’s reading:

front page of newspaper

It’s October 14th on the front page. While this is on-screen, there’s this on the radio:

NEWSREADER
–march in Washington, D.C., today, October 15th.

Caden then looks at some news, and it’s now October 17th.

article inside paper

While he reads, his wife and daughter bustle about, and there’s an announcement on the radio:

ANNOUNCER
Happy Halloween, Schenectady.

He goes to the obituaries, and starts reading those. Suddenly it’s November 2nd.

newspaper obituaries

Before he goes to these obituaries, he goes to the fridge for milk.

expired milk

He smells it, and gives the line:

CADEN
Milk’s expired.

The milk, of course, has gone bad because the expiry date is October 20th, and it’s already November.

He goes to a doctor, in a period of time that seems to be only a few days, at most a few weeks after the sequence in the kitchen, and it’s already March 2006:

March 2006 Calendar

In what feels like a period of just a few weeks later, there’s another scene in the kitchen. Caden sniffs the milk, it’s gone bad, again.

milk is bad again

He picks up the paper. Though it feels like it’s only a few weeks later, it’s suddenly almost a year since the start of the movie, May 25, 2006:

front page of newspaper

Caden turns to the obituaries, and sees one for Joseph Rolland D’Atillio, born in August 29, 1982. His age is listed as 24. Time has shifted forward past August, just in the course of moving to another section of the paper.

newspaper obituaries

It feels as if Caden receives his MacArthur grant, a happy result of his production of “Death of a Salesman”, within a few months of the start of the movie. The letter with the grant in fact comes four years since 2005, the film’s beginning:

grant letter

That Caden has entirely lost his sense of time is in this dialogue with Hazel:

HAZEL
She hasn’t called since she left. It’s been a year.

CADEN
It’s been a week.

HAZEL
Gonna buy you a calendar.

In a conversation with Maria about his daughter Olive:

CADEN
She’s a four year old. SHE’S A FUCKING FOUR YEAR OLD!

MARIA
She’s almost over eleven now.

Caden’s building of this world from past memories is analogous to what’s given in the preview for Adele’s gallery.

Adele Lack was born in 1965 in Lawton, West Virginia. Recounting her childhood, she says, “Lawton is a mining town. The only art I ever saw was the smear of coal dust on my father’s shirts but that was enough to stimulate my fascination with the idea of markings on fabric, traces of the real world left to linger as memory.

text for Adele's exhibit

This continuing of a life terminated, building on the memories, is what takes place with his daughter’s diary. She leaves for Berlin at age four, the same age of Horace Azpiazu when he writes Little Winky, leaving the diary behind. Yet somehow this diary grows more and more entries, far past the age of four, to the point when she becomes a teenager and beyond, embodying a vision of how Caden sees her, a girl who despises her father:

The first entry read is in childish script, before Olive left.

Olive's diary

The other entries grow in maturity, a text written and expanding long after Olive has left the diary behind.

Olive's diary

Dear diary,

How I love Maria. She is so much more of a father than Caden ever was, with his drinking and unfortunate body odor and rotting teeth. I could only loathe him, and perhaps pity him.

But Maria!

Olive's diary

Dear diary,

Today I felt a wetness between my legs. Maria explained to me that now I’m a woman. And being a woman is wonderful with Maria to guide me.

This diary, left behind when she was four, continues on up to the day of her death:

Dear diary,

I’m afraid I’m gravely ill. It is perhaps times like these that one reflects on things past. An article of clothing from when I was young.

Something of a more mild aspect of this takes place in Adele’s notes in her new apartment, with the cough she had at the start of the movie persisting for decades, and coming through whenever Caden reads them.

Another implication of purgatory: the cartoons that play in the kitchen and basement. Significantly, Caden shows up as a character. In one, he is parachuting down before his parachute breaks, falls into the ocean, is courted by three mermaids, then swallowed by a fish. The three mermaids can be taken as the three women he sleeps with during the film: Claire, Hazel, and Tammy.

Caden dying in cartoon

Caden dying in cartoon

Caden dying in cartoon

The lines from the accompanying song are relevant:

There’s no real way of coping
When your parachute won’t open

You’re going down
You’re going down

You fell
Then you died

Maybe someone cried
But not your one-time bride

One cartoon shows Caden, a jackal waiting by a rotten carcass, the jackal waiting for Caden to die as well, an image of a clock floating between them, Sammy Barnathan observing silently, as he does for much of the film:

Caden with jackal

Again, the accompanying line from the cartoon is relevant:

When you’re dead, there’s no time. The world is–

In another cartoon, he is accompanied by a lamb while being pulled to a corral, a place for animals to be held before they’re slaughtered.

Caden brought to corral

The lamb has a traditional christian significance, a symbol of god or a messenger of god. It has a significance in muslim and jewish faith as well, as an animal of religious sacrifice. A lamb shows up in one other context.

This movie is about an afterimage, the residual glow of past memories, persisting and expanded upon in purgatory, the past memories now barely discernible. A suitable metaphor for this might be the faint, emergent image against a wall, which the viewer assumes is the remnant of one of Adele’s paintings. It’s an image of a man with his back to us, hands clasped behind him, looking into the distance, a dog by his side.

painting remnant

Later, this image is gone:

kitchen painting gone

The second lamb shows up in a similar place. It’s painted on the wall of Olive’s room, seen twice when Caden looks in her diary:

lamb in Olive's room

Another detail that might point to Caden’s death. His family forms a trinity, of Caden, Adele, Olive.

Three owls, a trinity, on the wall in the kitchen at the beginning, with one missing:

missing owl

Some dialogue between Caden and Hazel in the middle of the movie, about their respective families. Hazel has a husband and three sons.

CADEN
The boys?

HAZEL
Yeah. I-I thought you knew.

CADEN
How old?

HAZEL
Five. Uh, twins. Robert and Daniel and Alan.

Three sons, but she says “twins”, not “triplets”, one member of the trinity missing.

There is an actual suicide in the movie, that of Caden’s shadow, Sammy. He jumps from a height after seeing Hazel with Caden. It is a reprise of Caden’s own suicide attempt, which takes place after he sees Hazel with her family, and realizes the depth of his lover for her. The viewer might guess that these are the same circumstances which prompted Caden’s own suicide, before the start of the movie, depression over a lost family.

Sammy's death

His dialogue after Sammy’s death is important.

CADEN
I didn’t jump, Sammy. A man stopped me before I jumped. Get up! I didn’t jump.

When I watch this, I wonder if Caden’s assertion is for Sammy, or for himself, a denial of how his own life ended.

A hypothesis can be made that Caden kills himself in the bathroom, perhaps shooting himself in the head. This memory underlines his later dreamworld.

His injury right before shaving early on, which results in a scar to the head:

Caden injured in bathroom

An actress in his production of Death of a Salesman suffers a similar injury:

injured actress

The apartment of Adele’s house has a strange layout, with a shower constantly running out in the open, at the center:

shower always on at Adele's

When Caden first arrives at Adele’s house, freshly brewed coffee, so freshly brewed fumes rise from it, is out there. A memory of the coffee waiting for him at breakfast the morning he died:

Coffee at Adele's

His mother is killed in a home invasion. The blood in the bedroom is a reminder of his own death:

bedroom of dead mother

The dialogue between Tammy and Caden when they see this awful mess is relevant:

CADEN and TAMMY see the blood in the room.

CADEN
I thought someone would have cleaned it up.

TAMMY
Who?

CADEN
I don’t know. Someone.

Caden, of course, finds his redemption through cleaning.

HOW CADEN SEES THE WORLD

The world shown of Synecdoche is a skewed vision, Caden’s perspective on those he knew in his past life. He finds his marriage with his wife increasingly difficult. He longs for a past version of her, before their difficulties.

Of all the women in the film, his wife, portrayed by a beautiful actress who looks much younger than her age, Catherine Keener, is alone shown as utterly haggard and tired:

Adele by the window

Caden has conflicting attitudes about his wife, both wanting the woman she once was, not wanting her now, seeing her as this old, fatigued creature. Though the woman we see from his perspecitve is utterly callous and unsympathetic, not going to his premiere, refusing to join the standing ovation for the piece, cruelly jibing on the production after it’s over, he longs deeply for this woman after she disappears. She is gorgeous in her Elle magazine spread, and gentle in the notes she leaves at the end.

The sentiment that Adele expresses in their therapy meeting,

ADELE
I’ve fantasized about Caden dying. Being able to start again, guilt-free.

may well be something she felt, but I think it’s also a reflection of Caden’s own wants, wanting his wife and daughter to disappear, so he can start again. They leave for Berlin, and he has a new family with a much younger wife. Whether Adele was attracted to a woman like Maria is something I cannot discern. In the film, they come across as utterly shrewish, nasty creatures, so cruel you take much of it as Caden’s distorting perspective. The viewer notes another detail of the distortion: Maria somehow acquires a german accent as the film progresses. Another is that the poem read on the radio at the beginning is by Rainer Maria Rilke, the name transferred from there to this character.

What happens to Olive is a parent’s nightmare of what takes place when one loses custody of one’s child. Olive becomes a tattooed stripper and the lover of his wife’s partner. Again, this is very much Caden’s projection. Tellingly, the voice heard in the beginning on the radio becomes the adult Olive’s voice.

A pattern emerges as you watch the movie, with almost every woman exposing her cleavage or leg. This, again, is Caden’s own emphasis.

Hazel

Maria

Madeline

As Hazel grows older, a younger substitute comes in, and Caden sleeps with her. The dialogue is something like that willed by Caden. She is casual about nudity, casual about sleeping with this much older man. There are no details as to why she would want to sleep with him, it is only an act desired by him in this dreamworld.

TAMMY
Where are you going to sleep?

CADEN
The living-room couch.

TAMMY
Don’t you want to sleep with me? It’s just sex.

CADEN
Okay. If you think it’s okay.

Tammy nude

The only exceptions to this sexualized perspective are Adele, his new wife Claire, Millicent, and Ellen. His view of Adele has already been discussed. Claire is made into an acolyte, a devotee to a religious cause. That Millicent and Ellen are women older than the original age of the character, not women he sees as potential mates, is important: he’ll grow in empathy with Ellen not out of any sexual desire, but a genuine dissolving of his own self.

At the same time that certain physical aspects of these women are emphasized, Caden’s vision emphasizes the price to be paid, the exertion to look good. This comes through emphatically with Madeline Gravis, a very stylish woman with very beautiful legs. Her heels highlight these very attractive legs, but there is a problem: the straps are so tight as to cause rashes and blisters. This also undercuts her rather simple philosophy: behind her relaxed, successful professional exterior is a certain amount of physical pain1.

Madeline's feet

Madeline's feet

Madeline's feet

A counterpoint to Caden’s vision is Adele’s work. While Caden’s grows larger and more encompassing of the world, Adele’s gets smaller. Caden is imprisoned in his solipsism, his reconstruction and extension of the past, while the very underlying reality of these women recedes and diminishes.

looking at Adele's paintings

painting of Adele

A final note on how the vision of these women is very much tied to Caden’s perspective. There is the name of the hotel where Caden commits suicide. I do not think its name is arbitrary.

tethered maiden hotel

The tethered maiden hotel.

HAZEL AND CLAIRE

A focus for criticism and analysis of the film is death, but an equal and important theme is women, and how men relate to women. Other than Caden and Sammy, all the major parts are female. After Adele leaves, Caden moves between two mates, a woman who works at the theater’s box office, Hazel, and an actress, Claire.

They are set up as contrasts, both having several strong distinct qualities.

Hazel

Hazel is earthy, sexually aggressive, and perceived by Claire and Caden as slightly prole, a woman in her thirties who still works the theater box office, who has never heard of Franz Kafka’s The Trial until recently. She, ultimately, is the better match for Caden, though he moves away from her, because she is of a different economic and cultural class, because Caden seems to have mixed feelings of female sensuality, which Hazel is unabashed about. The women in this world display their cleavage and leg in ways that seem incongruous, unnatural to their character, so it feels as if this is something he wants. Yet each moment, he shies away from the sexual moment, and he ends up with Claire, the most chaste in appearance of the women he’s attracted to.

Claire

The first thing I think of with Claire is with regard to her name, Clair, french for clear, she’s a blank, a tabula rasa, a possible necessary condition to be a successful actress.

She uses phrases she doesn’t quite know the wrong way. There is nothing wrong with this, there are always things we don’t know, but whereas Hazel admits to not having heard of The Trial, Hazel doesn’t admit to not knowing the meaning of Freudian slip:

CLAIRE
Well, it was nice meeting you. Oh, God, did I just say “meeting”? I’m sorry. I’m so stupid.

CADEN
Slip of the tongue, is all.

CLAIRE
Yeah, it’s a Freudian slip, right?

CADEN
I don’t know how it’s Freudian.

CLAIRE
To meet, you know? Like, to meet.

CADEN
Oh.

Perhaps the quality that Caden most values in her is a a wide-eyed devotion that’s something like a disciple has for the leader of a political or religious movmeent, who has a blind optimism in this man’s abilities:

CLAIRE
It’s brilliant. It’s everything. It’s Karamazov.

CLAIRE
I’m so excited.

CADEN
Really? Why?

CLAIRE
Because I think that it’s brave. And I just feel like I’m gonna be part of a revolution. I keep thinking about Artaud, Krapp’s Last Tape, you know, and Grotowski, for chrissake.

CADEN
I don’t know what I’m doing.

CLAIRE
But that’s what so refreshing. Knowing that you don’t know is the first and the most essential step to knowing, you know?

There is a synchronicity of interests in the relationship between the two, the usual one between a director and a beautiful actress. He gives her the possibility of a coveted role, she gives him confidence, an attractive woman affirming every decision he makes.

Claire’s encouragement of Caden’s introspction, his mad project to construct a detailed recreation of his own life, ultimately seals him off from others. His path out of purgatory is entirely in the opposite direction, through the submersion of his own self, becoming Ellen Bascomb.

The movie gave a hint that this is the wrong path very explicitly through Claire’s back tattoo:

back tattoo of devil

An image of a man of wealth and taste.

In contrast, Hazel is considered Caden’s ideal match, though Caden turns away from this. The movie is shown almost always from Caden’s perspective, with him on-screen. The only exception given is for Hazel, who, in brief moments, is followed by the camera, with Caden offstage. It’s an open question for me whether she’s a fellow member of purgatory, someone in stasis, waiting for release, or another recreation of Caden’s past memories. She moves into a house that is always on fire, she stays in a place waiting for the point of death. There’s a line in the dialogue with the realtor that stands out for me:

HAZEL
I’m just really concerned about dying in the fire.

REALTOR
It’s a big decision how one prefers to die.

How one chooses to die suggests a voluntary preference that is lacking in a natural death, that’s only available to the suicide. After Adele, Hazel is the woman Caden is most attracted to, their long delayed sexual coupling a union of souls, long past the erotic drives of youth2. Only after they finally sleep together does Hazel die, and Caden starts his transformation into Ellen Bascomb.

THE POEM AT THE BEGINNING

The one that’s read on the radio is “Autumn Day” by Rainer Maria Rilke. Here it is in full, translation by Stephen Mitchell, courtesy of web site po-‘i(-tre-.

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Only the last third is quoted, and apt for Caden’s existence. He has perhaps committed suicide in grief over losing his family in a separation. The world he forms from his memories is one where his wife is a malicious creature who’ll leave him, and his daughter will end up a tattooed stripper as a result. He wanders the city streets alone, reads and writes long letters to his absent wife in her new apartment.

The flurostatin ad on TV is briefly interrupted by an image of Caden, just in the poem, wandering alone about desolate smoke. It might be said that this is what he does throughout the movie, roaming endlessly in purgatory, enshrouded in illusion that he’s still alive.

Caden wanders alone

Caden wanders alone

THE DOCTORS

The movie is very much about the disconnect between the various characters, with the focus on Caden’s inability to see outside himself. There is further emphasis given to this in the portrayal of the three doctors, all of whom are cold, nasty, utterly without sympathy for Caden at a time when he most needs it, as a patient suffering great illness.

The maladies all begin after the episode in the bathroom, which might be a projection of his own suicide. The decay which sets in is a kind of rapid entropy, this whole world an unsustainable creation of past memories, doomed to collapse, his body exhibitng this in physical symptoms.

first doctor

CADEN
Will there be a scar?

DOCTOR
Probably. It looks like a mud flap.

CADEN
I prefer there not to be a scar.

DOCTOR
Yeah.

Man in another bed is crying in pain.

DOCTOR
That fellow is annoying. He’s in here every week, like clockwork.

second doctor

CADEN
Thanks for getting me in right away.

DOCTOR doesn’t look up, keeps looking through notes.

CADEN
Was it the bump to the head?

DOCTOR looks up briefly.

DOCTOR
No.

DOCTOR goes back to notes, then answers again.

DOCTOR
Could be, but I think we need to get you to a neurologist.

CADEN
DOCTOR
Just for a look-see. The eyes are part of the brain, after all.

CADEN
No, that’s not true, is it?

DOCTOR
Why would I say it if it weren’t true?

CADEN
It doesn’t seem right.

DOCTOR
Like morally correct, or “right” as in accurate?

CADEN
I don’t know. Accurate, I guess?

DOCTOR
Interesting.

The mis-hearing of what specialist he should go to points, I think, what feels like utterly arbitrary recommendations by the doctors, and what he identifies as the true point of illness. He’s just suffered a head injury, but he is to go to an opthamologist, not a neurologist, as he hears. He has issues with his eyes, but he is now told to go a neurologist, though he hears urologist, since he continues to have issues with his bowel movements throughout the movie.

third doctor

DOCTOR
You’ve had a seizure of sorts.

CADEN
– What does that mean?

DOCTOR
Seems to be some synaptic degradation, fungal in origin.

CADEN
Autonomic functions are going haywire.

DOCTOR
You’ll lose your ability to salivate, cry, et cetera.

CADEN
Is it serious?

DOCTOR
We don’t know. But, yes. We’ll get you enrolled in some biofeedback program. Maybe you can learn some sort of manual override.

The relationship of a doctor giving pronouncements on high to the patient is replicated in Caden’s notes to his actors, a diktat on what to do in his lunatic unending project.

SAMMY BARNATHAN

When Caden steps out of his house in the early minutes of the film for his mail, Sammy Barntham makes the first of his many appearances in the background, before he finally speaks any dialogue, auditioning to play the man he has followed and observed for two decades. There are two striking details of Barntham. The first, is that he never ages. We clearly see him at the beginning as an older man, bald, long trills of white hair. One might expect a natural death for the man within the course of the film, yet decades later, when Caden has lost much of his hair and now walks with a cane, he remains frozen in appearance.

Sammy

The other, is that this man is like Nebraska: there is no there there. He is entirely empty, never giving explantion as to the why of his obsession or why this particular man. He is something like Claire, a tabula rasa, only to a greater extreme. Any feelings he shows are those of Caden; what ultimately brings about his death is the love of Hazel, a feeling he’s adopted from Caden.

Sammy foreshadows what Caden will do, as Caden becomes Ellen, just as Sammy becomes Caden. I think there is something of the divine in Millicent, who helps guide Caden out of purgatory, and I think there is something of the divine in Sammy as well. He has two supernatural qualities, an inability to age, and the power to somehow be everywhere, following Caden no matter what the location, entirely impervious to being observed. It should be noticed that after he makes his successful audition, it is he that moves Caden further along the path to becoming Ellen. It is he who gives the address of Adele. Caden will leave purgatory through sublimation, by losing himself, becoming this woman. This is the dialogue when Sammy hands over Adele’s address:

CADEN
Why are you giving me this?

SAMMY
I wanna follow you there and see how you lose even more of yourself. Research. You know, for the part. Partner.

It is Sammy who helps push Claire away from Caden. It is Sammy who falls for Hazel, which makes Caden jealous, and prompts him to tell Hazel how much she means to him. Hazel’s purpose for going out with Sammy is in turn only to get the attention of Caden.

HAZEL
I should never have gone out with Sammy. I was just trying to get to you.

Right before Sammy’s suicide, this is what he have to say. He makes explicit what Caden’s problem is. Makes clear what others feel. By commiting suicide, he may also take on the role of the lamb, portrayed on Olive’s wall and the TV cartoons, a sacrifice for the purpose of moving Caden to his goal, but also to remind Caden of the horrific deed he did in the past, taking his own life.

SAMMY
I’ve watched you forever, Caden. But you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break.

MADELINE GRAVIS AND MILLICENT WEEMS

In his purgatory, Caden is guided by two figures, his therapist, Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis), and an actress, Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest).

Madeline Gravis

Millicent Weems

Gravis counsels a self-help therapy, with Caden focusing on himself rather than others and the outside world. The development of a vast superstructure of a theater which agonizingly goes over the details of his life is the embodiment of this. It is a theater which, whatever its diligent study, fails to look into or offer sympathy of those about him. He remains hurtfully blind to his second wife, Claire, as well as the other actors, who wait and wait for his orders. He does not listen to their thoughts, but instead, gives them theirs. While Caden becomes more and more obsessed in his introspective project, the world around him falls under a vague tyranny, its skies patrolled by zeppelins, its citizens herded forcefully into buses labeled “FUNLAND” by clowns, some wear gas masks in fear of threat.

Going to Funland

Zeppelin

The self-obsessiveness is Caden’s, but ours as well, our larger culture. While he struggles, his wife has found enviable success, the sort of ostentatious success of our celebrity age. She is a painter given a bombastic multi-page spread in Elle which renders painting into something glamorous, elite, disdainful of the hoi poloi: “I’m at a point in my life where I only want to be around joyous, healthy people”. This is a knock against Caden, but also very much part of the vaporous commonplace exclusivity to be found in any glamour page mag. Any art involves incredible technique and diligence, but her captions stress the popular belief of art as something that one “feels”, and as soon one “feels” it, the work is over: “When I look, I see. When I see, I paint. It’s that simple.”

Adele magazine spread

Adele magazine spread

Adele magazine spread

Adele magazine spread

Caden hires Millicent in order to play the role of Ellen Bascomb, a cleaning lady. Millicent will, in some ways, serve as his guiding angel, so it’s appropriate where Ellen works:

Angel Day Spa

Caden has been indifferent to many throughout the film. He is not a villain, nor particularly notable in his indifference to many, but very much like those around him, and very much like us. He is not malevolent or unusually selfish; he dearly loves his daughter. His selfishness and indifference is our own. One of the first scenes has each family member, Caden, Adele, Olive, each in their own world. Before reaching Ellen’s new apartment, he is asked to hold the door, casually refuses, then lies about it. In the last section of the movie, he overcomes this, becoming an entirely different character. Caden first ceases to be a director, giving orders, instead handing over the reins to Weems. He becomes a simple actor, playing the part of Bascomb. Caden has felt an urgent desire to clean beforehand, in the basement of his old house, and his cleaning there unveils a gleaming white room not unlike the look of Adele’s apartment.

Caden cleans basement

Adele's apartment

The cleaning is in part metaphorical, to discern the substance beneath the surface, though it also exists as a form of humbling, of placing oneself among the multitude, rather than above it. Eventually, Caden, like some actors, becomes this person. We get hints of Ellen Bascomb’s life, a woman in an unhappy marriage with a deeply cherished memory of her mother.

This very same memory appears in a TV ad early on for a cancer treatment drug, an ad which also features Caden:

The picnic memory we see later:

Ellen's picnic memory

THe Flurostatin ad:

Ellen's picnic memory in ad

Caden in ad

The insistently sunny attitude of this ad, the unending optimism of all TV, is in stark contrast to the necessary expected pain of our lives.

At the end, Caden achieves transcendence. This transcendence is what Caden hoped to achieve with his own theater work:

CADEN
It’s love in all its messiness. You know, and I want all of us, players and patrons alike, to, uh, soak in the communal bath of it, the mikvah, as the Jews call it. Because we’re all in the same water, after all. You know, soaking in our very menstrual blood and nocturnal emissions.

The merging of two people, the binding into one of two genders that takes place in carnal love, is referred to by Sammy when he auditions for the role of Caden:

SAMMY
‘Cause I’ve never felt about anybody the way I feel about you. And I wanna fuck you until we merge into a chimera, a mythical beast with penis and vagina eternally fused, two pairs of eyes that look only at each other, and lips ever touching. And only one voice that whispers to itself.

This same union is achieved between Caden and Ellen, though it is not carnal, and by not being carnal, it lacks this insular aspect of eyes looking at only each other and a voice whispering only to itself. Caden must fully see the world as Ellen sees it.

He has been staying in a waiting room of the building, and now he leaves it. While he walks out, out into the city, he is given a message from Millicent.

The “you realize you are not special” is not said with malice, but only a truthful note of this life.

You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone. So you were Adele. Hazel. Claire. Olive. You are Ellen. All her meagre sadnesses are yours. All her loneliness. The grey straw like hair. Her red raw hands. It’s yours. Time for you to understand this. Walk. And the people who adore you stop adoring you. As they die. As they move on. As you shed them. You shed your beauty. Your youth. As the world forgets you. As you recognize your transience. As you begin to lose your characteristics one by one. As you learn there was no one watching you. And there never was. You think only about driving. Not coming from any place. Not arriving at any place. Just driving. Counting off time. Now you are here. It’s 7:43. Now you are here. It’s 7:44. Now you are gone.

Note the time. He is moving up to the point where he commits suicide, and now he’ll leave this in-between world.

A chalk drawing on the wall further marks the time.

chalk drawing of seven forty five

As he walks toward the end, he passes books by Gravis, now abandoned, out on the street.

Getting Blissed Out by Madeline Gravis

I Don't Feel Well Today by Madeline Gravis

He lies on a couch next to an actress who played Ellen’s mother. He is entirely Ellen, and this line he says not as himself, but as Ellen to her mother.

CADEN / ELLEN
I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter. I feel I’ve disappointed you terribly.

He places his head against her, as a daughter might lie her head on the comforting side of her mother.

This very moment of being entirely this other woman give him insight into how the play should be done. This insight is what allows him to end this, the play is no longer of any necessity.

CADEN
I know how to do this play now. I have an idea. I think -

MILLICENT
Die.

It ties in with his earlier insight on how to improve the work:

CADEN
None of those people is extras. They’re all leads in their own stories.

Caden leaves purgatory by becoming one of these extras. The extras cease to be extraneous, cease to be extras.

FOOTNOTES

1 The painfulness of heels is captured well in this passage from Elizabeth Eaves’ Bare, a memoir of her youth and her brief career as a stripper:

Footwear, so often the only thing to stay on, came first. I needed a few pairs of sky-high heels. My feet had only occasionally seen the inside of a truly high heel while I was away. I had a pair of stilettos that I had sometimes worn to go out, provided I could take cabs and lean on others. They made me feel bound up and observed. High heels, like any tight, strappy undergarment, bore a direct connection to sex for me, because they made me notice them. They were uncomfortable enough that they were a constant reminder of their own presence.

I was astounded at the way high heels wee so persistently in vogue. Of all the things women can do to look attractive to men, short of surgery, wearing high heels is the most physically painful. Aesthetically, the only reason to wear them is to make one’s ass stick out. In high heels a woman sways her hips when she walks, whether she remembers to or not. Many of the most fashionable ones force her to give up her own powers of locomotion and submit to helpless hobbling. They are hard to balance in, they hurt, and if she wears them too much they can cause permanent physical damage, shortening the length of the tendon at the back of the leg. But none of this stops them from remaining relentlessly in style. Every season’s offerings are more delicate and less practical than the least. Women call one another chic for clattering around in them like geishas, while wearing Band-Aids under the straps in a losing battle against blisters.

2 A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke opens the movie, and this passage from a letter by Rilke, part of the Letters to a Young Poet collection, captures well the feeling between Caden and Hazel:

And perhaps the sexes are more related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maid, freed of all false feelings and reluctances, will seek each other not as opposites, but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will come together as human beings, in order simply, seriously and patiently to bear in common the difficult sex that has been laid upon them.

I came across this excerpt from Jeffrey Meyers’ account of the marriage of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, The Genius and the Goddess, a book that avoids the dross of showbiz gossip and the highfalutin philosophy that the blonde icon so often inspires; I am grateful to the writer for a solid read, and I am grateful for his drifting Rilke’s fragment across my pass.

(The footnotes to this post were added on April 2nd, 2013.)

All images and screenplay copyright Likely Story, Projective Testing Service, Russia Inc., and associated producers.

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