Is Synecdoche New York an Unintentional Rip Off of Fellini's 8½?
by Will Schiffelbein
May 3, 2009
"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts." -William Shakespeare, from As You Like It.
While it is often cliché to quote Shakespeare, no words ring more true when attempting to analytically examine two films that share more than just themes and narrative elements: Frederico Fellini's 1963 classic 8½ and Charlie Kaufman's 2008 enigmatic film Synecdoche, New York. Aren't all men merely playing out the destiny given to them, taking cues and direction while slowly losing grip on one's own life?
Men simply create an artificial dialogue, feigning love and hate, all the while waiting for the final curtain call. It is with this idea in mind that Fellini crafted a work that transcends the normal conventions of film with a narrative that speaks volumes about the bounds of conventional morality, the burden of Catholic guilt, and the pressures of creating something real and beautiful on a commission. Kaufman's film, Synecdoche, New York borrows heavily from 8½, particularly with regard to its treatment of life's struggles in relation to love and happiness. So much so, that its themes provide further insight into Fellini's original work. Which themes are best portrayed in each film? Was Synecdoche simply a literal re-imagining of 8½? Pardon the inevitable philosophy and psychoanalysis, but stick with me. I promise it'll be worth it.
Synecdoche, New York is Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, whose previous screenwriting credits include similarily mind bending pieces such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. The film begins with the protagonist, Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), earning a MacArthur Genius Grant after directing an adaptation of Death of a Salesman with young actors. He then decides to use the funds to put on a play that tells the truth; art that tells people something about themselves. This play turns out to be a reconstruction and literal incarnation of New York City, replete with actors playing every occupant of the city reenacting the everyday actions that such residents would commit. This meta-referential -- or "making a movie about making a movie" -- method of conveying emotions and themes, as well as underlining issues with the creative process, is also utilized in 8½.
Fellini's 8½ is often cited as one of the most influential works in the history of cinema, principally due to its unique narrative which is intermittently joined by dramatic dream sequences which help to underscore the subtle themes that persist throughout the film. Many describe the film as autobiographic, as Fellini worked on the it primarily when wrought with "writer's block." 8½ follows Italian director Guido Anselimi (played by Marcello Mastroianni) as he attempts to create his next highly anticipated film, all the while facing pressures from his needy producer and estranged wife. However, while attempting to create his next work of art, Guido finds himself losing all interest in his own work and his struggling marriage. Instead of working diligently as he should on the film, he becomes lost in a stream of memories and dreams that contribute to the disjointed feel of the film.
These two films both attempt to portray a broad set of themes, something often reserved for literature rather than film, and convey it through a form that is relatively unique. One of the most prevalent themes throughout both films is the burden of the creative process. Creating something beautiful is a labor intensive process, often wrought with difficulty and strife. Both Guido and Caden struggle as each works to create something that speaks truth. Caden's work is something grand and massive, a play that is literally a life size recreation of New York, while Caden's wife, Adele, is a painter whose work is miniscule at best. At the beginning of the film, her paintings are simply smaller than average and still visible to the naked eye. However, when Caden visits her studio later in the film, her art has grown so small that viewers need a magnifying glass in order to appreciate the miniature pieces of art. As Caden's play is developing, the scope continues to grow as the ebb and flow of time continues. As the re-creation falls deeper and deeper into insanity, there must be an actor to play Caden and an actor to play the actor portraying Caden and so on. However, this leads our makeshift hero into a downward spiral which results in the inevitable failure of the production simply because it can never be truly completed. The final scene of Synecdoche follows Caden as he delves deeper into his own art, where he walks into the warehouse, in the warehouse, in the warehouse, passing the dark and bleak landscape that all men witness as they approach their death.
Parallel to Kaufman's commentary on the creative process, Guido falls into a situation in 8½ similar to Caden's. Guido is facing an enormous amount of pressure to start making his movie. While he spends time at the resort, he is forced to begin casting and building sets despite his lack of any real plan. Several times throughout the film, Guido's producer chastises him for keeping everyone in the dark while the actors beg for knowledge regarding the characters that they'll be playing. However, Guido doesn't have any of this knowledge. He realizes that he doesn't know anything about what he wants to create, and finds himself slowly coming to terms with the fact that he may never find true happiness in his work. The only real knowledge he possesses is the desire to create something true. Something with no lies whatsoever. The opening scene of 8½ conveys this feeling of suffocation when Guido finds himself dreaming of being trapped inside of a car. As the claustrophobia and asphyxiation set in, Guido frees himself and flies away free of these worries only to find himself being pulled back to the reality of earth.
Above all, each of the two characters in both films exhibit a high degree of self-centrism and is nearly blind to every other character. Though anyone can exhibit some degree of selfishness, these characters are unlike most seen in cinema. Caden is extremely selfish, and the viewer is subjected to the world through his eyes and his eyes only. Sammy, the actor playing Caden, reveals a new perspective on the protagonist as he is standing on the ledge about kill himself. He states that Caden never looks at anybody but himself, and the viewer suddenly comes to the realization that we've only been seeing this twisted version of reality through the protagonist's eyes. Though the protagonist of 8½ is equally as selfish, his actions only result in material loss. Guido traps an entire film cast and crew at an Italian spa, deluding them into thinking that they are creating the next big hit. Instead, he ends up denying them a realization of their desires because of his own self indulgent nature.
Both films provide startling revelations about guilt and sexual repression, particularly in Fellini's work. Guido is an Italian and was therefore raised as a devout Catholic. In one of the most prolific sequences in the entire film, Guido recalls a memory that is the turning point for his displaced guilt due to the strains of Catholicism. This recollection shows Guido as a child, who joins his friends on a journey to see a local prostitute dance for them. The gang of children venture out to the beach and watch in amazement as a disturbingly ugly woman dances. To their dismay, the priests find them gazing at a woman's flesh and carry the young criminals back to face judgment for their transgressions. The cardinal chastises the young Guido, asking if he realized that his action was a sin. Guido responds with a resounding, "No!" Despite his confession and admittance of his guilt, Guido returns to the beach seeking the whore again. At this point, Guido doesn't find pleasure in the act of her dancing, but instead finds pleasure in the guilt of a sin. The most accurate summation of this feeling is found in Stendhal's novel The Red and the Black, where an Italian woman eats a piece of chocolate and responds, "Ah! If only this were a sin!" The woman no longer finds joy in the actual act, but her own superego realizes it likes to punish her ego who in turn realizes it loves to be punished. I told you that mentioning Freud would be inevitable… The results of this sexual repression appears later in his life, when Guido fantasizes about the many women of his life in a massive orgy of love and sin. It only becomes a real issue when these images begin to dominate his thoughts. Guido continually violates the standards of his own morality, and finds himself better enjoying the guilt of transgression more than the happiness brought about by compliance. After all, he is nothing more than an incurable romantic.
And what of Caden's sexual inadequacies? One of the most obvious revelations about Caden's love life is made apparent during the several scenes in the film which feature Caden having sex with various women. The viewer finds that Caden cannot make love without the side effect of crying. He found himself unable to cheat on his wife with Hazel, the red-haired love interest played by Samantha Morton, without sobbing which effectively kills the moment between them. Even later in the film, Caden is presented with another opportunity for love and cannot do so without weeping. His inability to find real love is exemplified at the end of the film, where he finally writes for himself one happy moment in which he finally finds love with Hazel. When looking back on the two films, it's almost disgraceful at how lackluster Synecdoche portrays such a critical theme. Fellini manages to build a character who is so self involved in his own sexual fantasies, yet Kaufman dances around the issue in an attempt to convey his own lost and vague point.
The two films are incredibly similar and are near synonymous at times when referring to their themes and unique tones. Both are incredibly disjointed and symbolic, but do not squander such attributes at every opportunity. Instead, each film provides tremendous insight into the consciousness of each protagonist. On one end, Fellini creates Guido -- a self indulgent filmmaker who finds himself lost in a furor of pressure, guilt, and general insanity. Kaufman takes inspiration from Fellini and provides viewers with a character who is little more than a hypochondriac that is selfish beyond all bounds of the imagination. These two protagonists are unlike any other, as they find themselves as merely players in a world they attempt to mold. Each character, though unique in his own way, gives viewers a distinct opportunity to discover something new and real about life. Few films can produce characters so ripe for Freudian analysis due to their unwieldy Nietzchean tendencies, while fitting so well into a novel by Kafka or Stendhal.
At this point, you're probably wondering if I believe that one film advances its themes better than the other. Even if you aren't wondering, I intend to tell you anyway. Right off the bat, Fellini has the advantage of having made 8½ much earlier and gets points for innovation. Kaufman, on the other hand, has to deal with the burdens of modern cinema, specifically with audiences having severe attention deficits. The capability of modern audiences to think during movies has gradually declined since the 1960's, and while unfortunate, is the reality that many filmmakers have to cope with.
Synecdoche is largely a product of one real man's (Kaufman) attempt to create a piece of art that gives an answer to everything. However, when you reach far and miss, you still are left with nothing. Kaufman's attempt to create something so bloated comes up just short, though you have to give it some real credit for what it does achieve in the end, which is an interesting glimpse at this unique character's distorted view on life. On the other end of the spectrum, 8½ strives to bring up theme after theme, elaborating and conveying each effectively through memories and dream sequences. No stone is left unturned and no loose ends are left for Fellini to tie up. Even the final sequence where Guido is conducting his own funeral is a brilliant display of one man's final success.
On the reels, Synecdoche can still call itself an original work, but only just barely as it borrows so heavily from Fellini's classic with regard to its themes and protagonist. If only Kaufman had improved greatly upon the original instead of making marginal gains without giving up coherence and structure, maybe Synecdoche would've been a bit more unique. Instead of falling into the overly self indulgent labyrinth that Synecdoche does, Fellini instead has created a piece of art that manages to turn a selfish man's life into a beautiful painting that audiences can still appreciate decades later. If you've seen both, do you agree or not?
Author's Addendum: However, a hermeneutic critique of anything is obstructed by our own subjectivity. My insight will surely differ from yours. Each person can take something unique from the film. That's one thing that makes these two films so great. To clear the air, I absolutely loved both films. I do not hate Synecdoche by any means. In fact, it was one of my favorite films of last year. However, I do believe that it shares a great deal of thematic elements with Fellini's work. In regards to these similarities, I believe that 8½ more effectively communicates them than Kaufman's piece. In the end, Kaufman's film gets lost within itself in a confused, yet still fantastically so, mess.