FilmFest: Synecdoche, NY – breaking the 4th wall

Welcome to the yowLAB Film Festival discussion for our fifth film, Synecdoche, NY, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Our reviewer this month is yowLAB co-director Sarah Gelbard. Her review/synopsis is included below.


  • If you have not yet watched the film, it is available on iTunes and at OPL.
  • To contribute to the discussion, please feel free to use the comment section following the review.
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We hope you enjoy the film and the discussion. Without further ado. . .

Synecdoche, NY not to be confused with Schenectady, NY – or perhaps it is meant to be.

A synecdoche (/sɪˈnɛkdək/, si-NEK-də-kee; from Greek synekdoche (συνεκδοχή), meaning “simultaneous understanding”) is a figure of speech[1][2] in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, or vice versa.


I briefly discussed this film with a few different people this past week. Everyone had roughly the same first comment: “It’s a really great movie but it does drag on a bit.” I hadn’t gotten around to rewatching it yet to write the review but I remembered that was my feeling when I first watched it shortly after it came out in 2008. I was completely blown away and enthralled and confused and distracted, and like being on a road trip, the thought “are we there yet” kept popping up in my head. Finally, I broke. I paused the movie, thinking it must be almost over, only to find out there was still another 20-30 minutes left.

And even with everyone’s warnings and my own memories of the experience, last night as I watched the movie, I hit my breaking point and had to check to see how much longer was left. Once again it was at about 20-30 minutes from the end. I don’t know if it was a self-conscious cue or not but it came just after the line:

I’m aching for it to be over.
The end is built into the beginning.

It’s just one of many examples where it feels like the movie is interrupted to talk to you, the viewer. You’re sucked in to the crazy and disoriented layers of the play within the play. As annoying as it is to feel the movie drag on, it somehow feels like that is what brings you into it the more it makes you want to get away. You empathize with the actor who asks:

When are we going to get an audience in here? It’s been 17 years.

I find the most successful part of the illusion and distortion comes from the representation of the ground zero of Caden’s real life which in the movie is reality but it is so surreal to us as the viewer but so normal to the characters that you have to acknowledge that what is presented as real in the movie is already a distorted representation; something most movies try hard to circumnavigate. You’re supposed to accept what’s on screen as real, at least temporarily.

It’s like standing in front of facing mirrors and thinking that the first (biggest) reflection is the real one but it’s just as fake as the rest. Infinite regression appears many times in the movie. The map that shows the map that shows the map that shows… The monstrous soundstage that contains somehow equally monstrous soundstage… While the map requires a scale down at each step, somehow physical space always seems to be one:one even though it has to somehow fit inside the outer one. The actors are always the same size.

Dianne Wiest, who plays Millicent, who plays Ellen, who was played by Caden, who ends up exchanging rolls with Millicent to play Ellen again so she can play Caden… anyways, she has a line that I think sums up the movie:

You’re breaking the fourth wall!

Many scenes literally show the removed fourth wall, only to reveal there are fourth walls contained within, and that the scene is itself contained within another.

I don’t know if it’s possible to “enjoy” this movie other than to enjoy how authentically unenjoyable an experience it is. Which I think I did.


I have a few other points I’d like to put out for discussion:

  • What do you think the point was of Adele’s miniature paintings?
  • How do you perceive the distortion of time in relation to the distortion of space in the movie?
  • What are your favourite surreal moments?
  • What are your favourite real moments?
  • What do you think of Caden’s titles for his play and the struggle to find a title?
  • What do you think of the title of the movie?

Thanks for reading and participating in the discussion. See you next month for some classic Hitchcock and James Stewart in Rear Window!

  1. Sarah Gelbard said:

    A comment received from xbongo:

    Whenever someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I just say ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’
    and I leave it at that. I really liked the screenwriting work of Charlie Kaufman (‘Being John Malkovich’,
    ‘Adaptation’, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’). But ‘Synecdoche, NY” is a different story –
    that is one annoying movie … one extended scene of a cat scratching a blackboard, repeatedly, manically …
    I’ve seen the movie once, then saw chunks of it on late night TV years later … No!!!

    The movie typifies the “Success Followed by Constant Failures” (SFCF) pattern, something that
    has typecast Philip Seymour Hoffman in later movies (e.g ‘The Master’ and, to lesser
    extent, ‘A Late Quartet’). Mr. Hoffman died on a heroin overdose earlier this year … and
    Charlie Kaufman is still stuck in a deep funk, with his latest TV pilot being passed on this week:

  2. doug said:

    I actually enjoy watching the film, but i get the overlong idea. Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.
    My impression of Adele’s paintings was first that it was a fun aside joke about the absurdity of some art and what gets celebrated. More deeply I think it registers as caden impressions of Adele’s “little” art career that takes her attention away from him. Additionally when he takes the time to view them in the gallery and the works are seen to be exp

    • Sarah Gelbard said:

      Good point about “little” art career. It definitely registered for me the opposing scale of their art but I hadn’t really thought of it as him diminishing her work. Thanks for the comments.

  3. doug said:

    Expressive and erotic, it comes across like his finally taking the time and effort to finally realize and understand Adele more deeply.
    The distortion of time and space aside from being a signal that we a viewing a “dream like” reality reorders the memories and experience of living into its subjective emotional time and place. Certain emotional memories travel with us for years, ever fresh.
    My favorite surreal moment is either the scene on the plane with the psychologist or when hazel and caden are watching the actors portraying them and hazel gets mad at caden for something the actor said. About cleaning toilets.
    Best real moment is early when hazel directs caden what to say to flirt and is delighted. Visit with olive on deathbed was intense.
    I cannot remember the suggested titles but it seemed to me at the time of the rambling and fruitless way we go through life, sifting serially through little aphorisms or encapsulations for “what it all boils down to” or what life is about.
    The title of the movie is about perfect. Not only is the movie about a man from Schenectady who builds a model production of life as a means to represent all of life, the film also explicitly comes to the conclusion that each one of our lives is a perfect synechdoche for all of life.
    Still not sure about Eric though.

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