Kaufman’s Reflection and Projection of Subjective Experience

In film, it is often taken for granted that each scene shown to the audience is an accurate depiction of the events in the story. That is, in following the protagonist throughout the plot of a film, the audience witnesses the film’s events as they actually occur. This status quo is flipped on its head by Charlie Kaufman, director and writer of Anomalisa and Synecdoche, New York. In both Anomalisa and Synecdoche, New York, the audience witnesses the plot through the eyes of the protagonist, whether this is done subtly or overtly. The difference created by this change in narration results in a more efficient communication of the character’s state of mind and a more relatable and engrossing frame of reference.

Typically, the average movie-goer will be left to infer the protagonist’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations from their actions, their body language, their words, and other forms of communication standard to a second-person perspective. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, Kaufman is able to provide the audience with greater information about his protagonists by showing the world as it occurs subjectively. Take as an example the protagonist of Anomalisa, Michael, who attempts to escape from the monotony of his marriage and prior life. Partway through the film, the characters peripheral to the main ones have their faces and voices replaced with that of his ex-wife. These characters also express a desire to prevent Michael from being with his current object of obsession, Lisa, who he is indulging in as a means of escape. Now, surely it is not the case that the characters peripheral to Michael are his ex-wife, nor is it to be assumed that they do have any interest in keeping him from Lisa, but what can be noted by this display is that Michael experiences the rest of the world as a constant obstacle to his obsession; particularly, this obstacle is utter tediousness and is characterized by his ex-wife. Already, a great wealth of information is revealed about the main character by employing a subjective narration over an objective one. While this example is more overt, the technique can also be employed subtly and reveal the same information to the scrutinizing eye. As written about here, Kaufman expresses time in a fluid manner. While this is also subjective, the way it is employed in Synecdoche, New York, also reveals a lot about the main character, Caden. In the opening scene to Synecdoche, New York, weeks and months go by rapidly without any obvious sign that time is passing by. This opening scene, which can be viewed here, illustrates to the audience that the protagonist is unaware of the passing of time. Days blur together as Caden moves throughout his routines. It is again clear that time is not objectively passing in this manner, but this is the perception of time that Caden has, and so more is revealed about the character’s experience of the world than it otherwise could be had the narration been an objective one. A similar reflection of Caden’s mentality occurs during one of his obsessive fits of cleaning. This scene, as well as a useful breakdown of the scene’s meaning, can be found on YourMovieSucksDOTOrg’s channel here from 11:57-14:11. What’s important about this scene is the programming on the television which corresponds directly with the experience of Caden before, after, and during his cleaning. The mood of the television program is cheery and optimistic while he is engaged in cleaning. This reflects the escape that cleaning provides Caden with. Before the cleaning begins and after it ends, the programming is depressing, gloomy, and pessimistic. This corresponds precisely with Caden’s obsession over his own health. The programming is not an objective depiction of what is really occurring. Rather, the programming is a surreal reflection of the mental state that Caden has. The audience is given, yet again, a wealth of information about the protagonist because it is quite literally reflected in the environment. Part of the reason that this method is more effective, besides giving the audience more information to work with, is because the first-person perspective that this technique delivers is already how humans interact with the world. It is a more readily accessible medium–a more natural experience–than is the process of inferring from impersonal facts. The facts are made personal, and so the personal is more clear to the viewer.

In that same vein, the story is more engrossing to the audience when it is shown from a first-person point of view. The audience is no longer a passive recipient of objective facts, left to imagine what the experience of the protagonist is. The audience instead becomes an active participant, experiencing the world alongside the protagonist just as they do. Just as the subjective facts of the character are more accessible, so too is the empathetic connection between the audience and the character made stronger when the barriers of speculation are removed. This seems most effective when the subjective experience is made overt as the audience is thrown into the emotions and thoughts rather than being left to decipher them from the environment. To return to Anomalisa as an example, it is with ease that the audience can experience the angst of Michael in the attempts of the peripheral characters to prevent him from returning to Lisa. What’s important is that the audience perceives this as a genuine obstacle, just as Michael does, and so that empathetic link is strengthened. In the more subtle usage, such as when Caden’s perception of time is that of an amorphous blur in Synecdoche, New York, the audience still experiences this passing of time in the same way that Caden does but it is not so apparent to the audience that they are doing so. In a sense, it is the same way for the main character. So too is it the case with Caden’s obsession with cleaning as he appears just as blind to cleaning as a coping mechanism as the audience is to the programming that reflects it. In this sense, it demonstrates the unthinking tendency that humans slip into in their own lives as Kaufman’s protagonists do in theirs. All the same, both the overt and subtle methods of subjective narration immerse the audience into the life of the protagonist and strengthen that empathetic connection.

By showing the audience the events of the film as the protagonists experience them, Charlie Kaufman is able to craft a film that is more informative and more immersive than the objective standard in film currently provides. It is perhaps not the best technique in all circumstances. When films are driven by plot more than they are by the development and arch of the protagonist, then an objective form of narration would be more sensible. In films that attune themselves to the protagonist and their development, it seems that the technique that Kaufman employs in his films is more useful at achieving this end. While this technique is not for every film, and surely no technique can fit all films, it remains an effective and riveting technique for those films that wish to entreat their audience to the personal journey of their protagonist.

Works Cited

AfterClapENT’s channel. “Synecdoche, New York. Part 1; The fluidity of Time.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 19 Nov. 2011. Web. Accessed 28 Nov. 2016.

Anomalisa. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Paramount Pictures, 2015. Film.

Synecdoche, New York. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. Film.

YourMovieSucksDOTOrg. “The Genius of Synecdoche, New York (Part 2).” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 16 Jan. 2015. Web. Accessed 28 Nov. 2016.


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