Aaron DiManna
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The Significance of Driving in ‘Synecdoche New York’

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A city highway timelapse photo
Photo: pxfuel via DCMA

Media isn’t just a way to pass the time; it can also be a tool for self-reflection and a way to address the harsh truths of life. The same can be said of driving. One of my favorite movies of all time, “Synecdoche New York,” exemplifies this idea in a near-perfect way.

A few quick warnings. Themes in “Synecdoche New York” aren’t for the faint of heart, and occasionally veer dangerously close to nihilistic. If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t watch the embedded video below. On a lighter note, both the clip of the film and the article as a whole will include spoilers.


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The backstory

In order to understand this representation of catharsis, you first need to understand the filmmaker’s intentions, or at least my interpretation of them. At its core, “Synecdoche New York” is meant to be a distillation of the collective human experience. We were all born, we’ve all experienced happiness, we’ve all experienced pain, and we’ve all struggled with what that means to us as individuals. In the same sense, we all drive — for one reason or another.

Oxford’s Lexico.com defines a synecdoche as “a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.” For example, people often refer to their cars as their “wheels,” even though that’s just one part of the vehicle.

By the time the video starts, we’ve metaphorically walked alongside the protagonist, Caden Cotard, for the better part of his life. I’ll spare you the details, but by now, he’s lost family, friends, lovers, and, to some extent, his own identity.

The context

With that context in mind, watch — or rewatch — the video above, and consider the following quotes.

 “This is everyone’s experience, every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.”

 “… you think only about driving. Not coming from any place, not arriving 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.

The synecdoche of driving

Considering the weight of the topic at hand — and factoring in the symbolic relevance — there are a few things to consider.

The most relevant idea is the concept that “everyone is everyone,” and that the “specifics hardly matter.” In relation to driving, it’s worth remembering that while you’re on the road, your safety and others’ safety are entwined, meaning that if you drive recklessly — or if someone else does — everyone is at risk. The part is part of the whole

There’s also a hugely cathartic element to driving that doesn’t have to be dour in nature. I’ll confess to taking afternoon drives as a way to unwind, and yes, as a way to count off time. I don’t need to have a destination.

Sometimes, flipping a coin to see which way I’ll turn, and adopting the “not coming from any place, not arriving at any place” philosophy gives me an opportunity to see the trees for the forest, not the other way around.


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