Post Millennial Malaise 15: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In Which We Met on Montauk

As elucidated through the previous articles in this series the 2000’s were a boon for a certain style of indie film. The look and aesthetic of the previous decade was ebbing in favor of something newer, quirkier, and dare I say it twee. The success of people like Wes Anderson and a smattering of Wes Anderson imitators lead to an explosion of a certain new type of indie style. One that favored mannered relationship dramedies with aggressive stylization and Pitchfork approved soundtracks. One that helped cement the conceptual framework of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, even if it has yet to be named. So it’s surprising that in the heart of this moment, arguably at its critical and commercial peak, that a movie comes along and lets all the air out of those tropes.

I don’t think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was intended to feel like such a retort. Indeed the seed of the idea was brewing since the late 90’s, but the combination of director Michel Gondry’s eccentric visualization and Charlie Kaufman’s mind plumbing script did something that prodded the genre in a manner that makes many similarly hued movies feel weaker in comparison. They managed to transform the archetypes of a twee relationship in something greater than mere concepts. Imbuing ideas with a humanity that a great deal of these stories lack.

So what do we have that fills out these sketches. Well Joel (Jim Carrey) is spending a lonely Valentines Day on the beach when he happens to catch a glimpse of Clementine (Kate Winslet). The two hit it off on the train ride home, and quickly become infatuated. Unfortunately the two were already in a relationship, and had their memories of the disintegrating romance erased as things spiraled out towards the end. With the help of memory fixers Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood), Mary (Kirsten Dunst), and Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who all connive to help people lose their most painful memories. However Joel, while his mind is being zapped, realizes that he doesn’t want to lose his past. He fights, and fails, to keep Clementine in mind.

What is fascinating about Eternal Sunshine is how it uses the contemporaneous indie aesthetic to cut through much of cruft that encumbered similar projects. When we talked about Garden State I mentioned how many directors use quirk to create an emotional bubble that could be cathartically popped at some point in the story to revel in the trueness of the moment. Here we have an inverse construction. The film starts in a dreary naturalistic manner before swirling into the life of the mind, conjuring phantasmagoric dreamscapes that both amuse and terrify.

Gondry is careful when he employs such whimsy. This is a story about acute emotions, and pushing too much too fast can throw the whole thing off. So instead of blasting the viewer with perfectly constructed images from frame one (a move that Anderson or Braff most definitely took) he filters the dream logic at first through the achingly mundane. A train, a beach, a bookstore, nothing mind blowing. It isn’t till the iconic shot of Joel and Clementine on a frozen river does the visual dynamism begin to sneak in before fully blooming into a film of firecracker directing.

Indeed we get a kind of in media res approach that situates the beginning of the movie at the end of the story, but in a fashion that makes it seem like the beginning. This recursive cycling of the movie hits on an important theme in of itself. We fall for people of a certain type even if we aren’t aware of it. Drawn to personalities and details that inform our actions down to a subconscious level. Even though we know the relationship between Joel and Clementine is doomed to fail they are perfect for each other at the start of a story. His creative recalcitrance versus her ebullient activity. Polarities that in a classic rom-com would balance out perfectly.

Despite having both romantic and comedic elements, Eternal Sunshine ardently refuses to fall into the boxes presented by what could be expected genre tropes. It has a meet cute that isn’t a meet cute a relationship that falls apart in reverse, and a come together at the end that doesn’t promise grand love, but the possibility of more heartbreak and uncertainty. It’s a surface level sheen that covers up a devastating center.

Kaufman and Gondry seem keenly aware that they are maneuvering oh so close to these cliches, and every time they approach them they swerve to make sure that things are balanced out to cut the quick of the emotions presented. We do get to see that the toxicity of the relationship Joel and Clementine had was not a one way street. They both have barbs and bad actions directed for each other that are buried in obvious personality quirks. This isn’t the story of a man trying to fix a woman, but the clawing need for companionship that lurks at the bottom of all of our hearts. Such bitter recriminations are then fought with genuinely moving invocations of finding someone who makes your life brighter, even if it can’t last. A gauzy and hallucinatory spell that weaves through our memories and moments to conjure an image that we wish could keep, but slips away like so much water and sand.

This grounding does what Clementine so clearly states. She, “isn’t a concept.” People aren’t projects or pure archetypes that you can constantly work to fix or change. They are simply people. This premise is expanded upon with the cadre of memory techs that demonstrate that personality and not pure action is as informative on relationships. Patrick, being a total creep, uses his position as a memory eraser to pursue Clementine. Rooting around in Joel’s ephemera to pull one over on her. It just doesn’t work, Patrick can say all the right things, use all the memories ripped from Joel, but he is a different person who can’t force the issue at hand.

The same thing is true for Mary and Howard. It’s a pungent sub story that highlights the concept of erasing memories is in itself bad and unhelpful. Yes it may remove immediate pain, but it will cause regression and denial of reality. Howard notes that the process is like a heavy night of drinking, yet that’s something we try to avoid. Getting black out drunk might let one lose some bad thoughts, but in the longterm it’s very damaging. When Mary discovers that her memories of the relationship with Howard have been erased she realizes the whole thing is a sham. She can’t move her life forward until her feelings have been actually resolved.

Thus we get the truly heartrending conclusion of the film Joel and Clementine faced with their harshest words for each other decide, mutually, to restart their relationship. Clementine warns, “I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.” Still the two, with tears in eyes, and hushed okays, reconfirm the past life they lost.

It’s because on some level we know they are doomed. Gondry and Kaufman know this and simply lay out that maybe it’s okay if these things fail. That the relationships we have, and the bonds we forge are not worth total removal no matter how painful. You can’t deny the past to move forward, you have to acknowledge what has happened. In a way this concept sinks in deep with the moment Eternal Sunshine was made. This isn’t a movie about the socio-political moment in any tangible way, but there’s a feeling, that no matter how much we could wish what has happened previously we can’t. No matter the outcome one must live with what has been done.

Odds and Ends

  • This is not the first collaboration between Gondry and Kaufman. Indeed that would be Gondry’s debut feature Human Nature. That movie is the true black sheep of Kaufman’s career, and it’s surprising that the writer and director were able to move past it to produce the high peak of both of their filmographies.
  • Out of all the music video maestros turned movie directors Gondry has had the most uneven run. Yes he has one masterpiece, but everything else is lumpy. There’s fun to be had with things like The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind, but there are also complete bombs like The Green Hornet.
  • However I still think Gondry is the best of the cadre of music video directors who took off in the 90’s. His work on stuff like “Around the World,” “Sugar Water,” “Let Forever Be,” and “Come into My World” are still suitably jaw dropping.
  • Kate Winslet was nominated for an Academy Award here, and I’m wondering if the Academy ever looks back and regrets not just giving it to Winslet now instead of blowing all her good will on The Reader.
  • It’s a tie in my mind whether this or The Truman Show is Carrey’s best performance. Though I slightly prefer the film of Eternal Sunshine, I think Truman allows Carrey to stretch more.

Next week we begin a short look into some war movies that tried to grapple with current moment, and mostly failed.

May 6: Jarhead

May 13: In The Valley of Elah

May 20: Lions for Lambs