Friday, February 13, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)


Today [Valentine's Day] is a holiday created by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.

So thinks Joel (Jim Carrey) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If every holiday deserves its own film, and every generation deserves its own cinematic explication of each holiday, then surely the 2004 Charlie Kaufman-penned, Michel Gondry-helmed hip, mind-bending comedy-drama romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is this epoch's most articulate annotation on that mid-February fixture of romance, Valentine's Day. As Joel awakens on this ostensibly ordinarily dismal winter day, he laments his doleful station in life. He stands, shivering, on a train platform, and—out of nowhere—decides to run off, and ditch the dismal daily peregrination to his job. For no reason in particular he runs to another train—headed to Montauk. He is not sure why; he is not, as he assures the audience through voice-over, an impulsive person. When he finally arrives in Montauk he waltzes about the beach, glaring into the bracing wintry air. It is freezing, he notes to himself. Brilliant, Joel. Montauk in February.

Where Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind goes from there is as exciting as it is touching, with an exactitude of detail that is especially rewarding of repeated viewings—though Gondry's dexterous direction makes the details appear like a baseball in the eyes of an accomplished hitter seeing his ideal pitch: enormous. Why Joel takes his little trip to Montauk will be explained, quite late, and very movingly, but the gap between action and motive, deed and desire, is where the picture most robustly asserts itself. And that is most charmingly fitting; Eternal Sunshine is fundamentally about gaps, in time, and in space, and doubtless chiefly in the mind. Memory for a character is itself is to be assaulted, as it has so many ugly ornaments of nostalgia for the sweet times, loathing and regret for the bitter episodes. Joel does not know it, but he has slipped through the gauntlet of a passionate relationship wrecked on the reef of apparently irreconcilable differences. No longer embittered, he is merely empty; like a model airplane with only some parts adjoined, he is incomplete.

Lost love, largely of the acrimoniously-severed variety, engenders a spitefulness that exceeds vindictiveness. Resigned to their fate, most men simply scorn their fallen idol; once where the woman incomparably stood on a ponderously tall pedestal, she is viewed through the prism of unyielding revision. Unforgiving, the wake of an untethered bond leaves a sourness mainly mundane in its projection, deep in its currents. Cognitively dwelling on every last irritating shortcoming, annoying habit and asymmetrical peculiarity, the person whose flaws once seemed invisible now is ensconced not in blind adoration or even respect but seething, boiling hate. Popular music consecrates the impulse to turn what was, at a different time, deliriously fawned over into the bete noire. Listening to “Time is on My Side” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” the anonymous women are given identities by the audial recipient; countenances that were so long ago angelic, seen now as warped by the ravages of time and circumstance, flash by in a melancholic mental collage of heartbreaking ids. It is perhaps the most self-deluding, and hollowest of redemptions—to envision the pitiable parallel existence the anterior loves are suffering through, all in a reveling of self-importance as figure of sustenance. Inherently egotistic and jealous, the process supplies an embarrassing counterpoise to the wounded.

Kaufman's screenplay is animated in its substance by the nectarous short cut of erasing all sensitively distressed memories. The concept is an immediate hook—and demands an accomplished level of filmic execution worthy of its incorporation into a narrative. Joel discovers that his beloved girlfriend, Clementine (a sublime Kate Winslet), has, in one of her most impulsive moments, had him completely erased from her memory. Having supplied her with this accommodation is Lacuna, Inc., which has ingeniously taken its innocuous-sounding name from the Latin term for a hollow, cavity or dip—lacunae typically referring to a body of water such as a lake or pond—the aforementioned hollow or dip would be in the lake. In the context of the science-fiction project, however, Lacuna takes on the meaning of the lacunae infarct, referring to a brain-damaging stroke that discriminatingly assaults a specific part of the skull-encased muscle, resulting in the debilitation of specific functions or expunging of particular memories. When Carrey's Joel sensibly voices concern about brain damage being a side effect of the process, Tom Wilkinson's Dr. Howard Mierzwiak replies, “Well, technically, the procedure is brain damage.” Possibly also carrying with it the papryological meaning, Lacuna, Inc. may likewise refer to the lacuna as an aberrant gap in a text (here representative of Joel's brain).

Where Kaufman and Gondry succeed most brilliantly is in the implementation of their fable. Eschewing the comfortable familiarity of species—both comic and romantic—for a skittishly-paced exhuming of a contemporary love story. With the questionable Lacuna, Inc.'s vaunted procedure consuming the great amplitude of the film's narrative, Kaufman and Gondry tell a backwards boy-meets-girl tale. If Joel is crushed by Clementine's hegira from him to unknown pastures, then Eternal Sunshine's greatest conceit is to move past the amaroidal angst of an eroding relationship, back to happier times, culminating with their very first meet-cute—over some chicken at an otherwise forgettable beach party—which plays out romantically as the fearless Clementine tests the limits of the introverted and timid Joel. As he is asked by his married friends about the “pretty girl” he was spending time with at the party, he can only reply that she was “just a girl.”

At a time when most cinematic American love stories are prepackaged, preheated and pedestrian in their creeping confluence of cynicism and naivete—made into suppositiously mass-appealing pats on the back from filmmakers who confuse wholly legitimate sentiment with simplistic gratification—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out all the more. Joel and Clementine are as a couple, beyond convincing; in Kaufmanesque shorthand, Joel is another approximation of Kaufman's ineffectualness as a lover, and here the seemingly always weary Joel tirelessly scribbles down notes to himself but is withdrawn and unable to openly communicate, even with his lover. Clementine's recklessness of being could not be more antithetical to Joel's laconic shyness; as he ineptly struggles to say much of anything, she is brash and lacking in self-censorship. Suffering from an alcoholism that is only partly funny because it is so unfortunately true (authentic and believable), Clementine is Joel's counter and it is this apparent attitudinal and psychological gulf that both disturbs each member of the partnership and, bizarrely, makes their relationship work. The very problem is in its least troublesome vein a complementary personable dichotomy; where Clementine lacks introspection—which she chooses to stave off with alcohol—Joel is acutely self-aware to the point of self-destructively tethering himself to all of his idiosyncratic ways of questioning himself. In a plausible contemporary reversal of the action-minded man and the fence-straddling woman, Clementine's impulsive passion finds in Joel a stability that is both warm and in its quotidian application, smothering.

It is in the self-effacing, whirling pool of details, that Gondry and Kaufman wrap the seriocomic sentiment that leaves bruises of its own. In most romantic-comedies or variations of the template, the filmmakers are inclined to have their cake and eat it, too. Flaws of the characters are presented to make them nebulously human, all the while being played strictly for braying laughter. Eternal Sunshine does not expurgate the moments and traits that are all too familiar, yet usually skimmed over or entirely absent in most vaguely like-minded relationship films. Joel and Clementine's personal flaws are made humorous in the way that the flaws of a friend slowly become a source of amusement. Yet there is a deflating sadness to this pair that is uncommon; Joel is such an emotional weakling that sensitive men will find in him shared pangs—of regret, frequently stemming from absurd cowardice, of over-analysis of the self. Clementine is, to an indefinite degree, the young woman Joel at his angriest declares her to be—tempting in her penumbra of multi-colored-hair mysteriousness and affected, flirtatious unattainability, but stunted in her own development. Though the film, respectively written and directed by two men, makes Joel the hero, whose past is the film's focal point, Clementine's childhood and personal history would make for a potentially remarkable film. The fleeting visibility of a long-ago, nearly mortal wound is carried with her throughout, and is occasionally only held down from complete eruption by her dipsomania.

As if the Joel-Clementine heartache and humorously adorned pathos were not enough, Gondry and Kaufman pack in an entire subplot of hopes and hurts. With such an ostensible godsend as memory erasure, abuse is to follow like night after day. Lacuna, Inc. is itself a warped, closed-off tragicomic melodrama with a clandestine love triangle—two of whose members remain blithely unaware of its existence, though there is a knowingness to each beneath their rock 'n' roll, pot-induced haze of underwear bed dancing and sex. Elsewhere, an unethical young man has fallen for Clementine during her memory-pruning procedure and has stolen an unmentionable from her. Not stopping there he has taken all of Joel's items that he has given over to Lacuna, Inc.—items that would remind him of Clementine—for himself, with which he hopes to seduce the unsuspecting Clementine. When an indescribable sense of déjà vu intervenes for Clementine, she runs away from the cynical manipulator—who may serve as a potential stand-in for Hollywood persons who churn out the strikingly overly-familiar pills like briefly soothing narcotics working from prosaically similar frameworks.

One of the attributes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that cannot go unexamined is its pulsating, prevailing romanticism. Beneath all of the foreknowledge and soothsaying an obviously intelligent man like Kaufman brings with him, he allows himself, and Gondry allows the film, to be an avatar for unmitigated optimism. Despite having had their minds erased, Kirsten Dunst's Mary, Joel and Clementine all stumble, through an indefatigable sense of ceaseless yearning, for their (emotionally and cerebrally) lost loves. At a time when it is nauseatingly trendy to peer into complex matters that affect humans and their symbiotic relationships to one another in variegated contexts, Eternal Sunshine—not entirely unlike Being John Malkovich and Adaptation before it, and Synecdoche, New York after it—is serenely self-confident, enabling it to securely land on a jubilant restoration. It is in that reclamation, of memory, of love, of life—what would people be, by which means would they be informed without all of their memories?—that Eternal Sunshine terrifically realizes itself, all the while plaintively recognizing the inevitable potholes in the road along the way.

For the trajectory of hate and abyssal disappointment to be reached, love must have been an occupant for an extended period of time. It is through literally viewing Joel's own memories that he comes to terms with the exorbitant riches Clementine gifted him. It is not mere cliché to achieve, through storytelling, a character “becoming a better person”; comedy, as the flip side of the Grecian coin of tragedy, historically requires characters to learn—it is one of the most unquestioned features of tragedy that characters are doomed to not learn—and Eternal Sunshine allows Joel to learn an invaluable lesson. Alexander Pope's poem referenced is itself a contradictory extolling of the more modernist embrace of ignorance as bliss. In Eternal Sunshine, it is Clementine who, like Eve, first eats from the tree (this tree literally of ignorance), but Joel and Clementine each find themselves by the end and literally say, “Okay,” to their destiny, each other and themselves. If relationships are fundamentally mirrors into which one member sees the best—including the nonexistent best—of themselves in the other, Joel and Clementine at last allow the mirror reflection to not hurt them, and to be resigned to the imperfections they each possess. As his own mental collage of Clementine unspools backwards, Joel is left, like a beggar, pleading to “...keep just this one [memory]...” Down the rabbit hole it goes, and Joel is abandoned in his own mind until Clementine rescues him, and leads him, as she had before, to better times.

34 comments:

mc said...

I loved this film when I first saw it. I loved it the second time and found so much more in it. And, reading your review - wow, what an essay - will give me more to see the next time I watch it. Thank you.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, mc, such a comment. Thank you very much, for the very kind and highly informative words.

Sam Juliano said...

I will surely return to this tomorrow and give it serious treatment. Suffice to say now though, on Valentine's Day that it is your own special treat to filmgoers. It is one of the greatest films of the new millenium, a film I love dearly and deeply. I am confident your treatment will be definitive.

I am leaving with Lucille to see GOMORRAH. Now THAT's not exactly a Valentine Day's film, unless we include the ST. VALENTINE'S MASSACRE in the mix!!! ha!!

Anyway, I look forward to reading what you say about this great, great film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam, I'll be on the lookout for your eventual response.

Have a wonderful evening with your wife... Seeing Gomorrah of all things, oh dear. Hahaha, what you say is quite funny. Take care.

NoirishCity.... said...

Hi! Alexander
I'am so sorry! to say, that I have never watched this film, but your review is very detailed and well written as usual.Which of course will send me in the direction of Amazon.com to seek this film out and throw it in the cart!...Btw, Happy Valentines Day!...To you and all the readers, of Coleman Corner in Cinema.
Alexander, Did you just sign off with the the words "Take Care"... anyways,
Like the Animoto Guys, say
Take Care!
DarkCityDame ;-D

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Dark City Dame and a very heartfelt happy Valentine's Day to you!

I'm happy to read that you will seek this film out after reading my review.

Thank you again for the exceedingly kind words.

nick plowman said...

This is still one of my favourite films of all time. Totally. Loved reading that, and after I did, I rewatched the film. Its a Valentines ritual in my house.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Nick! Yes, to briefly risk alienating anyone much older (all of whom I have the utmost respect for) this is a film that definitely feels like it is for us, and it was so wonderful to see so many critics line up for it when it was released. I'll always remember the experience of seeing it for the first time five years back.

I hadn't seen it in several years, but when I had the idea of examining it for Valentine's Day here, I decided to watch it again just beforehand. I think it will be considered an essential component to Valentine's Day--and it clearly has already become that for you. I think this year, it has for me as well. Cheers to you!

Sergei Smirnov said...

Beautiful and passionate review, Alexander. I love that you wrote so extensively about a contemporary film that is so emotional. Very appropriate. Your passages on how painful lost love is hurts. It's just too damned true.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, thank you, Sergei. Very touching.

And again, just to reiterate from my last post--I greatly love all of the less young people who visit and comment at CCC! Almost all of my best friendships are with older people! Haha. :)

ben said...

Magisterial. Truly, Mr. Coleman.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Ben. You are too kind.

me said...

if there is no solution there is no problem.

Sam Juliano said...

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is a dizzying and eclectic film that is a venerable blend of science-fiction, psychological thriller and romance. In the end, it's a haunting exploration of the nature of memory of love. I think you broach this directly late in the review with this:

"It is in that reclamation, of memory, of love, of life—what would people be, by which means would they be informed without all of their memories?"

The film is simultaneously expressionistic and "claustrophic", as it corrals the idea of what it is to be in love, presenting complex and brilliantly developed characters, through highly unconventional storytelling. Th eperformance of Kate Winslet is piercing, and the finest of her career as Clementine (your use of the word "sublime", innocuous enough, is actually perfect here methinks.)

Here are some of your brilliant perceptions, all of which I completely agree with you on:

"Eternal Sunshine is fundamentally about gaps, in time, and in space, and doubtless chiefly in the mind. Memory for a character is itself is to be assaulted, as it has so many ugly ornaments of nostalgia for the sweet times, loathing and regret for the bitter episodes."

"The very problem is in its least troublesome vein a complementary personable dichotomy; where Clementine lacks introspection—which she chooses to stave off with alcohol—Joel is acutely self-aware to the point of self-destructively tethering himself to all of his idiosyncratic ways of questioning himself".

"One of the attributes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that cannot go unexamined is its pulsating, prevailing romanticism".

But there are several other challenging passages here (a number which I needed to read twice to fully appreciate their brilliance) that dissect this impressionistic masterpiece, and your greatest achievement of all is your exhaustive study of Joel and Clementine. You don't celebrate the film's brighter context, as you indicate you rightly see the darkness in the work.

Yet, you never lose site of the light at the end of the tunnel with this:


"For the trajectory of hate and abyssal disappointment to be reached, love must have been an occupant for an extended period of time."

Yet, for the first time I have ever visited Coleman's Corner I confess to being overwhelmed, as there is simply so much more to talk about (your review is a cornucopia of ideas, theories and insightful assertions) It would be course take more than leaving a comment.

Suffice to say, your Valentine's Day post has been unanimously voted into the Coleman's Corner Hall of Fame. It's utter brilliance on an utterly brilliant film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you so much, Sam. Your words are a comfort and are as always completely appreciated for being so rich, honest and exhaustively kind. I am overwhelmed by your response, my friend. Thanks again.

sarcastig said...

Wow, great piece. I watched it again on Saturday (the initially reluctant b/f ended up liking it a lot), and what I noticed for the first time now is something you also picked up on: we're really seeing this from Joel's eyes, and as great as the movie is, I'd love to see Clementine's take on things, I'd love to see how SHE fought against his disappearance from her mind...

At the same time though, Joel's the character I identify with most, though I've come a long way from the rather silent, introspective, keeping-to-herself teenager that I once was.



Like all great movies, this one feels like it was made especially for me...sounds like you feel the same.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Hedwig.

I'm most pleased to hear that your boyfriend ended up enjoying this after being reluctant. This was your first Valentine's Day with him, yes? I hope it was wonderful. Eternal Sunshine probably helped in making it so.

Yes, it sounds like this last time we watched it, we both came to similar conclusions about how terrific a film more directly about Clementine and her past and mind would be. She is, objectively speaking, the more interesting character--or at least the more hypnotically rendered one. Kate Winslet obviously had a great deal to do with that. She's such a force of nature, you almost wonder if she would be too much in the "lead" position, but I cannot help but wonder, all the same.

It also sounds like we are on the same page insofar as seeing Joel as the character with whom we relate. Being too introverted and shy has been a hindrance to me, and was especially so in my teenage years. Like Joel, I am vastly more naturally comfortable writing than speaking. In fact, I probably have too many emotional and psychological simmilarities to Joel, even now, but I'm in Kaufman, Gondry and Carrey's debt for allowing me to learn from him.

Great films are indeed like you say they are. Especially ones that hit you personally. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, as I knew you revere this film.

Daniel Getahun said...

I feel like I'm outing myself amongst devoted film bloggers, but here goes: I've only seen this film once, in the theater!

Doesn't seem like that's the case with anybody these days. Such as it is, this treatment is really making another viewing of it urgent.

Alexander Coleman said...

No shame in that admission, Daniel. There are so many films, there are sure to be ones that you do not revisit for a long period of time. I hope you see it again soon, however. What did you think of it when you saw it in theaters? Thank you for the kind words.

Dennis Polifroni said...

Alexander The Great,

I was turned on to your site through Wonders in the Dark, and came upon this blisteringly brilliant piece of one of the most unusual and thought-provoking films of the past decade. While I would hate to go on with just a simple comment on my love for this film, I feel a few mere sentences wouldn't do your review justice. Allow me to say that aside from agreeing with everything you said, I also fell in love with this film for emotional reasons, having had one or two great lost loves in my life. What I love about Kaufman (and ultimately Gondry) is that they masquerade the romance as science-fiction to springboard the audience into something that they are not expecting. When I first read a synopsis of this film a week before its release, I just figured I'd get a rehash of something like "Minority Report". How pleasantly surprised I was to find out my assumptions were wrong.

I will be watching your website closely, as it seem sthat you and I may have a few things in common. Keep up the amazing work, and looking forward to some healthy debate.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, Dennis, thank you very much for your supremely kind, thoughtful and engaging comment! I'm quite humbled by all of it, especially the "Alexander the Great" part, haha!

Yes, you make a truly fabulous point about the science-fiction serving as a springboard for something entirely different. It's a device, like in a Woody Allen film (or, um, a Kaufman screenplay) that allows the tale to be most effectively told--for all of the reasons I describe in the review and more. Thank you also for bringing the point about the personal component you specifically brought to the film with regards to your past relationship(s)--Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the rare film that speaks with near universality to those who have been felled by Cupid, and lost that quintessential bond.

Thank you again very much, Dennis, for the extensively kind words, and I too look forward to having a splendid time discussing and debating with you. And as I say to all newcomers, don't be afraid to look into the archive section, which can be an especially rewarding area to look at when I'm too busy to update the blog, as I've been this past week... though I promise to begin posting a new batch of reviews in the coming days.

It's truly wonderful to hear from you, Dennis.

Daniel Getahun said...

I think it confounded me in the theater, to be honest, but I remember very much appreciating Carrey and Winslet. Point is, I need to see it again ASAP, as is the case with all of Kaufman's stories.

Alexander Coleman said...

Interestingly, Daniel, I decided to use this as a rationale for re-watching all of Kaufman's penned films, leading up to this one, a few weeks back. Quite an experience. I was especially happy to see one of my loves from 2002 (one of the best film years in my honest opinion), Adaptation, has held up rather beautifully.

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Anonymous said...

One of the best movies of this decade. Kate Winslet is amazing here. Too bad she had to win tonite for a mediocre flick.

Moses Hernandez said...

Damn what a review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous and Moses.

Anonymous said...

Luv this movie.

Alexander Coleman said...

Understandable, Anonymous.

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