The first time I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I was a freshman in high school, and the film itself, having come out in 2004, was a little over a year old and had just won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. That's actually how the film really came to my attention, being the avid Oscar-watcher that I was already. This was an age when I would go to the nearest Blockbuster Video - which was in the next town over - to rent a movie, usually picking one after wandering around the entire store while Rob Thomas' "Lonely No More" played on a seemingly endless loop. They were simpler times, to be sure. But what interested me was the basic premise: a man elects to have his memory of a "terrible" relationship erased, only to realize that maybe what he had wasn't so bad after all.
Watching it for the first time, I immediately connected with Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey).
More after the jump.
I saw myself in him, an awkward, soft-spoken guy who found himself, in his own words, "falling in love with every woman he sees." It would probably be more accurate to say that I wanted to be Joel. I was an awkward teenager, hormones raging, and feeling confused and alienated from the rest of the world. I would have crushes on pretty much any girl who gave me the time of day, which resulted in a lot of inner angst and even more unfortunate poetry (I called them songs, because I fancied myself a songwriter at the time, though I never actually wrote any music for them; I was as insufferable as I sound). Not that any of these girls ever saw these poems or even knew that I had a crush on them; I never had the courage to speak to most of them. So Joel became the fantasy version of myself: I wouldn't change too much about myself, but some quirky, sexy, wonderful woman was going to find me by chance and we would fall in love and live happily ever after, the end (I did actually have a girlfriend at the time, whom I rarely ever saw, which makes this all the more unfortunate). The film, to my 15-year-old self, was optimistic - Clementine (Kate Winslet) is erased from his memory, but they meet again, and I believed that they would fall in love again and it would be better this time. Immediately, it became one of my absolute favorite movies.
Flash-forward several years later. I was then a senior in college, and Blockbuster has given way to Netflix. For my American Independent Cinema class, I wrote my term paper on Charlie Kaufman's cinematic project, using Synecdoche, New York as the focal point and relating it to Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two films that Kaufman wrote but did not direct. I had watched Eternal Sunshine… many times before, but this time, I responded to it differently. At this point in my life, I was a different person than I had been in those innocent days of high school. The poetry had stopped, thankfully. But now I was out of a long-term relationship that had ended disastrously, in a state of full-on depression, and reaching for comfort from people who deserved better from me. Sitting down to watch the movie again, suddenly the idea of having memories erased didn't seem so bad. I no longer wanted to be Joel; I was Joel. Heartbroken and even more withdrawn than before, I read the film as pessimistic - Joel and Clementine may start again, but they'll still find the same things wrong with each other, and maybe some new ones. The cycle cannot be unbroken. It was a movie that seemed fully informed by my current emotional state. It remained one of my absolute favorite movies.
(The term paper, by the way, received an 'A'.)
It was a stroke of good fortune that Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience chose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the inaugural episode of another year of "Hit Me…", or at least like-minded thinking. I had been planning to revisit the film for its tenth anniversary, coming up tomorrow (March 19). Sitting down to watch it now, once again I responded to the film differently. I'm now in a steady relationship, and I'm happier. I've found direction in my life, and for the first time in my life, I know for sure what I want to do with my future and I'm taking the steps to get there. The film is now neither positive nor negative about relationships: instead, I saw the value that memories have, and how past relationships - even the most painful ones - help us grow and become the people we're meant to be.
Ultimately, this is a film about memory. Thanks to my many film classes, I have a deeper appreciation for the different components of filmmaking, and on this re-watch I noticed how brilliantly director Michel Gondry visually portrays the process of memories being erased and created. Structurally, the film jumps around from one memory to the next, not necessarily in the chronological order, which allows us to witness Joel and Clementine's relationship more in an emotional context than a linear one. Our memories are more often based in a feeling, rather than the particulars of the event, so it feels right for the film to present itself the same way. Kaufman's script - based on a story by himself, Gondry and French artist Pierre Bismuth - is remarkable in how he understands memory, and is able to craft the story with such a complex structure.
Gondry's images, though, are what create the sensation of revisiting old memories, whether in one's mind or through photographs (this is a post about "best shot," after all). Indeed, Gondry and cinematographer Ellen Kuras are the unsung heroes of this film. Using several different (seemingly) lo-fi techniques, Gondry is able to create moments that have the look of an old photograph that's been exposed to harsh light:
Or resembles the haziness of a fading dream:
Or the crumbling of memories, whether by age or by Dr. Mierzwiak's (Tom Wilkinson) process:
Or, cleverly, using a spotlight effect to create blank space, representing those memories in which only a few details stand out no matter how hard we try to recall more:
Even more so, Gondry and Kuras wisely develop a visual grammar to help audiences keep up with where a scene is in the film's chronology. Specifically, Clementine's ever-changing hair color becomes the totem that helps us identify our location.
Green marks the beginning of their relationship - Joel's earliest memories of Clementine, meeting her at beach gathering.
Red/orange marks the later stages of their relationship, as things begin to fall apart for them.
And blue marks their re-introduction that bookends the film. I particularly love the staging of this shot: Clementine's seated in an extension of the actual seat on the train from Montauk. She's not quite occupying the same space as Joel, but she's a part of his general environment, and I think that speaks volumes about how you can never really "erase" people or experiences from your memory. They can exist outside of what you choose to recollect, but they'll always be around the periphery.
Which actually brings me to my favorite visual trick that Gondry and Kuras pull off in this film, and my best shot. It comes in the beginning of the film, when Joel inexplicably ditches work on Valentine's Day to go to the beach. As his voice-over narration muses on why he would go to a New York beach in the middle of February, we see a figure in the background, out-of-focus, wearing a very particular orange sweatshirt.
She appears again at the train station, this time noticing Joel and establishing contact with him.
What I love about these shots is how Clementine never comes into focus. She's a blur, a person who has taken an interest in Joel but can't be identified. The decision to keep the camera's focus on Joel doesn't really take on significance until later in the film, when it's revealed that this opening scene is actually the morning AFTER Clementine was erased from Joel's memory, and since her memory has also been erased, what seems like their first meet-cute is actually their second. Suddenly, blurred-out Clementine resembles a foggy detail in a memory, the person who seems familiar but is still unrecognizable. It's an excellent representation of the film's ultimate theme, as I read it at this age: memories can't be erased, and people who impacted your life will always been in your mind. Nothing can change what's happened, and those memories are necessary for us to grow. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does an incredible job at visually representing the very tricky concept of how our memories work and how they influence our lives.
And yes, it remains one of my absolute favorite movies.
PS I would be remiss to mention some of my other favorite aspects of this film that didn't fit in with my main thesis quite as elegantly. The movie's B-plot, about the lives of the technicians who perform the actual memory wipe, is also great, giving us the pleasure of watching Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst dance - stoned and drunk - in their underwear…
...as well as Elijah Wood being really creepy and awkward. This ends up tying into the memory theme as well, as Dr. Meirzwiak reveals that he's performed the procedure on Mary (Dunst) several times to cover up their affairs. Carrey and Winslet rightfully got a lot of attention for their performances, but Dunst gives a masterclass in her few short scenes. The look on her face when she learns about her procedures says more than any words ever could.
And, of course, there's the classic-Gondry scene of Joel's childhood memory, in which forced perspective is used to make him seem much smaller than everyone else.
I'm telling you, there's nothing about this movie that isn't gob-smackingly imaginative.