' Cinema Romantico: Best Shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Best Shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

---This is part of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series at The Film Experience.---

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is the rare film that in public consciousness may be more synonymous with its famously idiosyncratic screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, then with its own director, Michel Gondry. Indeed, its non-linear narrative and circular structure in combination with its psychological probing is vintage Kaufman. Still, Gondry, a man who broke into film via groundbreaking music videos, implants the movie with an assortment of optical effects functioning as a literal journey into the mind and memory of its protagonist.

But then, as a filmgoer, the shots to which I'm usually most inclined favor elegantly simple frames working to convey meaning and emotion informed by the film as a whole. More acutely, though, my favorite shots at the cinema tend to be human faces.

Kate Winslet is my favorite actress - this readers of Cinema Romantico know all too well - and yet when considering "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in terms of a single shot it is not Winslet's magnetically brilliant creation Clementine Kruczynski nor her ever-evolving hair color and lustrous orange hoodie and any of the multitude of frames involving her and those that jump to mind. Rather, it is Kirsten Dunst's Mary Svevo, receptionist at Lacuna Inc., a company in the film's hyper-reality that has perfected a procedure of memory erasure.

As someone who fancies himself a writer and is fond of (crippled by) nostalgia, I am wracked by the thought of one day losing my memory. Last week I read this stellar long form piece on former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and his slide into dementia and felt myself succumbing to a mild panic attack. All my favorite pictures in life are mental ones, all the memories of my collective life experiences are at my necessary disposal when I write and writing is my favorite thing and to write without them is unthinkable. Thus, to envision the idea of it all slipping away into nothingness.....

This is what happens to Mary and the memories of her love affair with her superior, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). They decide (he decides) it's best to cleanse her memory of this affair. Of course, that old feeling re-stirs, because that's partly what "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" wishes to convey, how particular romantic yearnings cannot be denied even in the face of their literal expunction. Even so, Mary has been stripped of that previous life experience - what it showed her about life and about the world and how it made it her feel. Even if the flame is re-kindled it can never be the same.

Her last scene is with Stan Fink (Mark Ruffalo), a "technician" at Lacuna Inc. who confesses that once - just once - long ago he saw Mary with Dr. Mierzwiak. She wants him to recount it.

Mary: "How did I look?"
Stan: "Happy. Happy with a secret."
Mary: "And after that?"
Stan: "I never saw you together like that again. So I figured I was imagining things."

He wasn't imagining things, of course, but now that's all Mary can do - imagine how she looked and how she felt when she was happy with a secret. But try as she might, she can't recall it. She never will. The memory is gone. Wanting to remember but being unable to......dear me, that seems the cruelest fate.


4 comments:

Andrew K. said...

Well, this IS a surprise but what a fine explanation of why it's your favourite. Human faces are the best special effects, right?

"Happy. With a secret."
That line has always stuck with me. So random, but so evocative.

Losing one's memory is, indeed, one of the scariest things I can think of.

NATHANIEL R said...

this is a great writeup. You are the only one who chose an image of Mary but believe me I was tempted. I think she's the secret weapon of the movie. The narrative is so focused on Clem & Joel that it's easy to miss the subtle imperfect mirror in Howard & Mary but they get so many great lines and their void where a relationship was (we also have no window into it beyond performance gestures) is just so sad.

Daniel said...

Love this. Watching Eternal Sunshine this time I was shocked by how lovely and amazing Dunst is in this role. I don't remember thinking she was any great shakes the first time around, but this time I thrilled to how dead-on hilarious she was playing high, and how she totally slayed me in this scene. Love everything about it.

Alex Withrow said...

Excellent choice for your favorite shot. I really love that moment as well. Such natural dialogue and performances. I really need to give this film another watch.