' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Great Movies: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

"Blessed are the forgetful for they get the better even of their blunders."

No disrespect but I happen to think Frederich Nietzsche was full of it. You know what movie I kept thinking of while watching "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004) for the first time since I saw "Atonement"? Uh, well, "Atonement." You know that part near the end where the Vanessa Redgrave version of Briony Tallis is giving the interview about her new book and she reveals she has "vascular dementia, which is essentially a series of tiny strokes. Your brain closes down, gradually. You lose words, you lose your memory, which for a writer is pretty much the point." Amen. To lose your memory, that's a frightening prospect. After all, I'm the guy who went to Hawaii, hardly took any pictures and then let the pictures I did take sit untouched on the camera for eight months. Pictures? What pictures? You think those pictures could be as powerful as my own personal mental images and memories? No chance. At my best friend's wedding, after the ceremony and the reception, a big bunch of us had returned to a totally awesome downtown Des Moines bar and I bought myself and this girl who I would kinda, sorta fall in love with for that night each a beer and brought them back to where we were sitting and we were drinking and talking and I spied, just a couple feet away, my best friend talking to my friend Daryl who I had not seen in months and just completely blown off nonetheless because, you know, I had to squire those beers to this girl I had kinda, sorta fallen in love with and, please don’t ask me why, but I will go to the mattresses for that memory. I will claw with my fingernails for that memory. I will kick and scream and punch and filibuster to keep that memory. Do you hear me?!

And all that is appropriate because the protagonist of "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind", Jim Carrey's Joel Barish, “constitutionally incapable of making eye-contact with a woman (he doesn’t) know”, finds himself fighting to preserve his own memories, specifically memories of his relationship with hard-charging Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), she of the ever-changing hair, blue-to-red-to-tangerine-to-green, and whose simple orange sweatshirt becomes a bolder and more beautiful fashion statement than anything even Lady Gaga's ever worn. The film opens with this duo having an extended Meet Cute on a wintry Long Island beach and then aboard a train back into the city before re-uniting again by chance and spending the evening together and the next evening, too. Except this film, directed by Michel Gondry, toning down his trademark visual flare, and written by the grandmaster flash of explorations of the human mind, Charlie Kaufman, will eventually let on that, in fact, this opening is happening much later in the scheme of things. But we’ll return to that later.

Soon after this beginning stanza we catch up with Joel weeping in his car and then explaining to his married pals (David Cross and Jane Adams, who go to show how much care Kaufman takes in sketching these brief supporting characters - we know exactly which type of married couple this is) how he went to see Clementine and how she did not so much as even pretend to recognize him and his friends, in turn, explain, even though they are not supposed to, that Clementine has had her memory erased. Wait, what? Yes, indeedy. Presented entirely real world and matter-of-fact, it seems one Doctor Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), of Lacuna Inc., has perfected the procedure of memory erasure.

-“Is any there danger of brain damage?”
-“Well, technically speaking, the procedure itself is brain damage.”

Angered that Clementine would simply do away with all the everlasting memories of their time spent together, Joel decides to reciprocate and get his mind wiped clean of Clementine, that “vindictive little bitch” (her words). Thus, Mierzwiak advises Joel to gather and bring every object he possesses associated with his ex and to present an oral report on their Meet Cute and their Break Up so a “map” of memories can be made in his mind which, that evening, after Joel has taken a couple pills to pass out hard and fast, a couple of Mierzwiak’s flunkies, Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), can locate through their high-tech equipment and go through, one at a time, to entirely eradicate.

The film is then presented as Joel and Clementine’s relationship backwards, from the sad, horrible ending when she drunkenly enters his apartment after crashing his car prompting him to tell her off in his own sad-faced way, and it all falls apart to the beautiful opening on a (hmmmm) Long Island beach where she says to him, “I saw you sitting over here by yourself and thought, ‘Thank God, someone who doesn’t know how to interact at one of these things either.’” (Swoon......)

Except, of course, midway through the procedure, Joel realizes what is happening and realizes that, damn it, he doesn’t want to lose all these memories and mental images he has cultivated with Clementine and so, more heroically than John Wayne ever sounded babbling about one thing or the other, the two of them work together to form a kind of resistance to the memory erasure, hopping and skipping into other memories of Joel’s from other time periods to go “off the map”, which also allows for Gondry - to his mighty relief, no doubt - to employ some wackier camera work, though even then the distinct emotional core of this masterpiece stays front and center.

As soon as he goes off the map, Stan, who has invited the office secretary, Mary (Kirsten Dunst), his girlfriend, over for several-to-a-few beers, plus whiskey, and some Clash (“the only band that ever mattered”), has to call in the help of Mierzwiak to discover just where in his own head Joel has gone. But this event turns more problematic than could ever be expected when eventually it becomes clear that Mary has more affection for her boss than for her boyfriend, though this affection goes deeper and further back than we or she realizes. Mary, it seems, was Mierzwiak’s greatest champion. But was she off base? What price is paid to obliterate a person’s mementos?

As Clementine, Kate The Great, throughout, must strike a delicate balance between luminous and unlikeable, considering this is the rise and fall of an entire relationship, and she summarizes this in those opening scenes when she approaches Joel on the train and alternates between flirting with him and frightening him before departing with a vicious “take care” punch to Joel’s arm. Consider the moment in Joel's car when she opines "Sorry if I came off kinda nutso. I'm not really." Her face gives away the fact that, actually, she is really kinda nutso but also gives away the fact that though she may be kinda nutso she's also wholly genuine.

Carrey, meanwhile, is merely giving the performance of his career. In every movie I’ve ever seen him, even if the character is supposed to be separate from his normal persona, you can still occasionally catch him drifting back to his typical rhythms (see: “The Truman Show”) but here he completely breaks free from his showmanship, his exorbitant mugging, his overbearing line readings. This is not to suggest he just does something else which automatically makes him brilliant, no, he melds a whole new persona. He's always been tall but here he becomes gangly. Gondry sets shots so that it appears Joel's parka is threatening to suffocate him. His shyness and introversion can endear but also irritate. He mumbles. Any inquiry into his personality his feelings and he shuts down. “My life just isn’t that interesting.” Both of these people are terribly insecure, they simply show it in different ways - she acts out, he closes off. It's that which pulls them toward one another that very first time at some awkward barbecue and when Joel, in his head, re-lives the Meet Cute as it's being taken away, love dying and blossoming simultaneously, when she led him on a beach front home break-in before he fled the scene in fear, he admits, "I wish I'd stayed." And Clementine calls out to him, "What if you stayed this time?"  

And that might be the film’s greatest piece of significance. Even upon having their memories erased it takes all of what, eight hours, for Joel and Clementine to re-unite. For all its deliberations on the capabilities of the brain it seems the most vital organ to “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” is a different one. The human heart, bless itself, knows what it wants.


Castor said...

Great review for a great movie Nicholas! Indeed one of my favorite romantic movie of all time although I have a more pessimistic view of their reuniting ;)

Nick Prigge said...

You could certainly make the argument that they are headed for a second breakup but I guess it's just the romantic in me that looks past it. Even if they are headed for the second breakup, though, I think there's something beautifully idealistic in them discussing the potential disaster of trying again and then deciding to try again anyway.