Why It Works: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
If ever there was a screenwriter worthy of the Why It Works treatment, it's Charlie Kaufman. With films like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, the writer delivered metaphysical masterpieces that, by all accounts, should never have made it through the vanilla-or-bust Hollywood machine. With his latest ANOMALISA up for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, it's an excellent time to revisit what many consider to be Kaufman's greatest work. From non-linear storytelling to a plot that takes place largely within the main character's subconscious, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND tells the story of two lovers who meet and fall in love for the second first time on a cold Valentine's Day in Montauk. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
At first glance, Joel Barish is the frustrated everyman we're seen a thousand times before. While this is true in part, Joel's journal entry voiceovers allow us a deeper and more raw glimpse into the character than we're used to. Joel is dealing with very personal, existential feelings of loneliness and self-doubt, and allowing us to hear these thoughts quickly has us identifying with the character on an intimate level. As a counterpoint to the introspective Joel, Clementine is impulsive, raucous, and, to be honest, not necessarily likable at first. As someone who can breathe life into Joel, we appreciate the presence of Clementine, but we only fall in love with her as she reveals her more vulnerable, charming, and sensitive qualities throughout the film. While both characters are certainly well written, perhaps the most exceptional thing here is the casting. The energetic, comedy-natured Jim Carrey brings a spark to the timid, sedate Joel, and Kate Winslet brings gravitas and depth to a character who could easily be written off as two-dimensional and off-putting. As if just watching these two wasn't enough, we're also treated to Patrick and Stan, a sort of hipster Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Dr. Mierzwiak and Mary with their own Lacuna-smeared past, and Joel's friends Rob and Carrie, all of whom are entertaining to watch and help round out the story.
WHY WE CARE:
This is where the real challenge in avant garde, non-linear storytelling lies. How do you keep an audience on board with a story that jumps back and forward and time and in and out of reality? For one, the film begins with Joel and Clementine meeting and spending a good amount of time together. This allows us to anchor ourselves in the relationship and gives us something to cling to as the relationship and its memory become endangered. That's the other thing- this is a film about the threat of loss. If ETERNAL SUNSHINE were simply a film about two lovers who erased each other reconnecting, we might have a tedious, talky snoozefest on our hands. Instead, we have a kidnapping thriller in which the victim is the memory of Joel and Clem's relationship and the ticking time bomb is a successful procedure. Of course, not all of this is clear right away, and so the what's and when's of it all act as clues to the greater mystery of what's actually going on between Joel, Clementine, and the Lacuna staff.
"By morning, you'll be gone."
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
ETERNAL SUNSHINE is a lot to take in the first time through, so you might miss one glaring detail. As soon as Joel recounts his first first meeting with Clementine (green hair on the beach) it's indirectly revealed that the meeting at the beginning of the film (blue hair on the train) must be their second (at least) first meeting. So, yeah, in a film that relies on the suspense of whether or not Joel and Clem will forget each other forever, it's revealed pretty early on that they meet again. Why, then, is the film satisfying or even worth watching past the first scene? Well, first of all, there's enough going on that we don't necessarily know how to qualify either of these meetings. Maybe one or both of them are just a figment of Joel's imagination; maybe neither meeting is the first and they've already erased each other several times (an early version of the script ends on an elderly Clementine making an appointment to erase Joel for the sixteenth time). More importantly, Joel and Clementine meeting again isn't the end of the story. As they receive Mary's tapes and listen to the hurtful comments they have about each other, the future (and past) of their relationship becomes unclear. The triumph here is in the couple's decision to give it a go, even though they know it might fall to pieces all over again. While some of us might prefer confirmation that Joel and Clementine actually do live happily ever after, it's refreshing and even a little exciting for a film to end on such an honest and open-ended note.
"I could die right now, Clem. I'm just... happy."
WHY WE REMEMBER:
The payoff of making any well-crafted film, particularly one littered with clues and tangential moments, is its rewatchability. ETERNAL SUNSHINE simply gets better with additional viewings; the more you watch, the more you connect, both from a logical and emotional standpoint. We've all had the desire to erase a memory from our brains at some point or another, and Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth crafted an Oscar-winning story based on a shared understanding of this notion. As only Kaufman can do, the script was then meticulously written and polished, with Kaufman and editor Valdis Oskarsdottir working together to keep the heady plot constantly moving. Michel Gondry's directing and Jon Brion's score keep the film teetering between a dreamlike state and moments of stunning realism, cinematographer Ellen Kuras photographs a beautifully cold, lonely, and colorful world, and the two leads deliver career-defining performances. Even within Charlie Kaufman's oeuvre, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is a unique, unparalleled film and (wait for it) certainly not one to forget.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at email@example.com.
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