Rated R for butt nudity and people in their underwears. (Yeah, I pluralized it.) There's language. People are often mean. There's some drinking and drug use. Is it overly offensive? Probably not. In 2004, I thought it was the most hardcore movie that I owned. But it's 2019 and I'm a broken person. I might even watch this movie with my mom. That all being said, yeah, it's R.
DIRECTOR: Michel Gondry
Why have I always avoided putting this movie into my Top 5 film collection? It has safely earned its way there. I know that it is me losing street cred. Throwing Michel Gondry's most famous and most impressive film into my Top 5 is such an easy answer, but it is so good. I even avoided watching it for years in hopes that I would stretch my tastes out a little more. Yeah, the movie held a lot more value for me when I was an angsty single obsessed with how the world was full of unfair situations involving unfair people. Now that I'm happier and married and pretty comfortable with the way my life is going, I wondered if Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind still held the same value. It may not be the same thing, but it also confirmed that the movie is really that good.
There are a handful of "rom-coms" for insecure guys. I don't deny that I love these movies. Eternal Sunshine is on that list. High Fidelity and probably 500 Days of Summer probably hit that list as well. I'm not at all implying that these movies are exclusively for this demographic. But nothing confirmation biases the world as a terrible place for romance better than these movies. They are emotionally manipulative and completely devoid of saccharine. But these movies are pretty still kind of amazing. I mean, I have to revisit High Fidelity some day. I really have to revisit 500 Days of Summer because that was never one of my big ones. But these movies really strike something primal in their viewing audiences because I'm a really different person than I was when I first watched it. I mean, Eternal Sunshine is a break up movie. It has a really bittersweet ending. For a rom-com to imply that things may not actually work out, but they might. Mind as well with one of the characters burying the other. I can see my video store buddy completely cutting me off from this blog when I talk about this movie. He'd probably chalk it up to pretentious art crap. But I really like this pretentious art crap. There are two geniuses at work here that should always work together. Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry tend to make special things. Yeah, I'm going to go with Michel Gondry, mainly because I love his aesthetic and seemingly more positive disposition when it comes to his filmmaking style. But Charlie Kaufman might be the smartest screenwriter of our generation. The thing about Eternal Sunshine is that it is remarkably well crafted from moment one and proceeding throughout. There's so much going on in this film that it is actually a disservice to it to segment and pull it apart. Watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is like looking at an art instillation made of garbage. If you aren't paying attention, it looks like trash and that you could make that. But every time you look at something with a critical eye, it is contributing to the bigger piece as a whole. Trying to separate those elements somehow reduces everything else in the collective. Looking at the narrative and separating it from the visuals somehow weakens the whole. Please, be aware that I'm trying my best to talk about the cohesiveness of the piece as a whole as I dissect individual elements. This is where wording and language starts to fall apart and I completely acknowledge that. But I adore this film and know that my little corner of the Internet isn't going to disturb the whole masterpiece. I just don't have that power and I don't even want that kind of power.
From a narrative point of view, the movie is kind of genius in itself. Yeah, a lesser director would have wrecked this film, but Kaufman's script is near perfect. A messed up chronology is exactly what this movie needed. Part of what the script does is offer something that hasn't really been experienced through sensory information. If the movie offers the characters a surgical removal of memory, the movie manages to make us feel what that would be like. It provides us key information. Joel is miserable. He goes to Montauk. He meets Clementine, who wears her character on her sleeve (or hair) from just two seconds of screen time. But then the movie lets us in on the secret. We think that we're getting one movie when we actually get something very, very different. I suppose, by default, we have to consider Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a genre movie. I know that the word "genre" somehow translates out to "lesser". But the use of genre opens new door. Perhaps it is hipster sci-fi. It offers little attempt at real science. But by not treating this like most genre sci-fi, the technology feels really lived in. It feels almost old and dated, despite the fact that no one really knows what this technology involves. The movie also acts on the conceit that this would work. It teases that some people wouldn't be part of the program. But it also mirrors our culture of making sure that people are happy before anything else. In this small detail, the fact that David Cross's character has to confess to Joel what is going on, is buried the message of the story. Honestly, while the movie isn't by any means super-Catholic, Kaufman and Gondry are pointing at the fallibility of "happiness" as an end to itself. Joel's attempt to remove Clementine as a medical procedure defines true happiness as something I normally don't see in film or storytelling. Joel realizes quickly that Clementine, the cause of his pain and misery, is also what makes him in the long run truly happy. Yes, she treats him terribly. He was also terrible and he regrets the way he acted. But those moments happened. That pain was part of who he was. The reason that his pain was so intense was because he was so happy. The more truly happy we are, the more we are desperate to return to that happiness. Instead, the couple only viewed their own happiness instead of looking to the happiness of the other. When the miserable stuff is stripped from Joel, he realizes that he has to hold on desperately to those happy moments as well. If anything, it is a tale of Joel making the same mistakes in a new way. There's a scene where Clementine is annoyed with Joel, so he pretends to be a murdered corpse. It's meant to repeat the past. Joel and Clementine bond over morbid humor, pretending to suffocate each other with pillows. The one picture that Joel finds after all is said and done is a picture of Clementine's head on a skeleton body. But that moment isn't what is needed. Some honest discussion is needed. Some vulnerability is necessary. But instead, Joel tries taking the easy route. The whole process of having Clementine removed is the easy route. Trying to hold onto her to change his mind is the easy route. It just never really feels like the easy route. It's so brilliant. I know that this is all my analysis, but that all plays out the way it is supposed to.
But then Gondry creates something on top of that. He has this amazing canvas to work with and he really strikes every moment. It's so bizarre because Gondry somehow both embraces his sci-fi conventions, but presents them in the most trippy way. I love Gondry. I won't shut up about that. My friend Pat got me the music videos of Michel Gondry and they are one of two collections that I own of music videos. I've never been a big music buff. I like my small collections, but I'm actually pretty ashamed of my iTunes account. But Gondry makes music come alive. I always think of directors as masters of the visual, but Gondry somehow ties the audio so intimately with his visuals that I can't help but applaud his music video background. Setting this story in the world of dreams is also interesting. I now understand that perhaps following this movie with The Science of Sleep is a little derivative, but I like that movie as well. Gondry has two tasks to undertake visually. He has to both communicate what dreams are for us and what memories are for us. Joel's mental state as a psychic warzone is very appropriate. But Gondry never really puts it so on the nose like that. Instead, we have things crumbling and falling apart. Early in the dream, there are little things. These little things I notice each time I watch the movie. More and more keep showing up. As the film progresses, these moments become more and more obvious. But the small changes of reality reward eagle-eyed viewers of what is expected. He doesn't just do this in Joel's psyche, but also carries that reward system to what the film considers the real world. Patrick and his bag of stuff is really interesting to pay attention to. Kaufman included Patrick as this toxic influence. He's the nice guy character, which is funny because Clementine loathes the word "nice." Is it because she spent so much time with Joel? I'm not sure. I kind of read into that and the word "Nice" has become poisonous to her. But Patrick has stolen a bunch of stuff from Clementine and tries Groundhog Daying her. He has information that is unfair to tip the scales. He's taking Joel's best hits and playing those moments over again. But look how those moments play out for Joel in his psyche. (Wait, did Clementine go to the Charles River twice in 24 hours? That explains her freak out.) But there's a letter that has a photo in it. That photo, playing into Joel's memory and his thoughts about young Clementine, is so revealing and such great foreshadowing. It's this powerful moment that ties back into something that we didn't need explained, but we had explored organically. The movie is filled with them. Objects have value and everything really matters in the movie.
It's odd how Kaufman dances around some very serious issues of morality here. Mary's story as a B-story is almost more telling about the dangerous nature of patriarchy. I mean, Patrick's predatory, nice-guy persona is on the nose. But then there's Howard and Mary. That story doesn't seem to be anything on the surface. (I'd like to interject something light-hearted before the analysis gets terribly bleak. It's so weird to see some of today's biggest actors as tiny little baby people. I feel like this movie is new, but it totally isn't.) But Mary's story is kind of heart-breaking. Why does Howard let her work with him? SPOILER: They go through all of these mind-wipes, time and again. His wife knows about the relationship with Mary. Is she there as almost pornography. He had this relationship with Mary. He gets to remember his past, but Mary wipes her own memory. She keeps getting the short end of this entire situation. Stan even kind of suspects that there was something going on at one point. He accuses Patrick of all this moral ambiguity while he is kind of pulling off the same card. Okay, I really want to throw Patrick under the bus more than Stan, because Patrick had foreknowledge versus suspicion. But looking at Stan and Mary's relationship that entire time is interesting. Does Mary actually like Stan? She cheats on him in front of Stan. Stan is standing outside the window and he doesn't seem all that shocked. In fact, his first reaction to protect Howard. He lays on the horn and Howard runs out to save his marriage. But remember, if he had not known about Howard and Mary, would he be so quick to defend Howard? Howard, from his perspective, would have been kissing his girlfriend. Stan keeps ragging on Patrick, but there's a definite sense that men are kind of pathetic and would use this technology for evil. It's a real bummer, guys. But what is that also saying? This is 2004. I think we might be at the height of ironic political incorrectness. We were borderline prideful as a people about how regressive we could be. But then, Kaufman writes this narrative about good guys becoming bad guys, bad guys pretending to be good guys, and everything in between. Yeah, Clementine comes off as pretty rough throughout the piece, but Joel doesn't come out smelling like a rose either. Remember, a lot of the film is coming from Joel's perspective. He's got the rose colored glasses on himself and he still realizes that he's made some mistakes. I can't say that Eternal Sunshine outright condemns a lot of this behavior, but it does paint it in a fairly negative light. It's pretty bananas.
Yeah, it's a break-up movie. I like bummer endings on things. But Joel and Clementine still are one of my favorite couples, despite and almost because they are so fractured. There's so much going on here. Despite the fact that Eternal Sunshine isn't formally a genre film, it grabs the best attribute from genre films. It points a moral compass on possibilities. It lets us see the human condition through the lens of "What if?" If we had this technology, what would be the first way that we abuse it? It's tragic and it is watch a death in reverse. But it doesn't lose its heart, nor does it get bogged down in a downer tone, despite the fact that the content would justify it. Instead, like a good funeral, it doesn't mourn the end, but celebrate the life that made us all that much emptier.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.