Thursday, August 29, 2013

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, revisited

Lynnea and I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind last night. The only other time I've seen it was in its theater release in 2004. It's weird to think how different everything was back then. Ben was two years old, I hadn't started grad school yet, and my first marriage still seemed more or less stable. Hard to believe, but it was nine years ago. I remembered very well that the movie was a good mind screw, but I hadn't remembered all the details, so really I went through the surprises all over again. Lynnea had not seen it before at all.


The thing that struck me most about the movie, and this may be a sign of an older perspective, is that the core relationship between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, is a Very Bad Relationship. They get back together at the very end of the movie, but it's not a triumphant feeling that all is right with the world. It's more like "Wait, seriously?" They almost didn't get back together, and laid out very cogent reasons why they shouldn't. They remind themselves that he's boring and closed off, and she's a flighty, unstable alcoholic. They got on each others nerves in their original run, and there is no reason to think that the do-over won't be just as disastrous. It doesn't matter that Jim's character had some supremely happy memories of their old life. That still happens in bad relationships.

From the first scene, it became clear that Kate Winslet is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Since I recommended the movie, this made me a bit worried about how it would be played. The character may not have been an overused cliche in 2004, but it definitely is now, and I felt I was on the hook for it.

Luckily... TV Tropes helped me realize that the use of the MPDG in this movie was actually a subversion of sorts. The page for this movie points out a few things. First, Clementine actively resists the trope when she says "I'm not a concept, Joel. I'm just a fucked-up girl looking for my own peace of mind." Second, tropers seem to think that Clementine is "a deconstruction insofar as it shows what happens once the novelty of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl wears off and the meaning of the words becomes apparent." In other words, unlike the usual cliche, her behavior explicitly does not make her a HEALTHY ethereal muse for Jim Carrey. So if nothing else, the story is self-aware.

In the end we agreed: the movie made us both feel kind of uncomfortable, and that appears to be a big part of the point. So, in that sense, it is successful in its message.

That said, where the movie really succeeds is in some amazing cinematography. Lynnea mentioned that it's not easy to pull off a convincing dream sequence, but this is precisely where Eternal Sunshine nails it, repeatedly. All the scenes of reality disappearing, all the jarring time jumps, they add up to a really effective way of getting inside Jim Carrey's head. And "inside his head" is precisely where most of the plot takes place. IMHO it's not quite as good as Inception in this regard, but still pretty good.

The idea of tampering with people's memories ("technically, the whole process IS brain damage" the doctor explains nonchalantly) is a good staple of sci-fi, and I kept feeling like the movie was not doing enough to explore the sci-fi concepts. But in the end, this is not that movie. It really is a relationship movie -- I hesitate to call it a "romance" -- with some sci-fi elements for support. It has a pseudo-happy ending, but it is definitely not a feel good movie. The fact that it appears to be one on the surface level just makes the unsettling aspects of it more effective.


  1. I really liked this movie, and it holds up under rewatching, but like you I haven't seen it in a long time. Might to time for another look.

  2. Boy meets girl.
    Boy learns to hate girl.
    Boy and girl break it off.
    Girl gets brain damage to forget.
    Boy gets brain damage to forget.
    They meet again and are attracted to each other for the same reasons as before.
    The cycle continues.

  3. I think that the beautiful thing about this movie is how reality triumphs over fairy tale. The fact that both Joel and Clementine´s need for love is so relentless that they are willing to go for it once again -in spite of the evidence that things are not any likely to end better for them this time- denotes a real human need that is beautiful precisely because it shows a weakness. In that sense, I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, while mainstream, a rather mature movie.

    I think this is also supported by the fact that -looking at the movie from a rational, non magical perspective- it is impossible that the "Meet me in Montauk" line on the last dream is delivered by the actual Clementine, but rather Joel's mental picture of Clementine (therefore Joel's mind itself). In my opinion this is also pretty unsettling, because it points to the fact that Joel is kind of deceiving himself, kind of creating a fake-reality scenario where things will happen the way he wants (Clementine will want to get back with him, etc). I am not sure at all that this is really what the filmmaker or the screenwriter intended (after all, Clementine does show up at Montauk), but I guess I just find the movie more interesting this way.

    Another romantic movie that sort of deals with how the mind works -whether intentionally or not- is Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married (spoilers ahead), in which the main character is confronted with the decision of choosing between her nowadays awful husband and her seemingly-perfect former highschool sweetheart. I remember it reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because the protagonist's lifelong memories of her partner eventually weigh heavily on her rational judgement (which also happens in the other movie), and while at first it might seem that she makes a paradoxical decision, it kind of makes sense if you think that once you're bonded by love...that's a difficult bond to break.

  4. Also, since it's the first time that I comment on your blog, I just wanted to say that I am a fan of The Atheist Experience, and it was going across the website that I randomly ended up here... :)

  5. I loved this movie too, but it isn't designed to make you feel good about what you just watched. The term "ignorance is bliss" comes to mind.

    If you're looking for more "characters behind the gimmick" type sci-fi, you and Lynnea MUST check out Upstream Color, from the creator of Primer, Shane Carruth. You may not walk away from it having the slightest idea what you just watched, but you will certainly feel something!