Friday, January 11, 2013

Rewatch: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Directed by: Michel Gondry
Runtime: 1hr 48mins
Google Play, Amazon Instant

If by chance you haven't seen this film: there is a company called Lacuna that has developed the technology to be able to target and erase specific memories from a person's mind. Joel and Clementine have been dating for 2 years, but their relationship has been going bad. One day Joel goes to meet her and she doesn't recognize him. He finds out she had him erased from her memory. If you were in a similar situation it seems that about the only thing left for you to do would be to have the procedure done yourself, which is exactly what Joel decides to do. While reliving his memories with Clementine in reverse he goes through the bad memories, until he gets to some of the better memories and remembers why he fell in love with her in the first place. It allows him to see that he still loves her and doesn't want the procedure to continue, but by then it might be too late, because he's already asleep.
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I have probably seen this movie too many times (but we all tend to watch and rewatch movies we like right?), but that isn't a bad thing. In fact this is a film that requires multiple viewings because so much of it is jumping back and forth through time/memories, which obviously, gives the unique situation of a character reliving his memories. This allows you, the viewer, to have different reactions to scenes based on what you know from previous viewings.

For instance the film opens after the procedure has already happened and we see Joel and Clementine meet for the second time. The credit sequence (which doesn't happen until about 20 minutes into the film) is a flashback to before Joel has had the procedure done. He is crying while driving home to fall asleep and have his memory of Clementine erased. You'll notice the dot on his temple that tells us he is about to have the procedure done. This is something you won't notice, or understand upon your first viewing of the film.


For much of the rest of the film Joel is living inside physical representations of his memories, feeling what he felt at the time, saying what he said at the time, but still able to realize he is inside a memory (like realizing you are dreaming). This presence of mind allows him to focus on what he needs to do, which is attempting to hide Clementine in memories she doesn't belong in, so she won't get erased entirely. The fascinating thing here, for me, is this theme of memories and how emotional they can make us. We all wish we could relive our happiest memories (perhaps in the distant future virtual reality will allow us to realize this dream). It was the pain of memories that lead Joel to accept the procedure to begin with, however it was the power of his fond memories that lead him to rebel against the procedure to keep what memories he had left. Our realization is that despite the grief that painful memories give us, we ultimately accept them rather than losing our good memories to relieve ourselves of pain.

Joel is able to speak to Clementine in these memories, but he's really talking to himself through his memory of her. If you've ever felt that you have known someone so well that you know what they would think, or say about certain things, this is essentially what's happening for Joel. This is how he is able to create alternate memories from within his real memories. It's a mixture of a dream and a memory.

These sequences in which Joel relives memories show great planning/editing on the part of the director Michel Gondry and editor Valdis Oskarsdottir. Gondry's 2006 film, The Science of Sleep, was another very creatively crafted film, that made interesting use of props, sets and editing as unique special effects to create dream sequences.

Of the films I've seen that he has written I think we are seeing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's best work (known for his off the wall scripts/characters). It seems like the perfect match of writer and director to create what has become one of my favorite films. From a pure filmmaking perspective it is one of the most interesting/creative films I've ever seen.

I appreciate a film that uses practical effects rather than over-utilizing CGI and green screen to pull off special effects (think old Indiana Jones vs Indy 4; old Star Wars vs newer Star Wars). I'm also very fond of the lost art of long takes. They're far more impressive than sequences with rapid cutting. A long take requires vast amount of planning, timing and usually rehearsals to pull off. It requires more of your actors. They have to stay in character longer, know more dialogue and memorize movements while delivering dialogue. Gondry pulls off many impressive long takes, for instance there is a sequence where Joel has offended Clementine, so she gets up and walks from one room to the other, packing things in a bag so she can storm out. Joel follows her trying to apologize, but since it's a memory and it's in the process of being erased, she keeps disappearing in front of him, walking in one room, then walking out of another. It's similar to an old Looney Tunes trick, but it's not pulled off with cutting back and forth, it's all one camera shot while Kate walked through doors we can't see.

Another sequence sees Joel walk into a memory of a memory, in which Howard (the doctor from Lacuna) is talking to another Joel (he sees himself in third person). Again, instead of cutting back and forth or using computers to pull it off it is done with one camera shot. Jim Carrey walked into the scene, but when the camera pans over to Howard, Carrey ran behind the camera, took off his hat and coat, and sat down in the chair across from Howard. Then, just before the camera pans back over to the Joel standing in the doorway, Carrey puts the hat and coat back on, and ran behind the camera again to be standing in the doorway. The effect is pulled off, and no one knows that Jim Carrey literally played two versions of his character in the same scene just feet apart, without any special effects. This is impressive filmmaking.

It's also interesting to note that because these memories we are witnessing are being erased, as we see them you'll notice things in frame disappearing. In a scene in a library, words disappear from books, and signs around the room. In another scene at a subway station, people disappear from the crowd around them.
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Clementine is a free-spirit, she's a bit "out there," a bit fun loving, but over time, as inevitably happens in relationships, her less pleasant side comes out. She gets bored of Joel, and becomes difficult to live with. However Joel is a normal, every-man, whose pleasant memories of her are when her free-spirit pulled him out of his mundane life. She provided him love and excitement. This is a familiar character type (you might remember Maude from Harold and Maude among others), but Kaufman is well aware of this fact. He chose to have the characters acknowledge the fact. We overhear Joel talking on a tape at Lacuna (part of the process behind the procedure) mention that Clementine is interesting, she's the type of person who promises to change his mundane life. We also hear Clementine repeatedly warn Joel that she isn't a concept (as if acknowledging that people consider her a "free spirit"), she isn't looking to fix or change his life, she is just "a messed up girl looking for her own peace of mind." This somewhat daring choice seems to make these characters seem more real. Instead of being a familiar character archetype, Clementine becomes something more.


Another theme present in the film is the power love (or fate) holds over time, memory, and chance. Since we know they both had their memory erased, but they still somehow end up meeting, we know that these two are destined to meet and fall in love again. The film seems to be telling us that erasing the memories of star-crossed lovers isn't enough to keep them from falling for each other in the future. It also allows for the possible reading that this could have been happening again and again: meet, fall in love, things go bad, memory is erased, and then history repeats itself. For this reason we can't really be sure which meeting and memory erasing we are truly seeing or whether the same thing might not happen again.

In fact, unless the people move away, so they won't cross paths again, there is no guarantee that things won't happen the same way again. This turns out to be the fatal flaw in Lacuna's procedure. We get the sense that the film doesn't exactly approve of such a procedure. Kirsten Dunst's character, Mary Svevo, seems to bring about the end of the company when she mails out records to all previous patients. This, of course, would have crippled their business if not completely destroyed it. There is a good chance that this sort of thing is something people would really want done, but the difficult question we think of during the course of the film is, would you really be okay with erasing about 2 years from your mind? But then again no one would bring anything small to a procedure such as this.

These characters have seen their relationship gone bad so they erase each other from their memory which, ironically, gives them a real second chance to start over in a way people in real life could never have. Is it better to let things end, and live with the pain of it, or to erase 2 years from your life and give yourself the second chance knowing that it could end the same way? That's what the characters find themselves debating by the end of the film. It's open to interpretation, but, I've always seen it as Joel acknowledging there's a chance it could fail again, but when he says, "ok" I can't help feeling that they were prepared to give the relationship another shot (again this is open to interpretation, so watch it and see what you think). It's a shame that Mary's quote book didn't include the wise words of Tennyson, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Perhaps she, Joel and Clementine wouldn't have had to go through the events of this film in order to come to the realization, but then again would Joel and Clementine have had another chance? You could argue for and against that.

The final shot with Joel and Clementine running around at the snowy beach is purposely vague. Is it a flashback, or is it the future after they've gotten back together?

I could tell you that both Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are playing against type in this film, but that's plain to see from the beginning of the film. It shows their range as actors, and it's truly a shame that Jim Carrey hasn't done more dramatic roles, because I think I prefer him as a dramatic actor, rather than an over-the-top comedy actor (but that could just say more about me not being much of a fan of over-the-top comedy than anything else).

I posted a link to one of Roger Ebert's blog entries that talked about how to read a movie. In the entry he talks about how there are classes devoted to sitting with a group of people and watching a film, but stopping it frequently to discuss the filmmaking and plot in an attempt to gain a better understanding of not just the film itself, but the making of it as well. I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would be a fascinating film to do that with. There is so much to see, that it might help to pause it every once in a while and observe the frame. It also helps if you have other sets of eyes to help you see things you didn't before.

Watch it, watch it again, and notice everything you didn't see the first time around. You have to SEE it at least twice to really WATCH it.