Eternally Grateful for Eternal Sunshine

by Chad Liffmann on March 19, 2015

Why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite films (of all time) and should be one of yours, too!

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Jim and Kate lay beside each other in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

Eleven years ago today (March 19, 2004), Michel Gondry’s award winning sci-fi romantic dramedy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, was released – and how to categorize such a multifaceted film gem? At the time, it played strong in somewhat limited release, earning $34 million in the domestic box office while garnering very positive critical reviews and mass audience approval. More than a decade later, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a widely respected title, but it often goes unrecognized for its lasting power and timelessness. It has so much going for it, even eleven years later, that one must wonder why it doesn’t frequent more award ceremony montages, more best film lists, and more casual conversations between friends about their favorite films of all time. The A.V. Club got it right, claiming Eternal Sunshine to be the best film of the 2000s. You may be thinking, ‘I liked the movie, but it’s not one of my all time favorites’.  Well, I implore you to reconsider, and here’s why:

The film’s themes are timeless. Until there comes a day when humankind discovers and harnesses the ability for memory erasure, Eternal Sunshine will benefit from a futuristic plot device. Sure, mind-altering procedures are not new ideas by any means (a prime example: 1990’s Total Recall), but the way in which its depicted in Eternal Sunshine feels fresh. It’s not a shiny procedure. The mind-manipulation doesn’t occur in an Apple store-esque laboratory with gigantic metallic devices. Rather, it’s based in the real word, since Lacuna Inc., the company behind the memory altering process in the film, operates out of a hole-in-the-wall commercial space featuring the aesthetic of a local dentist office. For these reasons, the “science fiction” element of the plot feels very seamless and based in reality. Since the film doesn’t push forward any suggestions of what type of commercial style the future will embrace, the film can continue to seem realistic for a long time. Okay, but what about Lacuna Inc.’s usage of cassette tapes? It’s a bold choice, I agree! Released in the early 2000s, Eternal Sunshine was actually highlighting the dependability of a media storage format that had already faded away in favor of compact discs and mp3 files. To better appreciate this creative choice, take this into consideration: Facebook was launched in 2004, the same year the film was released. Remember a time when our memories weren’t shared and tracked through Facebook? The act of tape recording adds to a central theme of nostalgia that permeates throughout the film. Nostalgia is one of the tools our mind uses to bridge time, and Eternal Sunshine is steeped in nostalgic tokens and occurrences that we can all relate to: bookstores, hand drawn artwork, drive-in movie theaters, etc. The cassette tapes, like the aforementioned list, counter balance the “futuristic” technology of Lacuna Inc. to keep the story relevant and recognizable.

Tech aside, the film’s message of love and companionship is timeless as well. Just as Boyhood this year depicted one boy’s journey in a way that reflected the lives of us all, Eternal Sunshine has a mouthful to say about the relationship between love and memory. The film highlights two very different aspects of life that couldn’t be more intertwined and universal. Eternal Sunshine is every hopeless romantic’s wet dream: Two creative spirits searching for fulfillment in their lives find each other and fall in love, then they battle their own idealistic yearnings while their romantic bond transcends any force that attempts to separate them. And ultimately they choose love over a the presumed futility of their relationship. Hooray! Why is this important? Because Eternal Sunshine is a celebration of moments — big and small, significant and most importantly, the (seemingly) insignificant. The film honors every minuscule moment we share with those we love. Even if a relationship falls apart, even angrily, there are likely countless moments to cherish. There’s a lesson learned here, one that I, personally, hold dear to my heart. Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Or maybe a better Nietzsche quote would be, “Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.” Yes, the latter was quoted in the film and both are some of the best ‘overly-and-overtly-over-the-top-tried-and-true’ quotes we’ve heard over the last century. But what Eternal Sunshine teaches us is that forgetting may not be an ideal practice. On the contrary, it could be remembering that holds the most worth.

Mark Ruffalo and Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

The incredible performances. And I mean, all of the performances. Not just the actors. I’m referring to the entire cast and crew, from the extras, to composer Jon Brion, to cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Every. One. Brion’s score is perfectly quirky and dramatic. Its whimsical use of harp and flute, which match the quirkiness of the film without being too fantastical, paired with the inclusion of excellent song selections from E.L.O., Beck (a cover performed with Brion), and The Polyphonic Spree, solidify the breezy fluidity of the film’s audioscape. A staple of Gondry’s directorial style is his reliance on camera tricks rather than CGI, and Kuras’ cinematography brilliantly allows Gondry to fool around with the idea of characters roaming through a sequence of interconnected memories. Case in point are the sequences including Jim Carrey running after Kate Winslet along the street after their breakup, or when he’s “baby Joel” underneath the kitchen table, or the books gradually disappearing from the bookstore during an argument. You just have to respect old school movie magic to appreciate the technical achievement of these scenes; none of them employed the use of over-the-top CGI we’ve grown accustomed to.

I won’t spend too much time praising the pitch perfect supporting performances, but they’re too essential to simply sweep under the rug. To say that Elijah Wood delivered anything less than an amazing job as the identity-stealing tech nerd, or that Mark Ruffalo (finally being recognized for the A-list caliber character actor that he is following his performance in last year’s Foxcatcher) didn’t nail the buffoonish stoner engineer, would be deplorable. And Kirsten Dunst, a somewhat polarizing actress for many, demonstrates incredibly confident acting chops as the impressionable receptionist who is ready to open her heart and mind at the risk of personally devastating vulnerability. Dunst steals every scene she’s in, including the ones in which she’s opposite actor extraordinaire Tom Wilkinson.

Quotable without being annoying. From David Cross’s frustrated declaration to his wife, “I am making a bird house!” to “Sand is overrated. It’s just tiny, little rocks” and finally “Meet me in Montauk” — these are the type of lines that you’ll hear once or twice in a blue moon, and they sound more like buttery literary references than movie quotes. And that’s quite appropriate. The title of the movie, itself, comes from Alexander Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard. Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m as much a fan of throwing out quotes from Anchorman, Zoolander, and Napoleon Dynamite as the next cinephile but the quotes from Eternal Sunshine feel more in line with those from some Woody Allen film classics, which is all good by me.

“Meet me in Montauk” Kate whispers in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Jim and Kate.  Jim Carrey gives a performance for the ages. I wish I knew who to blame, Jim or his agent or the studios or someone else, for him not appearing in more movies like Eternal Sunshine, or taking on more layered roles like that of Joel Barish. Carrey molds his traditional comedic antics into the form of a believable and relatable man. Joel is flawed, common, romantic, and while he’s very shy at times, he’s also open and exuberant when comfortable. He’s not exaggerated or inflated. He’s a character that should remind you, in places, of yourself or someone close to you. There’s also no other movie of Carrey’s in which his character is so noticeably changed by encountering a romantic partner. His gimmicky roles in Liar Liar or Ace Ventura are funny, but the affection he feels for Clementine truly transforms him. He feeds off the incredible talent of his counterpart (in this case, the incomparable talents of Kate Winslet).

With her ever-changing vibrant hair colors and constant appreciation for everything spontaneous and spur-of-the-moment, Clementine Kruczynski is a woman we all know and frequently envy. She is free-spirited to a fault, but not in the usual stereotypical cinematic way (see Kate Hudson in Almost Famous.) Clementine and Joel seem like organic characters, not made up of words written in a script. Strip away the sci-fi quirks and technical marvels of the film and the two lead characters would suddenly fit perfectly into a Richard Linklater film, like the Before Sunrise series. Watch Eternal Sunshine again to appreciate how much Jim and Kate perfect the subtleties of acting as art form. In particular, watch how they act with each other in the final moments of the film when they speak in the hallway outside Joel’s apartment, and notice the body language and the inflections in their voices. It’s sublime.

So…now that you have a deeper appreciation for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (or maybe you don’t), here are some things you can do to honor the film:

– Watch it again. And again. On repeat, if possible.
– Go on an Eternal Sunshine tour of NY, including trips to Grand Central Station, Montauk and Plaza Restaurant, and Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park.
– Read Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope.
– Take a minute to remember the perfect moments you’ve had in your life. Appreciate the (hopefully many) snapshots of happiness that you’ve shared with those you love and those you’ve drifted apart from.
– Change the color of your hair to “Tangerine.”

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