Why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite films (of all time) and should be one of yours, too!
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 is a widely respected title but often unrecognized for its lasting power and timelessness. It has so much going for it – still – that one must wonder why it doesn’t frequent more montages at award ceremonies, more best film lists, and more casual conversations between friends about their ‘favorite films.’ 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:
Timeless themes and technology. 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 is not a new idea by any means (a prime example: Total Recall), but the way in which its depicted here is still fresh. It’s not a shiny procedure. It’s not in an Apple-store looking laboratory with gigantic metallic devices. 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’s office. For these reasons, the “science fiction” plot feels very seamless. Since it’s not pushing any style agenda, the film will continue to seem realistic for a long time. Okay, but what about Lacuna Inc.’s usage of cassette tapes? Bold choice! Released in the early 2000s, the film was highlighting the dependable functionality of a media storage format that had already faded away in favor of compact discs and mp3 files. To better appreciate this creative choice, Facebook was launched in 2004. Remember a time before our memories were shared and tracked through Facebook? The act of tape recording adds to the theme of nostalgia that permeates throughout the film (seen through: bookstores, BBQs, hand drawn artwork, drive-in movie theaters, etc.) The cassette tapes, and the examples within my parenthetical, counter balance the “futuristic” technology of Lacuna Inc. And hey, cassettes are still an organic way to record audio, without any of that cloud-based crap. So, there’s that for all you anti-cloud purists.
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 films highlight two very different aspects of life that couldn’t be more intertwined and universal. It’s every hopeless romantic’s wet dream: Two creative spirits searching for fulfillment in their lives find each other and fall in love, then battle their own idealistic yearnings while their romantic bond transcends any force that attempts to separate them. Hooray! Eternal Sunshine is a celebration of moments, big and small, significant and (seemingly) insignificant. The film honors every minuscule moment we share with those we love. Even if a relationship falls apart, possibly angrily, there are likely more worthwhile 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 to last the centuries. But what Eternal Sunshine teaches us is that forgetting may not be ideal. On the contrary, it’s remembering that holds the most worth.
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. It’s 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 audioscape. A staple of Gondry’s directorial style is his reliance on camera tricks rather than CGI, and Kuras’ cinematography is brilliant in allowing Gondry to fool around with the idea of characters roaming through a sequence of interconnected memories. Case in point is the sequence involving 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 book store during an argument. You just have to respect old school movie magic; none of these employed the use of over-the-top CGI.
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 baffoonish stoner engineer, would be deplorable. And Kirsten Dunst, a somewhat polarizing actress, demonstrates incredibly confident acting chops as the impressionable receptionist, who is ready to open her heart and mind at the risk of complete devastating vulnerability. Dunst steals every scene she’s in, including the ones with 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 line types that you’ll hear once or twice in a blue moon, and they sound more like buttery literary references than movie quotes. And how 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 just feel more in line with those from some Woody Allen film classics. And, that’s all good by me.
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 true form of a believable and relatable man. Joel is flawed, common, romantic, and while he’s very shy at times, he’s open and exuberant at others. 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 who affected him so deeply. He feeds off the incredible talents 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 cinematic way (see Kate Hudson in Almost Famous.) Clementine and Joel, to an extent, seem like organic characters. Strip away the quirks and technical marvels of the film and the two lead characters would 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 the acting art form. In particular, watch how they act with each other near 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. 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.”