Wednesday, January 18, 2006

But It's Eternal! And There's Sunshine!

ML Kennedy, who lived in my college dorm, writes a column on insidepulse called "Contradicting Popular Opinion: An Enquiry Concerning Why Your Favorite Movie Sucks." I read it regularly now that I have a desk job, and find that more often than not I agree with his assessments (at least of the movies I've seen). I've generally been a fan of his movie tastes, in one way or another: most noteworthy, he ran my dormitory's favorite hangout and during the 2000 election curated a Sunday-night movie series called "Monkey versus Robot." So I'm a fan. However, he posted several months ago in his column a very articulate and interesting deconstruction of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which may, in fact, qualify as my favorite movie. Having read it, I brought it up to Lucas and Bri, only to find they felt the same contempt for the movie, in particular for Kate Winslet's character, Clementine, seeing her as antifeminist, pretending independence while clearly being as messed-up and in desperate need of a man as a character could be. I suddenly found, after the fourth time I'd seen the movie and loved it just as much, how many people in the world didn't like it, which I hadn't managed to know the first three times I'd seen the film. Now, still loving it after a fifth viewing, I feel honor-bound to defend the only movie whose DVD director's commentary I have ever watched.

I recognize, for the record, that this will end in disagreement; I'm unlikely to change anybody's mind. But I'm tired of the smile-and-nod, "yeah, you're right, I know you're right . . . but I still like it!" sheepish routine I sometimes end with. This is about what makes the movie important.

I'll start with ML Kennedy's central claim that nothing is at stake. At the beginning of Eternal Sunshine, we could be watching any relatively good romantic comedy. We're reading over the shoulder of an awkward, shy man writing in his journal; on the train he meets an awkward, abrasive woman and they experience instant, awkward chemistry. He gives her a ride home from the train station, she awkwardly invites him up to her apartment, and clearly they've connected enough to meet again. After which point the narrative jumps back a day, allowing us to learn that they have, indeed, met before; in fact, they dated for two years before having one another erased from their respective memories, a radical non-surgical procedure discovered by Dr. Howard Mierswiak and performed by smart, socially inept, clumsy, pot-smoking technicians, employees of Mierswiak's medical company, Lacuna, Inc.

It may be that some people find this premise too outrageous to deal with; once the concept came into the film, I thought it was clear we weren't dealing with a realistic universe. Kennedy has a point in noting that the procedure, upon its discovery, might be put to more productive use, but at the same time, in a capitalist system, why not use a new scientific discovery solely in the private sector in order to maximize your profit?

After this point, the majority of the film takes place in Joel's unconscious as his memories of Clementine are being erased. We see the relationship backwards through time, from the harsh argument that characterized the recent time to the genuine intimacy, back through the first buzz of falling in love. Imagining meeting these characters in my world, I don't believe I would like either of them: Joel's dull, repressed, and incapable of living in the world in a way that interests him, while Clementine's melodramatic, self-serving, likes being weird better than she actually likes her life. But more than either of the characters, the relationship itself becomes the protagonist of the film. It is the relationship, not either of the characters, that I found myself loving in spite of its faults and difficulties, caring about and rooting for. More than either of the particular characters, it's the relationship that continually surprises, that we learn things about as an audience, the relationship whose journey we are invested in. These people, however damaged and difficult, managed to make each other happy. What is at stake is the journey of the relationship, which we see grow and change, if in an unconventional narrative way. We know they've somewhat gotten back together from the beginning of the film, but we've seen it end in disaster before, and I'd say suspense is present. Will they waste two more years of their lives, will they realize what's gone on, can they?

It could be argued that the storyline with Kirsten Dunst is a deus ex machina, but I don't find it so. Tom Wilkinson is a good enough actor to demonstrate the ethical struggle involved with that situation, to show his journey and his confusion, and our investment in his performance and therefore his character justifies the eventual outcome. Kirsten Dunst, on the other hand, is not a good actor; everyone knows and acknowledges this. However, as far as I'm concerned she does a perfectly adequate job in this film. I feel about her as I feel about Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love: with a better actor in the role, this would have been an even better movie, but it's strong enough around Kirsten Dunst that she doesn't detract from it, simply remains neutral.

Kennedy claims that the characters in the movie learn that love causes pain as well as pleasure. I'd say they learn the opposite, and that that's a much more difficult lesson to portray. The founding principle behind Lacuna is that the pain isn't worth it; that's why each character who's gone through the procedure chooses to do so. Ultimately, the movie acknowledges what our society so often fails to acknowledge: that just because something does not exist does not mean that it never existed. In this case, that "something" is love, and happiness therein.

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, who in my viewing experience had one source of absolute intellectual fascination (Being John Malkovich) and one intelligent abject disaster (Adaptation) under his belt when I saw Eternal Sunshine, is a brilliant man with a tendency to be an intellectual jerkoff, a tendency I found almost nonexistent here. Interestingly, the quirky concept that was the center of the movie, rather than being prodded ad infinitum as in Adaptation, became casual, came to serve the story he was telling rather than be the story he was telling.

Then there's Elijah Wood's character, Patrick, the dorky, desperate, unethical assistant Lacuna technician who stole Clementine's panties while erasing her memory and starts a relationship with her based on the information provided by Joel's memories. Completely without independent thought, without any understanding of women, he attempts to recreate Joel's relationship with Clementine, which triggers in her some undefined echoes of the erased memories. Kennedy believes that to make Patrick and his ethical violations work, we should have seen him and Clementine having sex. Would it be rape? he asked. If so, could we do anything about it? They're interesting questions, certainly, nothing I would object to having answered by the movie. But it's not evasive not to answer them; in some ways, I feel that the storyline with Howard Mierswiak and Mary (Kirsten Dunst's character) serves that purpose. In the scene between them at Joel's apartment Tom Wilkinson clearly struggles with the sexual question; the scene with Mierswiak's wife and the aftermath of her revelation is so well-written that even an actor as bland as Kirsten Dunst can convey the conflict inherent in her sexual desires. I agree that Kaufman has not explored every possible social and ethical repercussion of his imagined technology, but so what? These questions arrive from what is present in the movie, and the fact that he hasn't pushed one of the many limits does not signify to me that he has not pushed others.

I'll concede that the people waving at the camera are a substantive problem, even though I haven't spotted them yet. That's sloppy filmmaking, and for it Gondry, the director, deserves to be chastised. However, I don't feel it exemplifies the general attitude towards quality in the filmmaking, and I would have a bigger problem if it did.

Also, I'll defend the slight presence of the supernatural/unconscious/psychic that causes Joel to skive off work and find Clementine again in Montauk. The film emphasizes that we don't know everything. We don't know everything about love, or about memory; we sometimes know results without completely understanding processes; it is possible to know something's missing (in both love and memory) without knowing what or how to find it. I'll say openly that I don't have trouble believing in psychic abilities either, although I don't have them; I can't see a logical reason why they wouldn't exist, why such intense sensitivity to others and to their mental states shouldn't exist in some people. Certainly that mysticism requires stretching our credulity, but so does love. Eternal Sunshine, like most films, exists in an altered universe. The realities of this universe are clearly defined within the film, and if they don't match up point for point with the universe I inhabit, I can live with that.

Is Clementine a hateful or antifeminist figure? She certainly contains some of the problems of the New Ingenue (about which figure I will do a longer post later) and her relationship with Joel, as with the standard male counterpart to the New Ingenue, takes those difficulties even further: always the intelligent, crazy girls (girls not women) are attracted to the boring, stolid guys and are able to bring out the creativity lurking beneath their bland exteriors, making the man's dawning, excited revelation into something like, "My girlfriend is beautiful and intelligent and fascinating and provocative and desperate and unstable--and she needs ME!" Always the New Ingenue seems like she's more solid and more capable of living in the world, but as she becomes more intimate with Boring Man she falls apart and we can see that he's a pillar of stability for her. (Most of the examples I can think of off the top of my head are from real life, and therefore I will ignore them. I'll come up with more films and plays when I do the New Ingenue post, but the Hooker with the Heart of Gold is her predecessor.) Eternal Sunshine doesn't violate this pattern--indeed, the scene under the blanket is its archetype. Yet I love that scene. Particularly in intimacy, I'd say we've all got some cliche inside us; perhaps it's only in intimacy that we can honestly know why cliches become cliches. And Joel has not, thus far, shown us very much of that stability, which undercuts some of the typical New Ingenue. Again, I'd say the movie is showing a man at least as embarrassingly incompetent at living his life as the woman. Certainly it's a bigger deal when a cinematic woman is incapable of living a fulfilling life than when a cinematic man is, but this movie more than most succeeds at making its relationship completely individualized, not compelling its woman to be every woman--perhaps because it spends so much time portraying intimacy, what is between two people that isn't relevant to anyone else. Is Clementine hateful? I wouldn't like her, but it's about time people started making cinematic women specific enough for me to dislike.

Talia's always insisted that at the end of the movie means that they will do better this time, that they were meant to be together, and that makes the film better. I don't think they will, I don't think they were any more than I think anyone else is, and I think that doesn't matter to the quality of the movie; in fact, to me the idea that it will still end badly makes it an even better film. If the characters have Learned Something by the end, it seems to be that sometimes things don't work and yet they're still worthwhile. What Joel has heard on the tapes isn't "this is the woman for me," what he heard was how deeply well he had known this person, this stranger, and how beautiful that knowledge was, even when its results were painful. The fact that they will break up doesn't mean they should not have gotten together in the first place; what's a waste is erasing two years of your emotional life.

The first few times I saw it, I thought the intelligence behind the movie was so strong that you could throw against it any questions you had regarding the Lacuna procedure and the film's logic would still stand. After a fifth viewing, I've come up with a number of questions: given how sweeping Joel and Clementine's erasures had to be, how was it possible to erase the *relationship* with Howard Mierswiak from Mary's memory without erasing Howard himself? How could Mary say to someone on the phone "you can't have the procedure done three times" when Lacuna customers don't remember that they have been Lacuna customers in the first place? Why does Lacuna trust the patients to remove every trace of the person to be erased from their household--wouldn't they need to do a sweep themselves, lest somebody keep an object for sentimental reasons or by means of neglect, as we find Joel has at the end of the film? But the intelligence and truth and honesty within the film are strong enough to conquer minor difficulties--it's excellent art that, like most excellent art, made a couple of mistakes. When I see a film that's both perfectly made and as deeply moving as this one, I'll happily move it down on my list, nor have I seen enough of the Top 100 Films to which Kennedy refers to object to its placement as number 31. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind unquestionably put something into the cinematic world that was not there at all before, and emphasized elements of human relationships that particularly in contemporary filmmaking are rarely explored. For that it deserves its high praise.


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