Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 10 years on

I note others have done an anniversary post, and today by date was the day I first saw the film, at an art house cinema in Newcastle, shortly after its UK release. I’ve just rewatched my collector’s edition and read the screenplay. I’d like to add my thoughts as they fit with my Kate Winslet season.

First off is the personal issue of “what would I erase?” and whether I have regrets I can live with. There’s the life I had then, and now… and it’s hard to disassociate the film from those two aspects. That angle will not be part of this post, although it’s the most powerful.

Eternal…. is an example of Kate Winslet’s continuing interesting choices, one she claims was surprising for her, but it did not surprise me, it delighted me. She wasn’t purely ‘corset Kate’, having done Holy Smoke and Hideous Kinky within the last 5 years; and only the year before had she been a modern American journalist. There’d been humour in her work before – particularly Holy Smoke again, and Quills. It was no surprise Kate could do quirky and zany, but it was also an ideas based romantic drama – very much like the majority of her work, and where she’s deviated from that, I think Kate’s been her least successful.

I knew little of Charlie Kaufman, though I’d seen Being John Malkovich, but he came to be a screenwriter I admired for his original, quirky, sweeping ideas – something that makes him one of the few well known film writers. On the DVD extras, Jim Carrey called a Kaufman script as near to perfect as they come, but I’m now not so sure.

I consider the Kaufman/Michel Gondry alliance as comparable to George Martin and John Lennon’s. I’ve heard George’s orchestral tracks on the Magical Mystery Tour album, and I’ve heard John’s own original versions of Tomorrow Never Knows and I am the Walrus – the two songs that attracted me to the Beatles for their surprising, multilayered, interesting orchestrations. Lennon and Martin need each other; apart they are disappointing. Similarly, I was wowed by Michel Gondry’s visual style and the unusualness of his filmmaking technique. After Eternal came The Science of Sleep from Gondry, which I excitedly awaited. Amid the appealing stop motion animation, there was a naïve charm, something I feel in the work of both him and Charlie K – but it felt to me a much less successful story than Eternal. I skipped his cornucopia of famous movie remakes Be Kind Rewind and gave up after family documentary A Thorn in the Heart. My pleasure at Kaufman faded after Synecdoche, New York, where the size of his ideas and contortions of his mind lost me – and moreover, so did the misery and self loathing of the protagonist. It was there again in Adaptation, which I saw later, and I can see it now in Eternal.

Charlie Kaufman feels a little like Woody Allen – a writer who puts himself in his movies, set in his favourite city, plays with layers of the self, and laughs at his own angst and works through it with us. So far, I follow him and thus sympathetic. But that written self is too depreciating, too mumbling, too bitter. The introduction to the published script of Synecdoche was a rant of “I’m obliged to write this but I don’t care and I’ve nothing to say.” After not enjoying the movie, I really was put off and decided I’d seek out neither filmmaker again.

I dislike the Newmarket shooting script ending to Eternal: a simple sour mutual  “OK”. Clem and Joel have learnt nothing, just come to a point of acceptance of the inevitability of another demise, but they will try and enjoy their renewed relationship til then. Kaufman’s work is about big themes but never spiritual, and I personally don’t think growth and profundity is possible without it.

Apart from the wisdom re unreciprocated love, I recall being disappointed in the ethos and personal growth presented in Adaptation. When I’d got my head round the journey in Eternal, I felt similarly. Clem’s speech about being ‘a fucked up girl looking for her own piece of mind – don’t assign me yours’ might have sound a self aware, honest speech, but it belies an inability to take interest in others and to fully let down her mask. Others may seek her for completion – but she is not yet complete herself. (Obviously, I am…!?)

I note Kaufman’s earlier collaboration with Spike Jonze, who’s just made such a thoughtful film where people are articulate (see my earlier post about being congruent and Her). Clementine is sometimes congruent, eg when she twice tells Joel she’s pissed by the hurtful thing he’s just said (‘talking constantly isn’t communicating’; that fucking is how Clem gets people to like her). That is when I liked her best, and when I felt these two movies are most akin.

Eternal Sunshine’s strongest card is, for me, Kate Winslet. The younger staff at Lacuna are too unethical and immature, recalling Ruth’s family in Holy Smoke, I presume to make an ironic contrast with the deprogramming in both films. Joel is “nice” but I found his muttering unbearable and wanted to join Clem’s injunction to “open your goddamn mouth, I can never the fuck understand what you’re saying!” (He actually does – hooray for the listener and for the story arc!) I like that Clem acts out Joel’s inner desires. I disagree about the hair dying criticism (see Kate Winslet 1 post) but not sure I’d follow Joel in calling it ‘topping”. Only in the childhood scene does she have her hair dyed properly, ie all over (when she looks gorgeous). Otherwise it looks amateurishly done and smeared on. I was concerned by the smothering scenes as a kind of game. The real sign of Clem’s childishness and recklessness is not just her poor professionalism (her snog-boyfriend, ignore-customer would’ve got her sacked from most bookshops), not just her going on a frozen river, but in the breaking into someone’s home at the chronological start. It’s not only illegal, it’s a horrid thing to do, but the Lacuna guys also steal liquor from someone else’s home. And then Clem gatecrashes a play (which is not anti elitism, but not supporting the arts), she drink/drives, which Joel rightly calls irresponsible. As much as I want to like Clem, I’d grow tired of her, and with that she’s a poor listener – note how often she interrupts Joel. And that she erases Joel not only on a whim, but a kind of lark.

I love the concept and the message of Eternal Sunshine – that one should not try to blot our difficulties but embrace them – but arrogant as this may sound, feel I’ve partially outgrown the story, which saddens me, because it’s long been a favourite.

I am finishing watching the commentary and will put final thoughts up shortly.

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