Eternal Sunshine – going backwards and erasing too much

This is part two on this 10 year old cult indie movie, and part of a Kate Winslet season I’m having on here.

I’ve now watched the whole DVD commentary and the film backwards, and tried to read the shooting script backwards too.

I feel a little fading of my own, as I prewarned in my first post….

The three things going on in different orders make it hard to see, but I still believe that the story should work in chronological order. I’m focussing on Clem and Joel’s original, pre wipe relationship.

I think some significant things have gone to the eraser guys – which seem to be studio bosses. In the DVD commentary, Michel kept seeing, it had to go, it was too long. Says who?

We have this fetish that films – and now novels – have to be a certain length. I’m glad that there’s a trend (which I wanted to start) with two or three movies to adapt one book. I think you often need 4-6 hours of screentime to do a novel justice.

Even as a penned for the screen, non adapted story, Eternal… is too short because now I’ve analysed it and got used to it, there’s some important character/story arc missing. Sadly, much of it seems to be lost in the cutting room, for it was actually in the shooting script (ie the published version which they used to shoot the film, though this is often deviated from).

I definitely disagree with Jim Carrey that a Charlie Kaufman script is near perfect; I felt I could do lots of erasing and it would be nothing we’d miss; odd bits of dialogue, mini scenes that we could glean in 1 (eg 3 to show they’re at a beach party), but I don’t believe in cutting dialogue for its own sake, only when something’s said which isn’t needed or is not well written.

Here’s the arc as I see it and what’s missing:

So where do we start from? Joel’s in a nice, safe relationship, but he’s restless.

We have the central dichotomy: nice Naomi vs crazy Clementine

One of the bits of wisdom I love that I think is cut from the movie is where Clem says [in her first re-meeting with Joel] that truth changes; and to stay alive, you must be open to change. She disagrees that a sign of maturity is consistency; for that is how we die.

Feeling frustrated with ennui and unexpressed thoughts, Joel goes to a party without Naomi and meets Clem.

Missing important line: Clem’s opening gambit is, on seeing Joel also alone at the party: “Thank goodness for someone else normal who doesn’t know how to interact at these things”. And Joel is touched by her sensitivity, even though her confident introduction feels like a contradiction.

So I’m liking Clem, understanding why Joel does. Without that line, I don’t.

But what of the rest of that day, where their interaction is important enough for Joel to seek out Clem again after a bad ending and to throw off his live in girlfriend of 2 years?

The little dialogue they had on that first meeting – about shared pharmaceutical drug taking and poetry taste – is cut, and we’re left with maverick, criminal, pushy Clem who disdainfully tells Joel to go. It seems their attraction is mutual, but that they’ve not kissed or talked about it – Clem checks which sex Joel lives with “so [she] knows she’s not barking up the wrong tree” and Joel comments that Clem knew that once he was in the beach house, she had him… and then she goes upstairs to “change into something a little more Ruth” ie like the woman who owns the house, which sounds like seduction is to follow. But how did they get to that point?

The shooting script has Joel then deliberate over his life with Naomi, which he sees continuing forever as it is, and the regretful, hollow older man he’d become… and the aliveness that Clem sparks in him – except I’m struggling to see how a criminal interloper, smotherer, unprofessional employee, pissy, immature Clem represents ebullient life for Joel.

This part is also cut from the finished film.

When Joel seeks out Clem in the bookstore (which we don’t know he knows she works in at that point), another vital line is axed: that Clem represents something important to him. (I note that the script mentions both Barnes & Nobel and Borders – which is it that Clem works at?!)

In the released film, we don’t have Joel’s break up with Naomi, we don’t even fully understand it’s happened. The first date – ‘second acting’ (ie, the theatre without tickets) – is also cut, and it’s important because Joel says he wasn’t fully sure about being with Clem and not Naomi then, but that he is as he was being erased.

Then comes a big chunk of silliness with Joel and Clem together, and it’s where vital turning points are left out.

Joel and Clem feel like their childhood counterparts: immature post student companions, but not lovers, not really a couple. We never see their first kiss, their first protestations of love, their first physical consummation. The script tells us that they made love on the frozen Charles river, and if you freeze frame, you can see the deleted dialogue about this written in Kate Winslet’s hand being pulled out of Patrick Baby Boy’s rucksack towards the end of the film. I think I’d have chosen that memorable place to show Clem and Joel as lovers, to show that development. There’s another love scene without a context on the DVD extras, but not in the movie.

Then comes the turning point scene, the hacked and shortened Velveteen Rabbit speech which becomes a tale beneath the covers about the ugly doll which represents Clem. As Joel reassures Clem she’s pretty, they begin the only passionate kiss I can recall in the film, and that’s when Joel decides he wants to keep a memory…. and then that he’d like to call the erasing off.

Nothing seems to change in their oddball friendship until suddenly, having had an affectionate time pillow smothering and armpit sniffing, Clem and Joel are ‘the dining dead’, and she’s criticising his domestic habits. Then it’s the fleamarket scene, where they’re in love enough to consider children but in which she threatens to leave him after Joel implies she’s not ready and possibly a unsuitable parent.

Then it’s the bored TV watching scene where Joel plays dead as Clem stomps out and returns at 3am, drunk with a dented car and quite possibility having been unfaithful…. and the fight which ends their 2 year relationship. And we never see or understand Clem’s decision to erase Joel, other than being impulsive. I didn’t feel that fight was big enough to end the relationship, and neither does Joel, who’s tried to make up by Valentine’s day and call, only to find Clem’s number has been erased, and that when he goes into her bookstore, she doesn’t recognise him and is with Patrick.

The film’s ending grates. I think it could be improved with a single line change. So when Clem says, I’ll get bored and feel trapped, that’s what I do… Joel should say, “But what if that’s because you keep telling yourself that. What if you told yourself a different story this time?”

I do note that Joel seems to have learned something, for his mumbling stops by the end, and he is clear and Jim-Carrey-esque in his mind (aren’t many of us clearer and more confident in the privacy of our own thoughts?) I was glad that Joel is, as Clem observes, closed mouthed – I realised how much Jim zanily shows his teeth usually, and therefore what a change of role this is for him. But Clem doesn’t seem to be any more ready for a better relationship.

Joel and Clem’s mutual taste in books is also cut, which gave them a deeper connection, and you don’t see the reading together in the movie, but you do the script. Strangely for a bookseller, Joel tells Dr Howard that he can’t really talk to Clem about books, she’s more of a magazine girl.

If you freeze frame the film, you can see lots of things which are so sped up you’d miss them: eg a scene with Rob, Carrie Joel and Clem – for I was wondering how they were all mutual friends.

I’m unsure about Howard and Mary having had an affair; even the one grown up calm character buys a silly toy (the desk wind up frog) as a sign of love, and it doesn’t fit. What if Mary’s crush were unreturned and therefore Dr Mierzwiak didn’t have to live with a memory and feeling she didn’t? I can see that Mary’s discovery of having gone under the Lacuna experience is the cause of the return of the tapes (and presumably, the end of Lacuna’s business); but I felt little interested in the Lacuna staff and would have gladly lost screentime with them in favour of the missing bits with Joel and Clem.

Yes, I think this all matters, for the kind of person who like this film will analyse deeply – as Kaufman said, they often rewatched several times and notice new things. And for me, ten years on, I’ve noticed that things are missing. Just because it’s in a crazy order with quirky bits and big ideas, doesn’t mean that lack of narrative progression is excusable; and it seems that much of that progression was in Kaufman’s shooting script, but that the director and studio made him erase it, and it’s a poorer film for it.

Take note, studios – the golden 90/100 minute movie is not golden if you don’t tell your story properly.

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