Why The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Is My Favorite Film

Michel Gondry’s masterpiece The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, following Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece script, is one of the most top to bottom brilliant achievements in film I have ever seen.

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Taken as a science fiction film, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ranks as a model for the genre. The film takes a fascinating concept—the ability to erase one’s painful memories—and rather than using it only as a pretext for exploring its other thematic concerns, the film explores the fascinating what if incredibly thoroughly, exploring the technological ins and outs of the procedure and, much more importantly, exploring in depth the direct psychological implications for those who would undergo the procedure. We see the effects of such a procedure both through the perspectives of one character as the procedure is unfolding and another character who is dealing with the effects several days after having received the procedure. The film also roots itself in, incorporates, and brings to life a wide range of scientific insights into dream psychology, keeping a wildly surreal and fantastic dream storyline feeling simultaneously realistic.

The film also explores a huge host of insights into memory and perspective. As we learn about Joel’s life through his dreams and watch as he actively shapes his memories and watch them change and emphasize various things right before our eyes. We hear the Clementine of his dream world inauspiciously say things that echo what we know to be his own thoughts about her or those of other characters rather than exactly her own words or perspectives—-the subtlest of reminders that the Clementine we’re seeing in his dream is not actually the real Clementine. There is a fascinating interplay of memory and dream creation as the Clementine we experience in the dream world is a mixture of idealization, villainization, authentic memory and new dream actor.

Looked at in terms of narrative structure, the film is a masterpiece of coherent, non-linear chronology. Like a great Tarantino film, we see various sequences not in the order off their occurence but rather in the order best for their experiential and narrative value. The film jumps back and forth in time and then, tells a relationship in reverse, capturing the feelings and frustrations of an end of a relationship in which everything looks just terrible and there’s little conscious awareness of how things fell apart as only the end is fresh in the mind.

The journey backwards through Joel and Clem’s relationship in his mind gives a great journey through a relationship with the romantic beginnings being the climax of a long relationship instead of simply the ignorant infatuated starting point that is lost as time goes on. By the time we reach the beginning of their relationship in his dream, we see characters who have traversed a whole relationship of ups and downs and who have traversed the trip back through it in the dream world and have all this connection. And we see them reenacting in dream form their initial meeting in such a way that retains its freshness and romance and wonder of two people meeting for the first time while commenting on what’s ahead. It’s an amazing combination of perspectives loaded into one scene before yet another time jump forward in time outside of the dream world.

What makes the narrative structure so staggering and amazing is that it manages to play tricks on you, not letting you know exactly what’s going on for a solid half an hour into the film—-not even making clear when you have entered the dream world until Joel himself becomes aware of it despite confusing and bizarre scene transitions that precede the awareness—-but then sorts itself out and becomes completely intelligible. The film, without resorting to talky explanations, manages to utterly confuse and disorient for experiential effect and then to explain itself in such a way that having had the disorienting experience you can follow things out the rest of the way and not stay lost for the sake of the writer’s ego. The structure is disorienting when that’s best for the experience and then clear and masterfully ordered and balanced so that the surreality does not lose the audience or dwarf the emotional narrative that is of the primary importance.

And let’s not forget the narrative structure of the story running outside of Joel’s head that keeps returning the film to reality and giving a parallel commentary on the same themes running in the dream world. It also gives information insightful for interpreting the meanings and inspirations of Joel’s dreams. Even the subplot, involving the wonderfully underrated performances of Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, and Mark Ruffalo, wonderfully leads to a narratively perfect and poignant heartbreaking twist. Dunst is perfect as the young woman with a crush on her boss, while screwing around with Ruffalo. Wilkinson perfectly plays an ostensibly caring and level headed doctor with questionable ethics and disappointingly passive justification for them. Elijah Wood also gives one of his best performances as a clueless, unscrupulous loser exploiting illicitly gained information to get a woman way out of his league. It’s hysterical to listen to his pathetic cliches as he refers to his brand new “girlfriend” as “the old lady” and tells her on her answering machine that he “loves her so much.” He’s written as a scathingly comic and pathetic satirical character.

He’s one of many great comedic elements not to be lost in the film, including a great comic variation on the classic existentialist anxiety of seeing God as an “absentee landlord” as Joel cries out to the heavens in his dream, “Is there anybody out there? Can anybody hear me?!” and we cut to those responsible for him dancing stoned in their underwear on his bed to goofy music. It’s God as absentee partiers. While not an overall comedy, the script is sprinkled with great one liners, great irony, black comedy, sight gags, romantic silliness, and scenes that are simultaneously eerie and funny.

Of course, though, as good as these performances and characters are, it’s not their movie—-Kate Winslet was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Clementine Kruczynski with her mixture of impetuous free-spiritedness, anxious vulnerability, hot temper, alcoholism, and earnest openness. She is written and performed to be so authentically, realistically charming and so authentically, realistically flawed that the romance around which this high concept science fiction film actually revolves works. Winslet is amazing, exuding magnetism, energy, geeky hipsterness, and yearning insecurity.

Jim Carrey as Joel Barish completely loses himself in the role. I’m a huge Jim Carrey fan and I don’t even think of him when I think of this, my favorite movie. I just think of Joel Barish, a man subdued, introspectively thoughtful, and pessimistic, desperately fighting his dreams to keep his memories. His dramatic prowess betters even that which he showed in his superb performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon.

As a romance the film is one of my favorites. Carrey and Winslet have a special chemistry as a genuine pair of opposites attracting. Normally films with opposites attracting play off of less particularly and skillfully drawn characters. This film is like a romance within a character study within a sci fi movie. The romance is incredibly real. The dialogue doesn’t sound written by some geniusly witty playwright—-the flirting is not witty and snappy but awkward and earnest, the acrimonious arguments are raw, the lovers’ affirmations of each other are sweet in their banal sincerity. They capture perfectly the powerful chemistry that leads to explosions rather than peace. They’re people who can’t let go of each other even as much as they drive each other crazy to be together. Not since Sam and Diane have I seen authentic portrayal of lovers who are together out of a visceral need for each other, completely in defiance of their thorough personality clash.

The romance is explored then from an innovative number of angles—-we see a sequence of their meeting and flirting awkwardly SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
though, we do not know at the time that this is not really their first meeting END OF SPOILER END OF SPOILER END OF SPOILER
, we see the major events of their relationship in reverse, and we see them take the journey together of fighting the erasure process, following them as a team that we root for, establishing them as people who get along, work together, care about the relationship, and, so, a couple we want to see “make it.”

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HEAVY SPOILER SECTION

In the end, the film gives a completely unique paradox, [spoiler]people who, in their immediate experience feel like they have just met and yet, subconsciously feel completely bound to one another, and they are given tapes in which, in their own words they hear exactly how they miserably they will feel towards each other. Two characters, in the throes of both infatuation and the bonds that take years to create, are given information about how much they would hate each other and need to choose whether or not to go forward or to get out and not risk ruining everything again. This creates a fascinating and unique variation on the whole romance genre. It infuses knowledge from the end of a relationship into the euphoria of the beginning and asks whether the characters will respond prudently or romantically. It also serves as a beautiful metaphor of the romantic challenge of monogamy with the need to make decisions ever anew to start it all over with ever increased knowledge of what’s ahead.

In the end, the question is whether or not Joel and Clementine will make it, whether they can learn from mistakes having erased them. They embody a paradox of human nature in which moving on from mistakes means being able to forget them and not be trapped in the past (Nietzsche’s real meaning in the quote misused in the movie) while at the same time, we need our memories as warnings to keep us from rehearsing the same mistakes all over again. Can Clementine and Joel benefit from the immediate forgetfulness of their mistakes that repairs their feelings towards one another? Or will forgetting their mistakes only doom them to repeat them again? The metaphor for, and commentary on, our own struggles to both put the past behind us with optimism and to learn how not to repeat it, is simply perfect. And all is left ambiguous, with no easy answers on silver platters, just a great conversation starter.


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The romance is also beautifully evolved in numerous nonverbal ways as these characters connect not through words but through play and through sharing intimate memories. In the dream, their journey to Joel’s childhood is one of the most romantic sequences I’ve ever seen. One sequence oscillates between ugliness and comedy, and romantic poignancy as we see Clementine and Joel as little kids together sharing an ugly, traumatizing moment from his childhood. The vision of a romantic couple who met as adults sharing the intimacy of being able to be kids together, to be able to know each other in ages that they didn’t get to have together in actuality, is as romantic a picture as I’ve ever seen. The way she supports him in that scene, the way the music tracks the scene, the way she cheers him up through playfulness and the scene transitions back to their adult playfulness—-one of the ways they actually played out their child selves with each other as adults—-it’s all so brilliant and heartbreakingly beautiful. And the fun, playful moments of their playing as adults that end with Clementine vanishing—-sucking you into the romance of their enjoyment and then pulling it away hauntingly and suddenly, a reminder of the ominous threat to their relationship.
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And on the subject of the scene transitions—-this film is the best edited film I’ve ever seen. The transitions through the dream world are so fluid. Constantly scenes transition with several props or people staying the same and the settings transforming around them, objects vanish from rooms, a car falls out of the sky, hallways connect radically different rooms, the background objects of the world blur and vanish as memory loses them. Changes in lighting, changes in foci, changes in the way the sound connects to the image, film reels played backwards, film reels sped up—-the number of inventive “in-camera” tricks used to create a dream world out of real world elements instead of animation are amazing and endlessly exciting. It is believable but surreal as a result. The lo-fi special effects are simply as good as they get. The dream world is made to feel like the real world, as it feels when you’re dreaming, while exploring all the incoherency and surreality of what dreams are like. Unlike Gondry’s Science of Sleep that for portions makes the dream world patently false with claymation, here he makes it both as real and surreal as it really is.

Like a dream, the film follows an emotional thread around Joel’s mind, switching between times and places and events with a perfect emulation of the dream world’s logic. The visual flourishes are too many to enumerate or list with any justice but they are spectacular. This is the only film outside of a Star Wars or Spider-Man film that I went to the theater six times to see and each time I got more out of it and found new things to marvel at visually. It was simply that mesmerizing. It captures the feel of so many things—-that feeling as a kid of riding in the back seat of a car at night, tired from a long day at a family gathering and watching the street lights and store lights fly by with the memories of the day and the week, etc. zooming by—even that life experience is captured.

And the climax of his dream, a house crumbling around him, the seashore running up under his feet, the wind howling—-the fantastic of a dream, the thematic and emotional resonance of depicting what he’s feeling (the collapse of a relationship, the overwhelming of the tide of circumstance) in symbolic form, the dialogue expressing regret and longing, despair and nostalgia. It’s the end of the relationship through a revisit of the first meeting.

And the musical scoring by Jon Brion is brilliantly resonant. The emotions are underscored perfectly, the zaniness is matched with zany music that’s not obnoxious but perfectly pitched to the scenes. The main themes are haunting and beautiful. Even the erasures of memories are signaled through great musical cues. The movie is unimaginable without its thoroughly unique and perfectly attuned musical signatures. And it’s all not much more than maybe 30 minutes of musical writing, a lot of which repeats but it feels just right rather than like a cop out. The repetition of musical cues signals parallel times, emotions, themes being explored. It serves as a thematic aid more than just an underscore for scenes.

And finally the cinematography is wonderful. Grainy and dark (at Gondry’s insistence over that of the cinematographer herself) when it needs to be, the bright room with Clementine going crazy at the end, there’s just so much thought into the look of so many scenes.

And the credits don’t happen until 17 minutes into the film and Beck’s melancholy cover for the closing credits ends the film with a perfect musical finish, seamlessly fitting with the musical and narrative themes of the entire film. On a personal note, as a native Long Islander, I love the comfortable familiarity of the unmistakable interiors of the Long Island Railroad train cars and seeing them immortalized in an all-time masterpiece like this.

Bah, I can write all these paragraphs and still leave so much out. Oh well, that should suffice to at least give an idea as to why this is my favorite movie of all time.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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