Ten Years Later: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film that changes as time goes by.

I don’t mean because the characters use landlines, clunky computer consoles, or because at the time of filming Mark Ruffalo was just that final shade of 30 to play a hipster programmer. No, Eternal Sunshine is that rare film experience that can change with each subsequent relationship – good or bad – that the viewer has.

Ten years ago this week, Eternal Sunshine was released. While the film has amazingly had a decade of unchanged solid footing of equal reverence by both critics and viewers, there have been some cracks in the ice since for its makers.

For this edition of CraveOnline’s series Ten Years Later, we look back on Jim Carrey, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s careers since 2004, the end of James Schamus’ glorious decade run at Focus Features and, lucky you, I’ll reflect on when I first watched it compared with viewing it again in 2014.

First, the careers.

Eternal Sunshine is, for a lot of people, the pinnacle of the individual careers of Carrey, Gondry and Kaufman. It won Gondry and Kaufman (plus Pierre Bismuth) an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and it was the final film of the six-year should’ve-already-been-a-multiple-Oscar-nominee “Serious Jim Carrey” phase.

Eternal Sunshine is a high concept, presented simply. It actually takes much more to explain it than to piece it together. I guess that’s because it’s simply a look at multiple relationships and why they didn’t work – with the hope that one will work again.

Plot-wise it concerns a man, Joel, (Carrey) who meets a woman, Clementine, (Winslet) on a train. Except these two people used to love each other. A few days prior Joel learned that Clementine had erased every memory she had of their entire relationship after she left him. Joel visits the memory-erasing clinic (which is bustling because Valentine’s Day is approaching) and demands to have the procedure performed on him. The memory-erasing technicians (Ruffalo, Elijah Wood) and secretary (Kirsten Dunst) provide a buzzed Greek Chorus in Joel’s bedroom as Joel is put into a deep sleep, but whatever is still conscious in him is desperately trying to keep at least one memory of Clementine intact. The Chorus ultimately becomes its own La Ronde as its revealed that Wood is now pursuing Clementine, Ruffalo is pursuing Dunst and Dunst is in pursuit of Tom Wilkinson, the doctor who’s given people this “gift” of a clean slate procedure.

In 2004, Eternal Sunshine was a casting zeitgeist. Despite breakout indie turns in You Can Count on Me and In the Bedroom, Hollywood had yet to utilize what was good about Ruffalo andWilkinson: their naturalism. Wood had just finished Lord of the Rings and went from a Hobbit to a stalker (a decade later this role fits him even better; he recently made Maniac and has spent a few years with an imaginary friend on Wilfred). Winslet was still largely stuffed into corsettes up to 2004. She was rarely modern, but certainly never hair-dyed or broke into homes for role-playing excitement like she did here.

Still it’s Carrey who anchors the film. The first ever $20 million man had never been better, and has never matched it since.

Carrey had received praise for stiffening his famously akimbo rubber limbs and rubber face for more dramatic roles in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon. However, those films still relied on his comedy persona – they just filtered it differently. For Truman Show he played gee-whiz-Americana because he was made by television producers – who make gee-whiz-Americana bucks. For Man on the Moon, well, Carrey played  “disappeared” comedian Andy Kaufman, so he volleyed from deadpan to manic to somber to wrestling women.

In Sunshine, when Joel (Carrey) explains to an absent Clementine (Winslet) why he never went upstairs with her when they first met, the house falls apart around him as his memory is being stripped away, board by board. It was the most removed from the megawatt Carrey persona that we’d ever seen – or probably ever will see. Carrey literally brings down the house by voicing uncertainty, embarrassment and regret. Later, Carrey would rebuild the foundation of his zanier persona in Fun With Dick and Jane, Yes Man and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, but audiences were no longer interested; I don’t think necessarily because his fans are clamoring for another dramatic turn (despite all the love, Eternal Sunshine only grossed $34 million). Moreso, comedy shifts. We’re in a bromance golden age, and Carrey’s never been a bro. He’s always been an entire marching band. Despite a forever watchability of The Cable Guy and Dumb and Dumber, Carrey is now a $20 million house that no one visits.

But in 2004 Carrey’s Joel Barrish was his most controlled creation. He has gravel in his speech and he’s unable to approach others. He tries to get his girlfriend’s attention by posing as dead on the ground. He generally is just unsure and feels trapped by his insecurities; he wants to make a connection, but in a bookish way, not in the unlearned shouts for attentions on which his comedy career was made.

There’s one moment in Eternal Sunshine where the Carrey persona creeps in – that’s as he and Winslet steal a drive-in movie and make up the dialogue themselves – but, despite Joel/Carrey saying “there are people coming out of your butt!” to Winslet, it doesn’t feel like an actor relapse. If that scene felt unscripted and ad-libbed, it should. Relationships create comfort, comfort removes selling up your good qualities and what you end up doing is going off-script. Gondry and Kaufman understand this, and give Carrey distinct moments to be free: when his relationship with Clementine is working.

When Joel hides Clementine in his subconscious and all of his shame and fears are new to her, that exposes why their relationship failed. Not because of his shame and fears, but because he never shared them. Instead, in their past reality, they bicker.

The story for Eternal Sunshine began with an argument that Bismuth had with a friend. After hearing complaint after complaint about an ex, Bismuth posed a question to his friend: if you could, would you erase your ex from your memory? Bismuth was surprised that she said yes. Bismuth took this, and a set-up scenario of receiving a card in the mail telling you that you’d been erased from someone’s memory, to his friend Michel Gondry.

Gondry, a highly regarded music video director, had just made his feature film debut: Human Nature, which was a Kaufman script shot just after Being John Malkovich amazed audiences and announced this genius new screenwriter. Human Nature was essentially a rushed eggaaads!what-other-scripts-do-you-have-in-your-drawers???!a-lab-rat-human-comedy-errrr-ok!let’s-shoot-this-fucker! job. Gondry brought the erase-an-ex procedure idea to Kaufman and post another Spike Jonze-Kaufman collaboration (Adaptation.), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was set.

Kaufman got the only screenplay credit, but a story credit went to Gondry and Bismuth, who essentially helped reign in some of Kaufman’s more gonzo sensibilities, such as with Dunst’s character, the secretary who became involved with Wilkinson’s Doctor. An early Kaufman draft had Mary not only erase her romance with the doctor, but also had the doctor convince her to have an abortion. Similar in dourness, Kaufman’s original ending had Clementine visit the Doctor for her fifteenth erase-Joel-Barrish procedure because they can’t ever form a perfect union).

The resulting film is a variation of multiple characters who are not only looking for love in the wrong places, but who also try to take shortcuts. All of the erasure practitioners try to recreate failed romances as successes for themselves. Instead of being himself, Patrick (Wood) tries to recreate a seemingly passionate romance that Clementine had with Joel because he witnessed her Joel Barrish removal procedure. Stan (Ruffalo) desires the respect from Mary (Dunst) that he sees her give to the married Doctor (Wilkinson), the marriage status of the doctor making it perhaps feel more attainable when it isn’t. The attraction of Joel to Clementine is her impulsivity. If there’s a critique of Kaufman’s screenwriting career, it’s that his men speak of never being able to connect with women, but then treat the women as unapproachable creatures. We don’t know the attraction of Joel to Clementine because we mostly see her through Joel’s memories or their re-meet: where she also self-depreciates, labeling herself “crazy”.

The term “world building” for cinema is often reserved for science fiction. However, Kaufman and Gondry are both world builders. Despite the concept that involves hiding people in areas of the brain, Eternal Sunshine is their most grounded work. Perhaps it’s the union of three thoughtful story-brains instead of one running wild on every whim. After Sunshine, Kaufman has only filmed Synechdoche, New York, where indeed his persona does create an entire functioning world: on a soundstage, life as performance and assigned roles. He’s had trouble getting other films off the ground, including a musical about film critics, actors and bloggers engaged in song and war.

Gondry has gone back and forth from personal to puppetry in The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind. Following the disastrous The Green Hornet, Gondry has moved back to the personal with The We and The I.

Fusing their brains together gave us Eternal Sunshine: fewer tangential ideas from Kaufman, practical wonder in transition from Gondry (the shuttering of bookstore lights as Joel walks to and fro in an apartment is really one of the best scene transitions in film history, and one of a handful of great transition moments that Gondry and his cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, made with minimal effects).

Another cook in the kitchen was Focus Features, which has entered 2014 as an entirely different company. Focus, which is an independent shingle for Universal Pictures, was the combination of USA Films (which released Being John Malkovich) and John Schamus’s and Ted Hope’s Good Machine production company. Schamus (a longtime collaborator and writer for director Ang Lee) was the chairman of Focus for more than a decade and established it as 2000’s go to company for mid-budget adult themed American films. Under his tenure came Lost in Translation, Milk, Burn After Reading, Eastern Promises, Brokeback Mountain, Moonrise Kingdom, A Serious Man and through Universal’s partnership with Britain’s Working Title production company, Atonement, The World’s End, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and so many more.

When Dallas Buyers Club won three Oscars last month, it might’ve been a little bit of an awkward moment at the new Focus Features. Schamus was forced out. The distributor merged with FilmDistrict and currently appears to be a shingle for more genre-ready, even lower budgeted, lower risk films. Upcoming films that will carry the Focus lens flare banner are 50 Shades of Grey and Insidious 3. While Dallas Buyers Club might not have been one the best of the Focus releases, it certainly fell within their brand. The first Focus Features release under the new regime? That Awkward Moment.

Ten years later, I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind might be the top to bottom face of Focus’ amazing bigger-indie early 2000s run. It brought together both established stars and indie performers who are still relevant, a revered screenwriter and an adventurous director whom studios would never give free reign (see the studio takeover of The Green Hornet). What it released as Eternal, I think ultimately will be timeless. Why? It’s a romance film that has a technological bent that has yet to be realized, but taps into our two most basic human struggles: we want to be loved and we want to forget pain.

However, the two often go hand in hand.

When I first saw Eternal Sunshine ten years ago. I watched it with two friends. We all got involved and entangled. It was a mess. It was college. As go most triads, one was removed. Erased. But despite the pain that I felt in a triad, what do I have now? Mostly positive memories of the three of us. The pain? That was mostly from the things that were unsaid, unexplained.

I watched it again ten years later with my girlfriend. We live together. We’ve looked into Roth IRA’s (which made my dad ask if I forgot to tell him we’re engaged). When we were watching she said, “This movie is so romantic.”

When I was re-watching that pain that I, and others – including Joel Barrish – felt seemed so distant. I know I’ve watched myself in memory react and sob and be a heap over long and short romances in the past. Currently, that pain feels so far away that watching Eternal Sunshine almost felt like a horror movie (“Are we the dining dead?” Joel asks as he and Clementine share a dinner out and don’t talk). But then Joel took Clementine into his subconscious. Then I felt safe from their breakup. I’ve already let my love in mine own.

In fact, we’d been together once before. It didn’t work because I hadn’t let her in there. A year later, I did. What a difference it made in my life and what a difference it made in how I saw the ending of Eternal Sunshine. I remember being skeptical that one could start a relationship again, knowing what failed it before. So Eternal Sunshine the ending as is, felt sad to me ten years ago. Now it doesn’t.

And that’s why this film will continue to be loved. Because it makes sense no matter where you are in relationships. It, too, can change.

Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.


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