ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND: WHAT THE AUDIENCE REALLY WANTS
Early Charlie Kaufman was a master. What David Foster Wallace did for postmodernism, Nirvana did for ‘90s indie, what I do for film analysis (kidding, I know I don’t “do” much of anything at all; I’m not quite that deluded) - that is what Kaufman did for his own certain brand of meta-textual existentialism. He popularized existentialism, pop- packaging it for the masses, and I say that with the highest fucking level of admiration, because that certainly isn’t an easy task.
I mean, listen, Charlie and I, we’ve butted heads before. I’m not a huge fan of the shameless self-destruction of his later works, or even the pretentious big-mindedness of a lot of his earlier stuff, but I can’t deny that this guy’s got something going for him; he better have, after all, being one of the most famous writer-directors out there and all. Our petty squabbles aside, you’ve gotta admit that he’s a hell of a writer, his scripts just folding
together like one of those incredibly satisfying trick puzzle boxes, all interlocking wooden pieces and hidden joints. I can confidently say that no one does self-referential mindfuckery better than Kaufman, and that is no easy feat at all. Let me step back, just a little bit, to draw attention to a prime example and, unsurprisingly, the subject of this essay: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Gaining a wide release, the film did incredibly well in the box-office, hitting over $8 million on its opening weekend and eventually gaining more than $70 million worldwide. It’s received critical acclaim as well as a positive audience response, all only boosted, of course, by the star-studded cast, catching Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey, Kirsten, Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and even a hellishly young Elijah Wood. They are, however, likely the main, if not only, draw: Michael Gondry is hardly that much of a household name (sorry, Gondry), and there’s nothing else to separate this film from mediocrity. Nothing, that is, except for the script.
Which is, admittedly, a pretty big deal. I mean, in a certain way, the entire movie is the script, you know, despite what most directors would have you think. For this film especially, however, it’s Kaufman’s writing that really makes it as good as it is. That, and Kate Winslet’s stunning dyed hair, of course. The film begins ordinarily (read: linearly) enough, with what seems to be a simple meet-cute between Carrey and Winslet. It’s pretty long, and only mediocrely cute, and honestly incredibly forgettable - I could hardly tell you what happens. I think a bus ride is involved? - a fact only acknowledged by the film’s credits finally coming in, just around the 15- or 20-minute mark, to let you know that that was all just one long fucking cold open.
Just like that, gone is the Carrey-Winslet romcom love story, as Kaufman soon dives
into the true substance of the film: the gradual erasing of Carrey’s painful memories of Winslet, a rash reaction on his part to their break-up and Winslet’s decision to have undergone the same operation. Here, truly, is the majority of the film, occupying the entire middle third or so. And here’s what’s so beautiful about it: it’s entirely non-narrative.
Let me tell you, boy was I overjoyed when I found out that this wasn’t just a love story, but a love story that’s been chopped up into pieces and all scrambled up and rearranged, mapped onto the cranium of the film’s protagonist. For the next, what, 40? 45? maybe even 60 0r 70? minutes, the audience is thrown into a ride of pure free-association, dipping from memory to memory on a pure joyride. The closest resemblance to plot is the presence of the honestly forgettable b-plot and Carrey himself, but even his emotions and intentions seem to bounce wildly from scene to scene, at least in the first half. It’s a miracle in and of itself, a mastery of thematic association tempered with emotional journey, for both Carrey and the audience. In all honesty, it’s a miracle, too, that so many people are willing to stomach this.
No, really, especially when Kaufman gets extra heavy-handed with his references to
Nietzche and meta plot layerings (with the real world interacting with Carrey’s psyche in
double ways, through both past memory and present b-plot bullshit, as well as Carrey’s own
evolving emotions to the memories he is witnessing), would the majority of the audience
really want to stomach all of this? Not that I love to commodify so, but would $70 million
dollars worth of people really all be on board with this much obnoxious philosophizing?
Evidently, the answer is yes. And there, right there, is Kaufman’s genius: he manages
to make ordinary people care about his own highly individualized, dense, absolutely fucking
obnoxious, self-referencing, meta-textualizing, self-involved writing.
Second question, then, is why do so many people care about this film, care enough to
throw so many star actors at it pre-production and rave about it so much in theaters post-,
above any of Kaufman’s others? The answer, again, is simple: it’s a love story, as so many of
these things are. No matter what, the majority audience will always love to see two good-looking people stare deeply into each other’s eyes. We don’t care if it’s chopped up and turned all inside out, because it’s a story we know beat-by-beat regardless; who needs sequential order when it’s something as age-old as two celebrities falling in love? And it’s telling, of course, that the only way to get an audience to sit through an entire hour of bastard non-narrative is that same emotional appeal. We’re romantic suckers, every one of us, in one way or another.
The really wonderful thing about Eternal Sunshine, the thing that really makes it into the overwhelming, emotional hit that it is, is less evident, however.
The film’s true emotional axis rests on the connection between Carrey and Winslet, that much has always been plain as day. To be more precise, the main emotional pull depends on Carrey’s love for Winslet, and his growing realization that he isn’t ready to let
her go. As much as the audience may have been on the side of their love from the start, neither of them are such sympathetic characters, and their relationship certainly doesn’t always seem to be that ideal after all: it’s messy, disjointed, and honestly I personally believed that they were just damn wrong for each other. I’m in the minority on that one, I know, but at times I swear I didn’t understand why they were together at all. Hell, if I had that little chemistry with someone when I first met them - I’m referencing the forgettable opening bus ride scene - I would have given up in about 5 seconds, no joke.
And yet, all of that aside, I still cried at the end. Absolutely, totally, completely, just straight up bawled, and it wasn’t just because of how lonely I am. Do you know how many romance movies I’ve cried at? Because I could count it on just a few fingers, and this film somehow made the cut. Even if I thought Carrey and Winslet were probably better off being single forever, I still hated to see them go.
The true power here, as such, is that mysterious force, which is made ever stronger by the script’s own construction and the love story it revolves around. To put it simply, the audience is placed directly into Carrey’s shoes: we watch Winslet disappear, from memory to memory, making us long for her alongside Carrey. We are thrown into the roiling, non- narrative confusion of Carrey’s subconscious and, just like him, we find ourselves increasingly grasping at the one thing that makes sense to us - our desire to see more of Winslet. It’s actually a very ingenious play on the hold traditional romantic narratives have over our society, and Kaufman, that smug bastard, managed to pull it off.
The power of the film exists outside of its own narrative, embodied within the construction and perception of the script itself. It’s a true meta-emotional punch of an entirely extraordinary sort; it can be likened to some of Kaufman’s other works, where the very construction of the script is also meant to put the audience in the protagonist’s shoes, but never to such a devastating, romantic effect. In short, it’s an absolute testament to the
power of audience manipulation and popular scriptwriting and, of course, to the irrational
hold love has over us.
BY A. DZH