My “Favorite Movie,” A 10-Year Introspective
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an impossible-to-replicate combination of Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Jim Carrey, turns 10 this week. It’s a film that I’ve often called my favorite, but not entirely by choice. I’d just as soon say nothing, but when you tell someone you write about movies for a living, “what’s your favorite movie?” is inevitably the first question out of their mouth. As a result, I’ve developed complicated feelings about the concept (another way to say this is that I’ve given it altogether too much thought). Do people really have one favorite movie? What does that even mean?
Is your “favorite movie” one you watch over and over, developing a greater affection for every time? Or is it one you watched once, and it was such a special, singular experience that you worry about cheapening that by watching it again? And if you have a definitive answer, what does yours say about you? (Let’s not pretend we don’t use movies to say something about ourselves).
For me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was that second kind. I certainly haven’t seen it as often as I have, say, The Big Lebowski, or Goodfellas, or Zoolander, or even 8 Mile (God help me, I watch 8 Mile every time it’s on cable). But Sunshine had that intense spark, like a first love. A vacation romance. Was it real, or was it just a fling untroubled by commitment, seeming pure because it was so temporary? With Eternal Sunshine turning ten, I had to go back, and try to see if I could remember what I thought was so great about it.
Meet me in Montauk
Firing up Eternal Sunshine, my first thought is that it feels surprisingly dated. Usually when we do these anniversary posts, it plays on the simple, Upworthy-style You’ll Never Believe How Old Blazing Saddles Is Today! reaction. But Eternal Sunshine somehow feels older than it is. Every actor seems like he or she has gone through three or four separate career iterations between then and now. Jim Carrey spent years trying to find that same sweet spot as a dramatic actor but never quite found it, and now he’s back doing a Dumb and Dumber sequel. Kirsten Dunst became a gossip blog whipping girl in the intervening years, derided for her weird teeth and paleness, but watch 2004 Kirsten Dunst dance on a bed in her underwear and a tiny tank top and tell me she doesn’t look incredible. Elijah Wood… well, Elijah Wood is still Elijah Wood, at his best playing the creepy elfin pervert, as he is here, but he had a goatee and sideburns back then. He’s completely believable as a guy who steals Kate Winslet’s panties. The whole film feels like a rare example of stunt casting gone right.
I don’t need ‘nice!’
The opening scenes are jarring. A grey Valentine’s Day on a train platform. Shaggy Jim Carrey in a beanie freaks out and heads to the beach. I groan inside every time I see a mopey, awkward male lead now. Would I have had that initial reaction to slouchy Jim Carrey 10 years ago? I’m almost positive that watching the mopey guy in the beanie have a meet-cute with the pixie with multi-colored hair on the train would make me embarrassed if I’d made someone watch this today (sort of like Tig Notaro’s Rolling Stones story).
But they start talking, and it quickly evolves beyond the sensitive guy/bubbly pixie dynamic, the wannabe artist and his muse. She’s oversharing, compensating with false informality; him with his guard up, withholding. It’s a basic set up, but it gives them room to evolve. They’re unique enough not to be “types,” but still hit home for every guy who’s dated a sprightly girl he initially thought was just the right kind of crazy, who later became grating and intrusive. And for every girl who’s dated a guy she initially thought was sweet and kindhearted, who turned out to have the same mundane immaturity and jealousies hidden behind a veneer of shyness. The too talkative girl and the too reserved guy, destined to attract each other over and over, to their own detriment.
I’m not sure any of this would work without Kate Winslet. She’s constantly taking the character right up to the edge of irredeemable obnoxiousness, yet still irresistible. It’s definitely easier to just think she’s crazy when you’re 30-something than when you’re 20-something, but she’s still endearing enough that she’s perfectly infuriating.
This is it, Joel. It’s gonna be gone soon. What do we do?
This might be the line that clinched it for me. Love is mortality? It’s perfect. Like that scene in Toy Story 3 where the toys are holding hands on their way into the furnace, 10 years later it still hits me right in the mushy center. The one surrounded by worms and dead birds and 12 layers of compressed shale and cynicism.
Because the film is taking place mostly inside Jim Carrey’s slowly-being-erased memory reality, as you watch it in real time, their relationship going south causes the very crumbling of reality. Which is so perfectly dramatic, isn’t it? Cars falling from the sky, the ground cracking, people without a face (this is where Michel Gondry’s technical virtuosity and oddball sensibilities really come into play). You know any relationship problems you have are completely mundane and unimportant to everyone on the planet but you, but you can’t help but be you, and so they’re the most important thing in the universe. They’re your universe. A mini black hole.
Technically speaking, the procedure IS brain damage. But it’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss.
Spike Jonze managed to capture so much of Charlie Kaufman’s wit and inventiveness in Her, but re-watching the genuine Charlie Kaufman-script article, you notice not just the wit, but also the constant twists, the layers, the subtle foreshadowing. Skills I imagine you develop as a veteran fiction writer. I imagine Spike Jonze’s Eternal Sunshine as much more linear. Eternal Sunshine is basically the story of two separate love triangles, but on a repeat viewing you see just how subtly telegraphed each of them are. The way Kirsten Dunst stays in Tom Wilkinson’s office just a beat too long. The way Ruffalo looks almost like he has to wrestle Kirsten Dunst into his arms when they share a casual kiss. It’s suffused with that old idea that in every relationship, there’s someone who’s kissing and someone who’s being kissed.
Of course, the wit and the sense of “play” are still what makes it. There’s a scene where Jim Carrey is sitting in the Lacuna Inc. waiting room, holding a bag full of stuff that reminds him of Clementine so that they can use it to track his memories to erase. Meanwhile, the camera slowly passes over two other people in the waiting room: a guy with a cardboard box with a bowling trophy sticking out, and a crying woman with big rawhide bone and a dog bowl. Just a brief, passing shot. This feels like a very European joke to me, so dry and absurd at the same time. And Gondry shoots it perfectly, so that you get the punchline but have to create your own setup.
Ugh. She’s gonna be drunk and stupid now.
This is Jim Carrey’s line at a dinner where he wonders if they’ve become an old, boring couple, said to himself as he watches Kate Winslet gulp down three fourths of her beer. They never pull punches when they’re angry at each other. No one can hate you as well as someone who really loves you.
There’s so much salty in with the sweet in Eternal Sunshine that the inevitable bitterness and bickering of relationships is practically a leitmotif. There are two love triangles in Eternal Sunshine – Jim Carrey/Kate Winslet/Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst/Mark Ruffalo/Tom Wilkinson (Tom Wilkinson’s wife). Meanwhile, there’s one couple in the entire film, a couple that seems to have managed to stay together without cheating throughout the course of the entire movie. Played by David Cross and Jane Adams, they do nothing but bicker and belittle each other. And yet, unlike so many other relationship movies, their relationship isn’t used as a cautionary tale. Or as an aspirational one, really. Eternal Sunshine doesn’t give you the reductive answer. Should they stay together? Have they been together too long? Or have they just become so accustomed to the vacillating cycle of affection and frustration that characterizes a long-term relationship that they just sort of ride the wave? The answer doesn’t matter so much as the beautifully absurd triviality of the things they fight over. There’s nothing quite like watching David Cross say something passive-aggressive to his wife while he walks off with his model plane and leaves her struggling with an ice chest full of corn.
I can’t see anything I don’t like about you.
The rub, of course, is that after all the apocalyptic shit they’ve been through, Joel trying to smuggle Clem through his repressed masturbation memories so that he can retain some piece of her, the mutual recriminations… Even knowing all the hateful things they’re eventually going to say and think about each other, they still can’t avoid wanting to do it all over again. It’s the tritest statement of the film (“glib,” as the Kaufman detractors love to say). But it’s just the right kind of trite. It’s a movie about love. If you leave out the cheese, you miss the entire point.
And to extend a totally cheesy metaphor, the movie itself feels like having been through a whole relationship. That’s why it’s so hard to relive. But I tried, and it was totally worth it. I had to fight back tears multiple times and full on bawled during the scene with the title poem, a weird, one-off digression where Kirsten Dunst quotes Alexander Pope as elephants walk down Broadway. A poem! Read by Kirsten Dunst! Causing me legit tears! And I f*cking hate poetry.
What an asshole this movie makes of me. I love this movie so much.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.