XX: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(USA, 2004; dir. Michel Gondry; cin. Ellen Kuras; with Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Jane Adams, David Cross, Deirde O'Connell)
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What happens if I admit that I'm in danger of taking Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for granted? Not that I would ever volitionally erase any part of it from my mind, but a kind of gentle fade has started to set in. When I'm thinking about the movie, though never when I'm actually watching it, I'm less completely, polymorphously sensitive than I once was to its barely compromised brilliance and its godsent emotional earnestness, to every single innovative and retro-tender thing in its structure, its techniques, and its images, to every round, exuberant, mournful, or minor note in its score and its performances. Seeing Eternal Sunshine for the first time in a theater was one of my only adult experiences of knowing that I was watching a brand-new film that I would always consider a masterwork, and probably everyone else would, too. I paired it with a Bergman movie in my original review and emphasized Charlie Kaufman's unique take on contemporary capitalism because the movie did inspire those connections and reflections, but also because I immediately felt the need to say something distinctive about a film I expected everyone to rave about in basically similar ways. The movie is barely five years old, but I've already spent those full five years thinking of it, talking about it, and teaching it not just as a super movie but as an important work, and honestly, it's starting to dull my impulse to actually pop the thing in the DVD player. Not because I'm averse to great works, but having absorbed them so voraciously when they arrive into your life, and having reached a point of consensus with almost everyone you know that the artists, the culture, the world should feel proud of this object, you start to feel—don't you?—like you've used the work up a little, or like it will be more exciting to sample something new, or to probe the crannies of some slightly less scrutinized love-object, seeking to establish its genius, stamina, or adorability, rather than reconfirming the inherence of all those things in a movie like Eternal Sunshine, which long ago passed every test. Plus, I haven't had to argue for it to anyone, maybe ever, and only once in at least three years have I spoken to a friend who hadn't already seen it. Arguing or advertising on behalf of movies I cherish is often one of my surest methods for keeping its vitality fresh in my own mind, but Eternal Sunshine already belongs to everyone—though I'm sure there must be people out there who don't favor it, just like I'm sure the law of averages dictates that there must be people who dislike actual sunshine, or who don't think beagles are cute. I don't get too worked up about Eternal Sunshine these days, much as I don't reach for Pride and Prejudice anymore when I want something to read. I can't separate myself from it anymore; it long ago became a settled part of who I am; it doesn't need me the way I like to imagine that Birth or Illusions or Home for the Holidays need me and all their other fans out there proselytizing for them. Sunshine is safe. It's self-evidently spectacular.

So what works, what finally jolts me back into my earlier levels of fervor, is when I sift through the purported effluvia that the movie had erased from its own life, its own memory bank, before it ever showed itself to us, and in my quick, reflexive horror, I can suddenly once again conceive of Eternal Sunshine as a movie, not pure-born from the cortexes of effortless genius but made, rejiggered, contested by people who didn't always know just what to do. Apparently, even Eternal Sunshine was and is as vulnerable to various pressures and blemishes as any other creative project. Is film-love basically a close cousin of paternal protectiveness? Is that why I'm so quick to leap to Eternal Sunshine's defense, even against attacks that were long ago foreclosed, and is that why advocacy feels so crucial to the experience of love? Whether or not any of that is true, when I read that Nicolas Cage was once in line to play Joel (no matter how fabulous he was as the very different Kaufman alter egos in Adaptation), or that Ellen Pompeo once headlined a subplot involving one of Joel's ex-girlfriends (why would I want to go deeper into his past, and why would I want to find Meredith frigging Grey hiding in there?), I am reminded of just how exquisitely all of the Eternal Sunshine filmmakers have architected their movie around the ambivalent whirligig of passionate friction between Joel and Clementine, without closing the movie off to its other characters or to a wider world. I realize afresh how well the movie has calibrated its choice to delve deeply into the convoluted relations among this smallish ensemble, when just one more addition might suddenly have entailed too much sprawl. Eternal Sunshine has exactly the right amount of rowdy libido, relayed through Joel's fixation on Clementine's body and her flirty willingness to flash it at him, and through that pot-scented, undie-dancing gambol between Kirsten Dunst's Mary and Mark Ruffalo's Stan. The Mary-Stan sex scene that apparently exists on the cutting floor is exactly where it belongs, with no disrespect whatever to Dunst or Ruffalo or sex.

With all the spry explosions of temporal and structural zigs, zags, and overlaps all over Eternal Sunshine, I'm stunned to discover that we were once to be treated to some old-age makeup and some clearly telegraphed, beleaguered afterlife for Joel and Clementine, which wouldn't necessarily have been terrible, and given the remarkable rightness of everything in Eternal Sunshine, I can only assume that everyone involved would have stayed on their toes. But for the same reasons, I assume that Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Pierre Bismuth, Valdis Óskarsdóttir, and whoever else had say-so during post-production were equally on their toes when they decided that the unresolved, funny, plangent, and breathy exchange of "Okay"s at the end of this movie could only be reduced by any clearer vision of Joel and Clementine's future, any less of a wild, happy-sad leap off a cliff they've leapt off before, even as they know (or are they just hoping?) that no two leaps are the same. Among all the redactions, I am most thrilled by the decision to slash some marginal gestures to the darker reasons driving some other Lacuna customers—rapes, abortions, battlefield traumas. I can only imagine that these would have served to placemark some kind of Seriousness amid all the trapezing semi-frivolity of dinner-date squabbles and potato-heads and hair-colors and mad scrambles before the boss shows up. Or they would have just reminded us of all the awful stuff in the world, as though we'd forgotten, and as though the pain of love isn't perfectly serious, and complexly serious, and able to fuel its very own film-long conceit about optimisms and regrets, and all the gorgeous Saturn-rings of memory and association you sacrifice when you think you're cauterizing a single wound from your mind or your heart.

Again, who am I? How can I assume that none of these excisions would have amplified the many thrills, provocations, and oases of gentleness in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? But even if there are movies I watch more often, with even more sense of a defiantly personal investment, I quickly recover my quilty, expansive, and rich affection for Eternal Sunshine when I recognize how much it grew and molted during its artistic gestation, and how much I wouldn't want a single thing about it to change. I still want to wrap myself up in it, precisely as it is.

Note: This film appears on the latest revision to my all-time Best list, which means I will have to subtract it from the Favorites—for reasons explained on the feature's first page. Vivat, vivat, Lacuna!

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