Thoughts On: Eternal Sunshine
To erase the memory of a broken relationship, Joel attempts to physically extract them from his mind.
This is a great film, there’s so many things I love about it, but, the more and more I watch this film there’s a niggling imperfection that becomes of greater apparency. Imperfections aren’t the end of the world though. In fact, it’s this film’s imperfection that has me return to it time and time again, that has me writing this essay. So, the imperfection at hand is something inherent to practically all Kaufman’s films that I’ve seen.
All of these films have their quirks, and they have their serious, pretentious and absurd sides but also a deep pessimism. I say pessimism, but what I mean is a quality that can easily come off as nothing but moaning. I mean not to criticise or speak down on Kaufman and his films here – but this should become apparent soon. This ‘nothing but moaning’ is clearest in Synechdoche New York and Anomalisa. They’re about deeply broken individuals who face an allusive inner turmoil – an aspect of character that is irredeemable and inevitably self-destructive. It’s hearing Kaufman’s lecture at the BAFTAs about time and how it must be spent, about wounds, undefined pain, that you can understand why his films are like this. He says it best by implying that it is undefined pain that wants to live that is the reason and drive behind personal art. It’s hearing this that it becomes apparent that Kaufman’s films are quite personal, that they are imbued if not with his own character, but with his own thoughts and demeanour. This is self-evident in the clear line through Kaufman’s films, the fact that his style and tone on the page may break through the screen even when he’s not directing. But, what this all funnels back into is pessimism. Almost all of Kaufman’s characters are broken individuals, they all fit into narratives without true happy endings. It’s Kaufman’s lamenting and then lack of resolution that makes his films feel like ‘nothing but moaning’. In truth, this reflects more about me than it does his films. It reflects my need for resolution, to pragmatically filter problems, ambiguity and pain into lessons or solutions (kinda why I write essays explaining movies). So, in my saying ‘nothing but moaning’ I mean to ask: where is the solution?
As of now, I’ve touched on the intangible link between Kaufman’s films and his overall style – I haven’t yet got specific. The best film to do this with is probably what seems like his most optimistic – Eternal Sunshine. To do this we have to start with the end and with spoilers. This is the final and most telling detail of this film that says everything the narrative attempts.
As the film fades out we watch Joel and Clementine run away from us, playing in the snow. This short segment is repeated and seems like a nice nod to their relationship that they lost and found again, to the fact that we watched history repeat itself. It’s seeing the film like this that you can recognise that it’s about second chances, about trying again, about people being forever bound at the hip, inevitably drawn to one another. However, as you can see, this shot of them running away is repeated 3 times. If the first repetition is a nod to what has happened in the film (Joel and Clementine losing and finding one another) then the third one must imply that this will all happen again. Furthermore, for the film to fade to white over this implies a muted, naive and rather bleak end – that Joel and Clementine will continue to do this all of their lives. What does this imply about the characters? It implies that they are broken inside, that they don’t understand their personal pain, that they see their time as something that must be spent – not really something that they want to spend. The overall narrative then becomes a commentary on love, about love as something that peters out, that detensifies. Our broken, rather childish and impulsive characters do not seem to comprehend this – let alone wish to accept it. They want the beginnings of their relationship over and over again as it was the only time in which they worked, the only time in which they could bear one another. That, if you can’t feel it, is Kaufman’s pessimism.
The film I can’t help but compare this to is (500) Days Of Summer.
Both Tom and Joel are romantics, just like Clementine and Summer are impulsive. Together, these couples turn their essential traits into devastating weaknesses. With Tom and Joel their romanticism becomes an incessant need for affection, one that blinds them to sense and the ability to manage a relationship. With Clementine and Summer, their impulsiveness becomes a seemingly selfish inability to commit or sacrifice as to manage a relationship. Both 500 Days and Eternal Sunshine are then quite obviously about romance and a cycle of need and want, of emotional ups and downs. However, Tom and Summer do not end up together. This is because they are a clear mismatch, that they become people they themselves do not like when they are together. Despite being of very similar character to Tom and Summer, Joel and Clementine end up together. The two films’ respective commentary on romance and love then come down to their titles. 500 Days has Eternal Sunshine’s core idea of broken characters, but has their negative effect on one another be finite – 500 days long. The end implication is that Tom may still be a romantic, ready to move onto Autumn, a relationship that may not last, but he has nonetheless grown as a person. Whilst there is a cycle of romance in 500 Days, it’s segmented in bettering spheres of 16(ish) months. The sunshine of new romance between Joel and Clementine however must be Eternal. Yeesh, I know. Sounds like someone is setting themself up to fail, right? This is what the end fade and repetition imply, leaving characters with no growing room at all. Memory and time are their enemy that must be wiped out and ignored. It’s here where the root of ‘nothing but moaning’ and my question of where is the solution? comes in. I ask this because 500 Days is pessimistic in a realistic enough way. It sees Tom as foolishly romantic, but young and hopefully capable of learning. Eternal Sunshine has pessimism, has Joel and Clementine young, stupid and impulsive, but then gives them a means of staying that way. Why?
It’s this why? that transforms the film. Why is this film so pessimistic? Is Kaufman just moaning? Well, I think what’s wrong with this film and narrative is that it’s science fiction. It’s the machine that can extract memory that enables Joel and Clementine to stay young, stupid and impulsive. So, in a reality that doesn’t yet have these machines, this enabling of a destructive cycle cannot happen, it cannot be capitalised on. Eternal Sunshine then becomes Terminator meets 500 Days Of Summer – it’s a cautionary tail without a happy ending. Kaufman seems to be telling us that pain is good and that painkillers only allow you to feel momentarily comfortable in perpetualised, numbed agony.
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