Movies at the Turn of the Century (Part IV)

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The noughties may be in the recent past, but memories of the decade tend to be wispy and vague. Part of it, I gathered, was due to the relentless transition from the frantic albeit unmemorable academic years to the more sombre yet repetitive working life. Obviously, memories of commuting to work, sitting in boring meetings and going to pointless dance clubs are not going to compare well with the wonder years where you experience your many firsts…

If there’s one thing worth remembering about the 2000s, this movie would be it. 

One) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Michel Gondry (2004)

There is very little doubt that Charlie Kaufman writes intelligent and innovative movies, but as Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York demonstrate, at times, some of his movies can be too dense and cerebral to elicit an emotional response from the audience. On the other hand, Michel Gondry’s films sometimes have a tendency to be overwhelmed by whimsical flights of fancy, much to the detriment of the narrative. On 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the two achieved a brilliant balance of emotive power and thought-provoking nuances.

If you haven’t seen the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a quasi-sci-fi tale whereby a couple – Joel Barish (played by a wonderfully restrained Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruzynski (played by Kate Winslet) – chose to erase their memories of each other after a failed relationship. As the process eradicated the newest memories and moved backward, the audience first witnessed the dying ambers of a relationship that had run its course, rife with conflict and riddled with unhappiness. Yet, as the wiping process travelled backward to the earlier memories, Joel realised that losing the painful memories also meant letting go of the sweeter ones and decided to thwart the process in his mind, even as his body was stuck in a catatonic state induced by the mind-wipe process.

As more than half of the movie existed in Joel’s mind, there was a lot of emphasis in getting the tonality of the scenes right. This was where Michel Gondry’s low budget visual wizardry got to shine. There were no outlandish dreamscapes as some directors were wont to do. Instead, Michel Gondry made use of sleigh-of-hand alteration of the environment to create a sense of deja vu that can only be described as a pitch-perfect recreation of one’s dreams. Titles subtly disappear from book spines. A person’s voice slowly trailed away just as he or she suddenly appeared in front of Joel. If you happen to catch the making-of documentary, you will realise that most of these scenes were done without the help of special effects or CGI.

Of course, none of the visual wizardry would matter if the story didn’t hold up. To this end, I would say that Eternal Sunshine is one of the rare Kaufman scripts that appeals to both minds and hearts. In particular, shy introverted types may find Joel’s experiences a painful familiarity. There is one particular scene towards the end of the movie which strikes a chord with me. It’s the scene where Joel and Clementine first met and ventured into a vacant beach house, which was quickly falling apart as the memory was being wiped away. As the adventurous Clementine searched the house for “something more Ruth” to slip into, Joel quietly slipped away from the house. When questioned about why he had left without a word, Joel simply replied,

You said, “So go.” With such disdain, you know.

That, to me, epitomises the painful experiences that shy, sensitive types have to go through. It also perfectly capture how sometimes friends or family can hurt each other unknowingly. Another highlight of the script is how Kaufman can pen some of the most cathartic conversations for hypothetical situations that will never exist in real life, such as the final scene where Joel and Clementine finally realised that they had erased each other from their memories and were listening to a tape where Joel was recounting Clementine’s faults to his doctor just prior to the mind-wipe procedure.

Apart from the excellent performances of the two leads, the supporting cast of Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Woods, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson also put in remarkable efforts in establishing a moving subplot that tied in with the main plotline in a poetic fashion rarely seen in any movies with such a mass appeal. Alexander Pope, mind science, Kaufman eclecticism and Gondry’s visual genius all came together in a seemingly effortless manner to make the best movie of the decade.

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