Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Every week around this time of the year Nathaniel R invites fellow writers to choose their favourite image from a film and publish it on their respective blogs/sites/tumblrs/etc. The first film for the 2014 edition is the ten year old Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind...

...which, oddly, presented a great challenge for me. I say oddly because I remember it as such a visual film. As my second favourite movie of 2004 I like Gondry's film a great deal and even as I'd agree that it is well shot I never had a shot in my head to choose. Usually, for films I've seen before, I know what I'm looking for and there are many images within Eternal Sunshine which call for "best shot" focus but there was no singular image I felt certain of. I have only seen one other Best Shot entry for this week before writing, but there seemed to be three especially fertile moments to choose from: childhood Clementine and Joel, Joel and Clementine on ice, and Joel and Clementine on the beach. After consideration, I thought I'd find something there, too. But, I don't know if it was just my general inclination to be contrary thought. As arresting as those choices were I could not submit to any as one which defined the way I felt about the movie. Which is, indeed, asking too much of a single shot. Nathaniel just asks us to choose our favourite. But, I feel I must choose one which exemplifies what the film means to me. Which put me in a weird quandary where the shots I kept gravitating were not the ones which showcase Ellen Kura's skill as a DP as good as they ought, at least on an aesthetic level.

For the dozen of you who have not seen it, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tells a story about Joel Barrish who decides to erase his girlfriend of two years from his mind when he finds out she has done the same to him. Due to some glitches during the process, his subconscious rejects the erasure and we follow him through his mind as he tries to stop the process.

From the 10 shots I shortlisted the most objectively, aesthetically pleasing one was this.
Joel, mid-erasure, realises that he does not want to erase Clementine from his memory and so tries to hide her in memories where she does not belong in hope that he will still remember when the process is done. In a seamless moment, a memory of he and Clementine in the immediate past at home fades into a memory in the distant past of of rainfall and the apartment becomes submerged in water as we begin to seep into a memory of young Joel under a table. The Joel-as-a-child moment is initially funny and then sad in the way remembering moments of childhood tend to bee. And although my shot is not from any of those scenes I realised on looking at the film this time around that despite its appearance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, above all else, a character study. Thus, making that flashback to Joel as a child integral to the film. The majority of the film, after all, is literally within the confines of Joel's mind. Even Clementine, who emerges as the film's beacon with her hair-colours is really just a representation of the real Clementine which Joel has stored in his mind. And, Joel, is not a happy person. He is sad, he is lonely, he is self-doubting and too often innocuous moments in his adult life make him feel like a child. The shot above doesn't get to Joel's sadness, but it does capture the image of Joel as child-like which I found so essential to the film's major themes.

As the film nears its climax we reach the first time Clementine and Joel met and he talks of being scared of her then. Scared of her unpredictable nature and her nerve. So scared that he cut their first meeting short.

I walked out the door. I felt like a scared little kid. I was....like, it was above my head. I don't know...
I love this shot of Carrey here. People always talk about this being Winslet's tour-de-force performance (possibly, but it's hard for me to chose) but for me this is doubtlessly Carrey's towering achievement. I'm obsessed with his face in this film and it might just be me being a melancholic mood of late but that wistful look of him there conveys so much that this time around I feel its emotion in a sharp way. This isn't Joel-in-the-past, this is Joel-within-his mind in the present day wistfully remembering all the things that could-have been. And isn't that just the worst type of punishment? Forced to relive all your experiences with someone you loved and see just what you did wrong. And, sure, you'll see what you did right to. But that's the human brain for you, zeroing in on the wrong.

It's why my best shot is an image that is aesthetically not very appealing but gets to the root of Joel so hard that I kept coming back to it. And, this is my best shot.
It's sort of ugly. There's the mattress behind him. The newspapers on the swivel-chair, the cardboard box. But it's the unappealing nature which makes me like it. This seems like a moment where present-day Joel is bleeding into child-Joel's sensibilities, the stance looks like a child-like one except it's not Joel as a child. It is Joel as an adult. He's listening to the tape Mary has sent him where he speaks about getting Clementine erased and he realises what has happened. What is he feeling when he looks like that? Arms clasped about his knees, heartbroken? Embarrassed? Sad? The way the camera observes him from above (it's from Clementine's vantage point) only makes his dejection in the moment so much more pronounced. He looks so small, so hopeless, so lost. Sure, in real time, he's known Clementine for years. But, in his mind he's just met her the day before, and she's already made him feel like a child. It's a harrowing reading of the events, especially when the open laugh that ends the film is so hopeful. But, thinking of the events now without the unbridled hope I had for a happy ending the first time I saw it (too young to latch on to its sadness), I worry for Joel. He'll always feel as lost, hopeless, and small when he feels he cannot live up to his romantic ideals. Oh Joel, I want to tell him, please grow up. Or, at least grow out of the issues you have that make you recede to this state of childhood dejection. If Clementine had not come looking would Joel even have gotten up off the floor to go look for her? And then the text on the cardboard box leaps out at me - fragile, it says. And I sigh. Maybe in the face of our romantic shortcomings we all feel like Joel - hopeless, small, boxed in, and alone. And even with the potential hope in the ensuing scene, this time around I leave Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sadder than it's ever made me feel before.

(Bonus: My second favourite shot was this one.
I toyed with it for a long time even though it's so very busy. It's similar to my favourite shot, but instead of being boxed in he's buried beneath all his memories and looking back at his first/last/"created" moment with Clementine. )

(All Entries HERE)


Daniel said...

Ugh... I LOVE your choice for Best Shot! You are so right about how great Carrey is in this film. Just heartbreaking really. He goes so deep in a way I never expect. I love his performance that I ALMOST chose as my Best Shot the close-up of him as he wakes up in the middle of the erasure for the second time, and a tear runs down his face, silent. It caught me totally off-guard in the worst (read: BEST) way.


love this piece. really interesting take focusing on childhood which is obviously there but not something i've ever really focused on. great job.

it's so rich that you can watch this at different points in your life and feel either terribly sad or hopeful or any mixture or imbalance between the two. Depening on who and where you are in your life

Nick Prigge said...

First things first, I love that opening paragraph because I just like seeing you go through the mental anguish of trying to select a particular shot. I totally mean that as a compliment. Isn't that what we all do when trying to select a 'favorite' anything?

That childishness of Joel really is an interesting part of the story, isn't it? And the way that those fears that we develop as children can still plague us into adulthood.

You know I love Kate, but you're right. Carrey is her equal. They're two performances that match up so well and play off one another so perfectly.