a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

More Crap About Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)

Obviously a bit of a stretch, but anyone remember the following exchange from Todd Hayne’s risible slice of glam phantasmagoria, Velvet Goldmine?

Ill-Researched David Bowie Equivalent: I wish I had come up with it first.
Spastically-Assembled Angela Bowie Stand-In: You will.

That’s my near-exact thought on David Edelstein's review of Eternal Sunshine, and, alas, I have no grossly encouraging paramour by my side. (Yet.) Of all the blisteringly ecsatic reviews of the Gondry-Kaufman fest, this is the one that I think gets closest to the heart and soul of the film, as well to as my own reaction to it. (Except that I don’t think it’s the best movie I’ve seen in a decade. In two years, maybe even four. But not ten.) Possessing a delirious weave, witty while still festooned with passion -- I wish I wrote it. I won’t. But allow me to add a couple more things that, at least in my book, Edelstein didn’t mention -- items that have been popping up in my brain since I last saw it a week ago.

Point by point (and, by the by, SPOILERS AHOY!):

- That this is the first time in seemingly forever that a relationship -- as a natural beast, a feeling of casual comraderie that’s still blistering with equally casual passion -- has been rendered convincingly on-screen. Carrey and Winslet, as depressed shy guy and half-frightened extrovert, respectively, may seem like an odd-couple couple. But rather than try to hammer this home, Kaufman -- and Carrey and Winslet, plus Gondry -- let it lay. The Lovely Moments like them star-gazing on ice, adding lines to a drive-in movie or discussing her self-professed ugliness while in bed may be the stand-outs. But what really sells this is the way he reacts with his memory of her: the way they have a natural, almost solipsistic rapport while figuring out ways to dodge the erasing-lasers together. More so than anything else, I adore the scene where he’s become his four-year-old self and she’s playing along with it. (“I’ve never seen you so happy,” she proclaims as they wade happily in the sink.) Carrey and Winslet are gods together.

- Didn’t catch this the first time and thanks to the person who pointed it out: The line “I don’t know any jokes about Clementine” is arguably the key line in the movie -- an incidental detail that retroactively becomes the biggest moment of heartbreak. (Yes, even moreso than their initial-realization-of-love-cum-break-up near the end. Lotsa heartbreaking moments in this fucker.)

- Well, well. How come Kaufman's not completely mocking his pathetic protagonist? As much as I like the Bergman-esque depths of darkness he trawled through in Being John Malkovich, emotional transparency is preferrable.

- Speaking of which, what is up with this swill about Kaufman "finally opening up his heart?" Saddled with a finale to rival Twilight Zone episodes in their nightmarishness, Malkovich is a damned emotional movie, and not afraid to view the instigator of unrequited-love as a hellish beast. Maxine is not in love with Craig, but Craig is so dementedly obsessed with her that he pulls a gun on his unwanted wife, steals what she wants -- Malkovich -- from everyone in the world, and will let a mass of geriatrics die. Stretched to absurd limits? Yes. Still affecting? Damn.

- More on the supporting cast. Dunst and Wilkinson effectively play out their rough version of the Winslet-Carrey story on the outside, while ponder this: while Elijah Wood is stealing Carrey’s moves for Winslet, has Mark Ruffalo done almost the same thing with Wilkinson and Dunst? Surely, he’s been wooing her with his own personality, though is it she who likes the Clash? (“They are, like, the only band that matters,” he pronounces, perhaps realizing that that was also one of their official slogans. Does he know anything about them? What’s he doing listening to the White Stripes earlier?) Ruffalo can’t be the paragon of knowledge that Wilkinson is, but does part of him want to? More significantly, a rebuttal to Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek and her quibble that these jokey people took her out of the movie: yes, they are there to take the pressure off. Because I think this would be one of the most choking, relentlessly and sadistically saddening movies of all time were it not for them. Comic relief, they are, though -- as aforementioned -- also bouncing and reinforcing the themes in their own way. This movie needs them.

- Love -- love, love, love -- the way Lacuna, Inc. is treated. Neither the lavish corporation of The Game’s CRS nor the out-of-the-way fortress of mystery from Seconds, it’s instead a fledgling business, located in some part of a building and trying to get on their feet. So I’m guessing this isn’t a futuristic movie. It could be happening today. (And it is, for the most part, since it takes place in 2003.)

- With the exception of the sizeable blip that was The Life of David Gale’s Bitsy, Winslet has never slipped. This is, however, her most raucous turn since Heavenly Creatures and, pending eight more months of cinema, she is required an Oscar for her services.

- So does Mark Ruffalo. ‘Cause he’s owed one for You Can Count On Me. You people sicken me.

- After combing and subsequently drooling over Michel Gondry’s The Director’s Series DVD of music videos, this is a fact: Gondry is the greatest music video director there ever was. While Spike Jonze is mostly about concept (and no slight on him), Gondry’s concepts are as hooky but more abstract. He also has other obsessions: effects, both lo-fi and hi-; memory, some of it borrowed wholesale from Chris Marker; youth; people hi-jacking the world around them, seeing things as an expression of their thoughts. Eternal Sunshine seems tailor-fit for him, and sparks of it can be seen elsewhere. The most clear-cut example is in the White Stripes’ video for “Dead Leaves and Dirty Ground,” Jack White goes back home to find images of a party-gone-bad and his break-up with Meg projected on the walls. ESOTSM connections aside, though, his videos for Bjork are his mightiest, proving that he can not only give artists some spiffing eye candy for their music, but can also express their music in images. “Isobel” throws her into a world that would be later commanded by Guy Maddin, while “Joga” features camera moves that and digitization that feel like they sprung directly out of the song. “Bachelorette” boggles my mind. What does it mean? A hysterically cyclical story, it has a philosphy -- or at least an invented theory -- that’s almost impossible to grasp. Is it that Bjork-as-Bjork has found something that invites her into a world that both creates and destroys itself? Is it her taking a life lesson -- the video starts in Maddin-y B&W, moves to fake sets and then winds up in splendorously realistic color. So there’s that, and the matter that it’s visually rapturous. “[M]ore mad scientist than poet,” proclaims Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper. Yes. But he’s just enough of a poet.

- The reaction to what it’s actually saying re: busted-up long-term relationships has been largely ignored or simplified beyond any excusable belief. The strongest thing is that it presents no easier answer. It’s not just about “who would want to get rid of those lovely moments?” It’s that you wouldn’t really want to get rid of the painful ones as well. In the beginning, Carrey is as fractured and gratuitously shy a man as he was before -- but, post-break-up, he does what few of us could build up the nerve to do: buy a trinket for his ex and confront her at work to hand it to her, to plead for forgiveness. In other words, without the painful, character-building stuff, he’s back to having no nerve. The bittersweet, fucking awesomely restrained final exchange, too, could be read this way: who’s to say that the two of them might not have re-grouped, trying to do it again knowing the others’ limits and, thus, making for a stronger relationship? Break-ups, I’ve found out, can work wonders on a relationship. (Yeah, yeah, so it’s not that easy.)

- This movie just clicks. Like most movies that click, every twenty minutes or so I would back away from it, wondering at what point would it start collapsing. It doesn’t and a second helping proved this. Not to patron a cliche, but it’s got everything: cleverness, thoughtfulness, high emotion, an understanding of the messiness of truth that’s not messily punted-forth, fine acting, jokes that are actually hysterical, effects that astound without making you go “wow, cool effect!”, moments that rival the most raw ever captured on celluloid, a penchant for absurdity that’s not alienating but still sates those of us who love the absurd, etc., etc., etc. Best of all, it improves in the mind. I’m foaming, really. (You couldn't tell?)

- I can finally say this phrase: This movie is a masterpiece.

Overall, I’m glad that people at large haven’t reacted as they usually do to Kaufman’s scripts: that his ostentatious cleverness is a liability. “Certainly we can’t take something so absurd and geniusly structured seriously, can we? It’s ironic detachment!,” they all moan. In my fantasies, now that his former-detractors have seen that he deliver one of the most emotionally direct movies in memory, they’ll go back and see his past work in a new light. (Even Adaptation., though drenched in Brechtian devices, has it.*) It’s there, folks. Now go do penance.

* The one thing most of its haters completely and dubiously missed is that, for all its 8 1/2-ishness, Adaptation. served as a better adaptation of The Orchid Thief that anyone could do. There were observations and insights into the book that couldn’t be pulled-off in a straight-up movie. Not to mention its timing: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind arrived mere weeks after the movie, proving that, yes, Kaufman can adapt and well -- and that, perhaps, Kaufman was exaggerating, maybe even lying (note: Donald) about his real thoughts. Exercise or not, it’s actually more appropriately described as a treatise on the art of adapting -- what to apply alienating devices to, what constitutes an adaptation, etc. It’s also his least satsifying film that’s not Human Nature.


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