Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #16 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Welcome to the latest installment in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0, the increasingly site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the Nathan Rabin’s Place reader, the power to choose a film I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon page.
The kind soul who chose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind slipped me a sweet-ass one hundred and fifty dollars and I am not too proud, or too ethical, to concede that if you want your movie bumped up to the top of the queue it certainly can’t hurt to slip me a little extra cash. Heck, pledge one thousand dollars and I’ll not only write about a film of your choice, but I’ll immediately head over to your home to deliver an ounce of the very finest Booger Sugar. I’m talking about the Satan’s dandruff, Yayo, Snow, Nose Candy. Cocaine, pretty much, although for legal reasons I must now state unequivocally that I am “joking” and that this offer was made purely in jest. But seriously, it’s really good shit and I’ll do a couple of rails with you before I head home.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a unique choice for the column, and by extension this website, in that it’s considered one of the greatest films of the current millennium, if not all time. Its critical reputation positively soars over the film I saw immediately before it, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 for my Zeroes column over at Rotten Tomatoes.
For the most part, I do not write about great movies for Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place unless the greatness that I’m hailing is the naive, outsider art genius of Miami Connection. I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose when it comes right down to it I am a goddamn philistine, and would rather spend my days joyfully frolicking in the cultural junkyard of b-movies and trash culture than solemnly analyzing. ART. What a load of crap! How pretentious! How solemn! How dreary! How tastefully inert! I vastly prefer crap to movies that try to say something profound and important about the human condition.
Watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reminded me, however, that I do not, in fact, hate art. No, I actually love art. It’s middlebrow Oscar-bait faux-art that I despise.
Despite the awful handicap of being great, enduring art, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is nevertheless ferociously alive, a movie that understands the sorrowful rhythms and oppressive grey loneliness and hopelessness of Depression like few other films. In his Oscar-winning screenplay, Charlie Kaufman intimately understands the emotional architecture of despair. Sadness is deeply embedded into the very fiber of the film.
Even at its happiest, Eternal Sunshine achingly sad because happiness here is inveterately fragile and ephemeral, a gust of wind, a mood or a fuzzy, half-obscured memory, not something real, solid, substantial and lasting. If anything, the incredible, life-affirming joy sad sack protagonist Joel (Jim Carrey, in a revelatory performance) experiences at the height of his relationship with would-be soulmate Clementine (Kate Winslet) makes the pain of not being able to hold onto her even more painful.
Joel begins the film in a deep depressive funk. He’s immersed in the kind of incapacitating sadness that makes you think that it will never end, that it will become a new permanent state. To put things in Manic Pixie Dream Girls terms, he is a quintessential Sad Boy, a morose Depressive whose smile went into cold storage long ago, seemingly never to return.
From the perspective of 2018, he is perhaps just as importantly, if not more importantly, a “nice guy.” Once upon a time being a “nice guy” was understandably seen in a positive light. Mr. Rogers was nice. So is Santa Claus. That furry red motherfucker Elmo is the epitome of nice. These days, where gender and romantic relationships are concerned, the concept of the “nice guy” has an overwhelmingly, if not exclusively negative connotation. In this newer, harsher light, a “nice guy” is a heterosexual dude who desperately wants, or rather demands, to be seen as Progressive and sensitive and “Woke.” He wants to be publicly praised as a necessary antidote to all of the assholes, bastards and misogynists out there giving men a bad name when he's actually sexist, cold, condescending, slut-shaming and deeply hypocritical.
I can’t say I was terribly surprised when, in the recent Great Moral Show-Business and Political Reckoning, any number of self-styled “Nice Guys” were outed as abusers and sexual predators. There is an awful lot of talk about niceness and being nice and nice guys in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, in keeping with the contemporary connotation of the phrase, and the movie's prescience where representation of gender are considered, the film’s conception of niceness is actually anything but nice.
In Eternal Sunshine, “nice” is fake. “Nice” is rooted in a toxic combination of self-awareness (the desperate need to be perceived by the world as a swell guy despite the darkness and ugliness at the core of your being) and ego. “Nice” is fake. “Nice” is inorganic and calculating and fundamentally dishonest. In Eternal Sunshine, nice is far removed from genuine kindness, real compassion, authentic empathy.
Joel bears all of the awful trademarks of a “Nice Guy.” He genuinely seems to love Clementine but that love is freighted with darkness and anger, poisonous jealousy and rage. He slut-shames Clementine. He’s cold and cruel. He’s terrified of Clementine’s sexuality and her freedom. He says throughout the film that he’s just not interesting and, as the saying goes, when someone tells you who they are, believe them.
On a similar note, Clementine repeatedly warns Joel about the jagged, ragged nature of her mood swings and instability. She even goes so far as to have her entire memory of their relationship erased, which, to me, is a pretty strong indication that she wants to move on. But Joel keeps pursuing her all the same because nothing in the world could bring him the same transcendent level of happiness as being with her, so he has to dance near the flame even if it guarantees that he’ll get burnt.
Eternal Sunshine is tricky in that in her first appearance as a chatty, flirtatious stranger on a train Clementine very much appears to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the most orthodox sense. She chats up the sad-eyed man-child instead of the other way around. Needless to say, sad boys like Joel are forever too mopey and brooding and focussed on the hopelessness of it all to make the first move. She talks in passionate jags, in manic bursts, in verbal fireworks that barely give a captivated but also overwhelmed Joel a chance to keep up. She keeps luring him closer, then moodily pushing him away.
She’s got hair dyed a fun color and a line of patter as quirky and whimsical as her personal aesthetic. She wears ironic tee-shirts festooned with the cherubs from Love Is. Even her name is quirky. At first glance, she sure seems to embody the MPDG archetype but the film is a knowing evisceration of the archetype that sets up its dynamic only to dramatically and very literally blow it apart as a toxic and impossible male fantasy.
The phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” obviously never appears in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I would not coin it in for another three years in reference to another, lesser Kirsten Dunst movie, Elizabethtown. Yet Kaufman’s screenplay nevertheless codifies the concept in a way that borders on uncanny. The only thing missing is a name. That's where I came in. Otherwise Kaufman had me beat by several years in introducing, analyzing and rejecting the concept of the MPDG.
When Clementine rages to Joel, a man who loves her but also resents her and hates her and wants to control her, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive” she could be speaking for every free spirit pushed into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Whimsical Savior mold against her will.
In the most explicit terms imaginable, Clementine rejects the idea that she exists to teach a sad overgrown boy how to smile and tiptoe through sunflower fields when she tells him, “I’m just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind.”
Joel succinctly captures the Quixotic appeal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl when he says of Clementine, “Her personality promises to take you out of the mundane.” Time and time again, Clementine tells Joel exactly who she is. She tells him that she is broken and angry and sad and will hurt him because she is, in her own only half-joking words, "a vindictive little bitch." If anything, she is overly honest. Clementine flat out tells Joel that she’s a fucked up girl looking her own piece of mind more than once yet his broken brain nevertheless insists on casting her in that impossible role in his life all the same.
Joel tells Clementine that what he loves about Clementine is her impulsiveness when that’s largely what he hates about her. He hates that he cannot control her, that she pursues her own vision of happiness instead of changing herself to fit into Joel’s.
By definition a character as nuanced and multi-dimensional as Clementine cannot be a one-dimensional archetype, a glib figure of male fantasy. Clementine is prickly and angry. She refuses to be a MPDG. She knows all too well the roles women free spirits like her play in the tortured and self-pitying minds of men like Joel and refuses to be simultaneously romanticized and dehumanized that way. She is defiantly her own person.
Like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine is about a business whose very existence stretches the limits of reality and what is considered possible, in this case a shadowy, secretive organization that goes through the minds of the depressed and grief-stricken and strategically removes troubling memories.
In a good illustration of the powerful succinctness and evocativeness of the film’s storytelling, in the waiting room of the memories-erasing folks lies a future patient with a box full of mementos of what we can only assume is her dead dog. In a clumsier, less artful film, we’d get ten lines of dialogue about how the technology isn’t just good for removing traumatic memories of romantic partners but also overpowering grief over a beloved dead pet or the death of a child but Eternal Sunshine powerfully establishes that bittersweet reality, that there are all kinds of reasons someone would want memories erased, and only some of them are rooted in romantic despair, in a matter of mere seconds with no dialogue.
Tom Wilkinson lends her patrician, paternal and faintly menacing presence to the role of the head of the brain-manipulating clinic, a man whose reassuring air makes his company’s work seem less creepy and invasive and just plain wrong than it actually is, while a pre-Hulk Mark Ruffalo is the technician who gets a little too distracted getting high and dancing around in his underwear with girlfriend Kirsten Dunst to really concentrating on the task of erasing Joel’s memories of Clementine during one very eventful evening during which Joel becomes unglued from time and space, not unlike the protagonist of Slaughterhouse 5 as past and present collide violently and reality and fantasy blur into each other in hypnotic and disorienting ways.
In the fantastical world of Kaufman, the magical, surreal nature of businesses like the mind-erasing company here or the John Malkovich’s headspace-rental folks makes the flaws of capitalism even pronounced. Simply by operating as a business, with all of the reassuring hallmarks that come with it, Wilkinson and company are lending an air of legitimacy to what is really a barbaric practice.
Early in the film there’s a great moment when Joel seeks reassurance that he won’t suffer brain damage from the procedure and Wilkinson reassures him, as much as is humanly possible under the circumstances, that while technically the procedure is brain damage, it’s no worse than a bad hangover after a long day of drinking. It’s a funny line but Wilkinson but does not deliver it as a joke. He delivers it completely straight and that makes it much funnier.
The same is true of the rest of the film as well. It understands that the best comedy, as well as drama, comes from a real place and no matter how crazy and surreal and kaleidoscopic things get, the movie never loses track of its somber, autumnal and deeply sad emotional core.
These days Jim Carrey is as known for his offscreen sadness as his onscreen tomfoolery. He’s a professional Sad Boy who communicates cryptically with the outside world and does strange, “satirical” paintings of figures in the Trump administration. The most talked about project he’s been involved with in ages was a documentary about how he lost his shit making Man on the Moon.
Carrey embodies the slapstick comedian’s ferocious need for love and validation in unusually pure form. Yet in Eternal Sunshine he’s heroically willing to come off like an asshole, a bitter, spiteful, jealous loser who can’t handle being in a relationship with Clementine but also cannot handle the prospect of being apart. Carrey came of age as a dramatic actor here. It’s a shame we haven’t seen too much of that side of Carrey’s skill set in the intervening years.
The older we get, the more damage we carry with us. But that damage is a big part of what makes us who we are, for better or worse. Like Joel and Clementine, I wish that I could purge myself of traumatic memories, that I could clean out the diseased and dirty and broken parts of my mind like I was cleaning out an attic. But we need our pain. We need our heartbreak. We need to feel like we can’t go on so that we can be surprised by the resilience of the human spirit.
With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I went from writing about lowbrow junk to highbrow art, and I didn’t mind a bit! If you want to have me write about a movie as good, or better than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for this column, go right ahead! As much as I love garbage, I guess greatness is okay too. At least in limited doses. I wouldn't want to get carried away and end up one of those respectable types.
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