Plot New York State, Valentine’s Day, 2004. On a whim, Joel Barish catches a train to Montauk; there he sights an attractive young woman, but doesn’t speak to her. On the train back, the woman introduces herself as Clementine. They spend much of the night together, developing a deep connection. We next see Joel at night, sitting in his car sobbing. Joel has recently split up with Clementine after two years together. He discovers from friends that Clementine has had her memories of him wiped by a specialist firm called Lacuna. Having spoken to Lacuna boss Howard Mierzwiak, Joel decides to have the same procedure. Lacuna technicians Stan and Patrick arrive at Joel’s apartment while he is asleep. They also erased Clementine’s memory, and Patrick has since begun seeing her, wooing her using Joel’s mementos. Lacuna receptionist Mary arrives; she gets high with Stan. As the first of Joel’s memories of Clementine disappear he realises he wants to hold on to his recollections; he tries to evade the erasing effects of the procedure by hiding Clementine in remote parts of his subconscious. When Stan realises this, he calls in Howard, who gets things back on track. Following a confrontation with Howard’s wife, Hollis, who follows her husband to Joel’s apartment, Mary learns that she had an affair with Howard, got pregnant and aborted the baby, and subsequently had her memories of this wiped. She storms off. Fighting a losing battle to preserve his memories of Clementine, Joel says goodbye to her at the Montauk beach where they first met: as the last memory is erased, Clementine tells Joel to “Meet me in Montauk”. In a replay of the film’s opening, Joel awakes the next morning and travels to Montauk, where he meets Clementine. Back home, Joel and Clementine discover documents from Lacuna–sent by the disgruntled Mary–that attest to their past relationship. They decide to try again (adapted from Olsen 57).
Film note In Indiewood, USA, Geoff King describes this eponymous film form as a combination of independent and mainstream filmmaking styles, “a kind of cinema that draws on elements of each, combining some qualities associated with the independent sector, although perhaps understood as softened or watered-down, with other qualities and industrial practices more characteristic of the output of the major studios” (3). Financed by a three-way co-production between NBC Universal-owned Focus Features, Anonymous Content and This Is That, and subsequently sold as a pitch to Steve Golin, then of Propaganda Films (later to be Anonymous Content), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fits within this category, although various elements of the production ensured creative freedom would take precedence over commercial concerns. Such freedom has led to a film that, while fitting within a semi-independent romantic-comedy rubric, also offers a complex political allegory of the US in the twenty-first century. It can also be seen as a prime example of an emergent cycle of “memory films,” a cycle that also includes major blockbusters.
Focus Features The screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine Charlie Kaufman recalls that the film was enormously popular as a pitch–“It was a five minute pitch, which turned out to be very exciting to people, for some reason”–with Focus Features, the art house division of major studio NBC Universal, eventually securing the rights amidst strong competition (133). Since its inception in 2002 from the merger of USA Films, Universal Focus and Good Machine, Focus Features has established itself as a reputable name in semi-independent film production, offering a rare combination of solid financial support and space for creative experimentation and risk taking. The company boasts an impressive list of semi-independent films that have garnered Academy Award recognition, including The Pianist (2002) and 21 Grams (2003), as well as a number of commercial hits, including Traffic (2000, grossing $207m worldwide) and Lost in Translation (2003, grossing $120m worldwide).
Focus Features positioned Eternal Sunshine as a quirky new take on the romantic comedy and this allowed the film to tap into a mainstream audience. The theatrical trailer for Eternal Sunshine emphasised the playfulness and whimsicality of the film, focusing on the light-hearted moments of the relationship and banter between Joel and Clementine. The tagline for the film (“You can erase someone from your mind. Getting them out of your heart is another story”) also emphasised the emotional. Although art-house financing was secured by the prominent positioning of Academy Award-nominated writer Charlie Kaufman, who had developed a strong cult following thanks to the success of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), his involvement was not placed to the forefront of the film’s marketing campaign, likely due to the potential risk of alienating mainstream filmgoers. Jack Foley, head of distribution for Focus Features, describes how they adopted an aggressive advertising strategy “that spoke outside of the confines of the Charlie Kaufman brand” (King 83). This followed the trend of highly successful semi-independent films such as Miramax’s top-grossing Pulp Fiction (1994) that had brought together “an art house audience [and a] wider action-thriller clientele” (Wyatt 81).
Rather than Kaufman, the central selling point of Eternal Sunshine was Jim Carrey. Carrey’s image dominated the marketing and promotional material for the film, even though the role of protagonist Joel Barish functions as the antithesis of Carrey’s previously cultivated star persona of slapstick funnyman, a persona which had made him a household name by the late 1990s. In contrast, Barish is lonely, introverted and unhappy. Such A-lister rebranding has become something of a trend in semi-independent films, with stars known for their broad physical comedy such as Robin Williams, Bill Murray and Adam Sandler reinventing themselves in far more downbeat roles in One Hour Photo (2002), Lost in Translation, and Punch Drunk Love (2002) respectively. Additionally, Eternal Sunshine‘s love interest Clementine Kruczynski–a foul-mouthed, tempestuous and impulsive borderline alcoholic–was a stark departure for star Kate Winslet, most widely known for English rose-type characters in British period films and the widely seen Titanic (1999). Winslet herself noted this seeming reversal of presumed roles: “I really had the Jim Carrey part, and that was pretty terrifying to be honest. At first I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be the funny one. Oh no. How on earth am I going to do that?’” (Cavagna). The presence of these two stars, role reversals or not, helped the film reach a wider audience aware of their more mainstream star personae.
The film also benefited from the distinct style of Michel Gondry, who despite directing a poorly received comedy feature (Human Nature (2001), also written by Kaufman), had also developed a distinctive and lauded visual style in music videos for Massive Attack and The White Stripes, among others. Gondry’s transition to feature film directing is consistent with a wider trend of music and commercial directors moving into semi-independent features, such as Spike Jonze (director of Fatboy Slim music videos and Being John Malkovich), and later Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine (2006)) and Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer (2009)). This trend reveals the intermeshing of commercial and aesthetic aspects of short-form and feature-length storytelling. Many of the films of these directors have an inherent musicality and distinctive aesthetic to them, the result of their extensive experience in short-form directing. Gondry describes the music video as “the perfect medium to do kinetic or geometrical research” which can then be applied to feature films (qtd. in Kleinman). The rich mise-en-scène in Eternal Sunshine can be attributed to Gondry’s expertise in combining “imaginative fiction and emotional reality,” including his signature of “in-camera” special effects and the dramatic use of long takes (Hirschberg 2006). The idiosyncratic styles of these directors, as well as the youthful and experimental nature of their work, has clearly resonated with a pop-culture-savvy demographic and underpinned the financial and critical success of their respective projects.
Blessed are the forgetful Although the world of Eternal Sunshine seems mostly self-contained and superficially apolitical, the film can be read as an allegory of the American (sub)conscious subsequent to the terrorist acts of 9/11. The central idea of the film was conceived in 1998, the script written from 2000 to 2002, footage shot and edited in 2003, and the film finally released in 2004. The fact that production spanned the course of the late 1990s and early 2000s, during which many changes were made, validates the reading of Eternal Sunshine as both a pre- and post-9/11 film. Although Eternal Sunshine has autobiographical roots in the lives of Kaufman and Gondry, David Martin-Jones sees the film as a (somewhat disguised) “politically engaged critique” (180).
In a minor plot line, Lacuna Inc.’s receptionist, Mary (Kirsten Dunst) discovers that she has had erased the memory of an affair with her boss Dr Mierzwiak (the affair had resulted in an abortion). Her discovery wrecks her emotionally, even though she was complicit in the erasure of these memories. Martin-Jones suggests that Mary’s character is indicative of the negative consequences of this kind of wilful amnesia, and that the film here is commenting on how the US attempted to “forget” the experience of 9/11 (primarily through a denial of its causes–namely, the CIA’s clandestine operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s, including the training of Osama bin Laden–and a desire to “move on” without serious self-reflection).
In marked contrast to Mary, Joel and Clementine (although both subject to memory erasure procedures) seem to indicate that the procedures are inadequate and are drawn to pursue the same ill-fated relationship again in the arguably tragic ending of the film. As Martin-Jones notes, the couple “consciously choose to recreate the situation that led up to their trauma, and to re-examine their own role in creating it” (Martin-Jones 157). Joel and Clementine’s decision to enter a new relationship together, which “consciously acknowledge[s] their own complicity in creating the [prior] trauma” is presented as the mature, sensible way of coping with such difficult experiences (Martin-Jones 177). This sentiment is underscored by the music of the closing credits: Beck’s mournful “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” whose lyrics (“Change your heart/It will astound you”) echo the message that rather than forgetting the past and moving on, we should confront the actions that led up to the traumatic event in order to seek full resolution. As if to emphasise this point, the film has Mary resign from Lacuna and inform all Lacuna Inc.’s patients of the procedures they have undertaken. Whether motivated by revenge or the desire to have others share her pain is left largely ambiguous but in these actions the film seems to indicate its preference for the truth rather than a more comfortable (but heavily redacted) version of the past.
Kaufman’s original script included a flash forward fifty years into the future, with Mary, now an old woman, still working for Lacuna Inc., collecting and preserving people’s memories in a book. She attempts to get this published, but dies before succeeding, and the book is probably lost in time. Joel and Clementine in this alternative ending are also shown to have repeatedly broken up and gotten back together throughout the decades (Kaufman 143). Although never filmed, this sequence would have given the story of more tragic tone. Furthermore, if read more broadly as an allegory of the American coping mechanism in the aftermath of the national trauma of 9/11, it would have painted a far bleaker picture of a helpless nation caught in a vicious circle of self-destructive amnesia. The decision to exclude this scene, originally planned as the opening sequence, could potentially reflect Focus Features’ and NBC’s reluctance to be associated with a film offering such a dark vision in the immediate years after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq, but also seems to indicate how the film wishes to show that critical self-reflection might succeed in breaking the cycle of self-improvement via wilful forgetting (Joel and Clementine in their desire to deal with the messy realities of their relationship might just find a way to make it work).
While the technology deployed in the film is presented as quasi-archaic, and seemingly primitive, it is nonetheless highly invasive and–during successful procedures–leaves no evidence of its deployment, thanks to the memory erasure of the subject’s visit to Lacuna along with the relationship being deleted. Issues of medical ethics are subordinate to the emotional core of the film (Joel and Clementine’s relationship) but nonetheless Eternal Sunshine taps into widespread anxieties about computerised bodily augmentation and manipulation in the twenty-first century, an age in which public and private boundaries are being rapidly broken down by new technologies. The film can be seen then as linking these anxieties with contemporary concerns regarding the re-writing of history in the US following 9/11, and the omission of key events from cultural consciousness for the sake of avoiding traumatic recognition.
The rise of the memory film The past decade has seen the release of a string of “memory films”. Such films usually deal with themes of consciousness, perception and time through a focus on issues of recollection and dreaming. This emerging cycle has proved to be immensely popular, and several sub-cycles have developed, including those that overlap with the romantic comedy (Eternal Sunshine, 50 First Dates (2004)), the psychological thriller (Fight Club (1999), Memento (2000), Mulholland Drive (2001), The Butterfly Effect (2004)) and science fiction (Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999)). Arguably, the trend can be traced back to science-fiction films like Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall (1990), detective stories in which the protagonist must question their memories and deconstruct their own reality. These films place their central characters in situations of existential crisis, in which they are overwhelmed by a staggeringly radical new world view, conducted within a simulated reality or alternate universe that acts as a microcosm of the real world. However, in the last ten years, in films such as The Truman Show (1999), these concerns have become embedded in less fantastical worlds and plots, striving instead to comment on the everyday lives of cinemagoers. Alternate universes have become increasingly mundane, a trend shown in Eternal Sunshine, with its contemporary setting and down-to-earth mise-en-scène.
James Harkin has referred to such cinema as “cyber-realist”–films which appeal quite specifically to a generation who have grown up in the digital era (Harkin). The multiplicity of storylines and plastic sense of time and space, as well as the use of a plurality of perspectives are all distinctly postmodern and influenced by the profusion of discourses produced by a web-based culture, a culture which–through the rise of the internet, social networking, and portable digital devices–has fostered a generation of tech-savvy people used to constant information bombardment. Such a generation is well adapted to multitasking and confidently handling various streams of information simultaneously. Noting this shift, Memento director Christopher Nolan has stated: “I think people’s ability to absorb a fractured mise-en-scène […] is extraordinary compared to 40 years ago” (qtd. in Harkin).
An audience of “digital natives” demands “a new kind of storytelling that deliberately engages our restless, cybernetic imagination,” heralding the rise of the memory film (Harkin). These films are “oblique and elusive enough to allow for a wide variety of interpretations, and broad enough to allow the reader more freedom of manoeuvre to follow their own path through the narrative” (Harkin). The neat narrative segmentation between beginning, middle and end is usually abolished and replaced by a non-linear or non-chronological narrative. However, this creates the challenge of keeping an audience engaged even when traditional narrative grounding has been relinquished. As Kaufman himself has commented regarding the development of the script for Eternal Sunshine: “[t]hat was a big discussion in the studio, always. How long can you keep the audience confused before they turn off?” (141). Eternal Sunshine can be considered the answer to this question, offering as it does a combination of challenging multiple, non-linear narrative form and an intellectually stimulating concept while avoiding alienating esotericism.
David Harvey writes that the condition of postmodernity is one of “excessive ephemerality and fragmentation in the political and private as well as in the social realm” (306). The archetypal protagonist of the memory film is also somewhat symptomatic of a postmodern American audience who, while interconnected in an expansive, pervasive media net, are nonetheless increasingly isolated on an individual level. In Eternal Sunshine, Joel is incarcerated within his memories of Clementine, unable to stop the erasure procedure. This character type also usually embodies a growing sense of existential anxiety thanks to the deconstruction of their reality. Memento’s Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) struggles to differentiate between his allies and those complicit in his wife’s murder, and grows increasingly anxious and self-doubting throughout the film, unable to trust anyone, not even himself. That film’s conclusion–in which trauma is wilfully forgotten for the sake of the protagonist’s state-of-mind–is at odds with the indications in Eternal Sunshine that facing up to reality is necessary, even though both films tread similar psychological ground (albeit in very different styles). Furthermore, the protagonist of the Bourne franchise seeks the truth of his life before he was affected by amnesia, and in doing so uncovers the dark abuses of power within the US military industrial complex.
Memory films are often self-reflexive, self-referential and solipsistic. Many memory films frame narratives from the sole and intrinsically subjective and flawed perspective of a central, unreliable narrator. In Eternal Sunshine, even as Joel relives all of his memories with Clementine, the entire story is ultimately told from his perspective as the main narrator. As Kaufman points out, “You don’t really know what their relationship is. You only know what Joel thinks about their relationship” (135). This narrative framing is echoed in (500) Days of Summer, in which the story of a relationship is again viewed entirely via the male protagonist’s mind.
Symptomatic of (post)modern culture, and engaging with issues of unreliable narrators, the memory film genre is also a perfect fit for the home-viewing DVD market, as this format is ideal for instantaneous repeated viewing of the whole film or just fragments of it. Indeed, the densely layered structures of memory films have won over many fans, who have made films that underperformed at the box office cult hits when released on DVD. Fight Club, whose box office revenue did not meet financing studio Twentieth Century Fox’s expectations (it made $37m but had a production budget of nearly double that), later went on to become one of the best-selling DVDs in the studio’s history, grossing more than $55m in video and DVD rentals (Bing). The potential of these films to be sold more than once (encouraging multiple cinema visits and committed home viewing) is an important factor in determining their commercial viability and longevity.
The most successful and mainstream memory film to date is the blockbuster Inception (2010). Involving a multilayered plot in which psychologically troubled thief infiltrates the dreams of rich businessmen, Inception enjoyed tremendous commercial success at the box office ($825m). A large portion of the film’s box office can be attributed to repeat viewings; it grossed $62.7m on its opening weekend and only fell 32% and 36% in its second and third weeks respectively. Such popularity reveals that the memory film genre works equally well in avowedly commercial contexts (Inception is an action-thriller) as it does in the domain of “Indiewood” productions like Eternal Sunshine. Such flexibility suggests that the memory film cycle will remain central to the contemporary cinema for some time to come.
Bing, Jonathan. “’Fight Club’ Author Books Pair of Deals.” Vanity Fair. VanityFair.com, 10 Apr. 2001. Web. 14 Feb. 2011.
Cavagna, Carlo, ‘Eternal Sunshine Interview’, AboutFilm.com, April 2004. Web. 13 Feb. 2011.
Dijck, José van. “Memory Matters in the Digital Age.” Configurations, 12.3 (2004): 349-373. Print.
Harkin, James. “Losing the plot.” The Observer. Guardian.co.uk, 22 Mar. 2009. Web. 14 Feb. 2011.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990. Print.
Higbee, Will. “Ungrounding the Narrative of Nation.” Film-Philosophy, 13.1 (2009): 156-164. Print.
Hirschberg, Lynn. “La Romantique.” The New York Times. NYTimes.com, 17 Sept. 2006. Web. 14 Feb 2011.
Kaufman, Charlie. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press, 2004. Print.
King, Geoff. Indiewood, USA: Where Hollywood Meets Independent Cinema. New York: IB Tauris, 2009. Print.
Kleinman, Geoffrey. “Interview with Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry”, DVDTalk.com, Mar. 2004. Web. 14 Feb. 2011.
Martin-Jones, David. Deleuze, Cinema and National Identity: Narrative Time in National Contexts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. Print.
Olsen, Mark. “Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Sight and Sound, 14. 5 (2004): 57.
Wyatt, Justin. “The Formation of the ‘Major Independent’: Miramax, New Line and the New Hollywood.” Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. ed. Steve Neale and Murray Smith. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Written by Shanshan Chen (2010); edited by Nick Jones (2011), Queen Mary, University of London.
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