Sunday, February 14, 2010

Meet Me in Montauk

"Random thoughts for Valentine's Day, 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap." - Joel Barish (Jim Carrey)

Valentine's Day is as good an excuse as any to write about one of the best films of the past decade. I cannot think of another film that so directly addresses how and why we love as we do as thoughtfully and compellingly as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Orwell must have had a film like this in mind when he wrote, "If one thinks of it, there is very little in the mind that could not somehow be represented by the strange distorting powers of the film." (1)

Prior to this film, Michel Gondry was a successful director of commercials and music videos for recording artists like Björk, the queen of twee, and he had worked with the script-writer Charlie Kaufman once before on the film Human Nature (2001), which was, like its title, a whopping banality. I was one of the few who cared little for Being John Malkovich (1999), and even less for Adaptation (2002), both directed by the irritatingly clever Spike Jonez. (2) What made the difference with Eternal Sunshine, I believe, was that the story was written by Kaufman, Gondry and Pierre Bismuth.

The title is unusual, but it does not quite fit the film. Alexander Pope was writing enviously about people who lead unexamined lives - which Plato claimed are not worth living. But Plato did not notice the paradox: how could you know that your life is not worth living if it is unexamined? Pope was, through the imprisoned Eloise, trying to be ironic by wishing he were an imbecile, "the world forgetting, by the world forgot." Certainly, in the film, the two lovers learn that forgetting is fraught with unforeseeable perils.

And it is here that Gondry's film becomes most tellingly beautiful. Told in linear terms, the story concerns Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet), who meet on Valentine's Day in wintry Montauk, Long Island. They quickly fall in love, but after two years together they not only want to go their separate ways, but first Clementine, and then Joel decide to undergo a treatment that erases all their memories of each other. We are given a guided tour of the process (which is presented with a wink and a nod) when we enter Joel's mind as, one by one, his memories of Clementine are wiped away. But when Joel changes his mind and wants out of the memory-erasing process - but is paralyzed and unable to stop it - he resists it within his mind, by secreting Clementine away deeper in his memories.

I will not go into the ingenious, and very simple, tricks which Gondry used to create his magic. (3) Singling out just one: at the moment when Joel awakes at the beginning of the film, just as he does on the very same morning near the end of the film, it is one of the most beautiful evocations of awakening that I have ever seen on film. Gondry is such an artist down to his fingertips that, although he uses surroundings that are utterly familiar, he somehow makes them seem completely new.

Tom Wilkinson lends conviction to a rather slight role, as do Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood. But the film belongs, of course, to Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Carrey is marvelous, making me forget some of his prior painful attempts as seriousness (The Majestic). And of Winslet all I will say is that when she repeats her line to Joel that she is "just a fucked-up girl who's looking for [her] peace of mind," I believed her enough to know just how much Clementine did not mean it.

This is one of those films that demands to be seen more than once. I would not have "got" the ending, in fact, if I had stopped at one viewing. I thought, after the first viewing, that Joel and Clem had agreed to end it, that they would only make the same mistakes again, that it was futile. But, of course, the film says the opposite. It tells us that no matter how hard we try to alter our course, we will always find ourselves drawn down the same paths to the same people. By the time the last memory of Clem is erased from Joel's mind, just before she whispers the words, "meet me in Montauk," the enormity of Gondry's poetic vision is all but complete. All that remains is for his two ex-lovers to learn the true lengths to which they have gone to find each other all over again.

(1) "New Words," 1940
(2) Jonez has lately done well by Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, which I, like everyone else on earth, read and loved as a child.
(3) My sister refuses to watch any "behind the scenes" look at how films are made. I believe she is right - why should filmmakers tolerate such an intrusion on their most creative moments?

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