The Problem With 'Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind'...

By Arun Fulara. Posted on July 22, 2015

Many of us are huge fans of Kaufman's twisted love story, that is actually a meditation on memory and our attempts to avoid pain and hold on to pleasure. The screenplay (download here) won the Academy Award for best screenplay in 2005 and is much lauded for its Kafkaesque portrayal of love between two lonely, vulnerable characters.

So it was quite interesting to read this take-down of the screenplay by Ashwini Malik on the FWA site. The basic premise of his argument is that the script, in trying to be too clever, loses out on exploiting the potential of its premise. While one can't really argue that the script isn't clever, but does it fail to deliver? That's something that we might not completely agree with. However Ashwini's analysis is very interesting and makes for worthwhile reading.

All art is about interpretation and how boring would life be, if we didn't have counter-views on the things that we are most passionate about. :-)

You can read the full article on the wonderful FWA site. Here's what Ashwini has to say;

"The film begins with introducing the protagonist, Joel Barish, who skips work on Valentine’s Day (after spouting a cliché about the holiday having been invented by greeting card companies) and ends up in Montauk. We’re interested, the cliché notwithstanding, because the character seems promising and Gondry dazzles us with his hip directorial style. In Montauk, Joel sees Clementine, first at the beach, then at a restaurant. Joel’s voiceover tells us he falls in love with every woman he sees. Joel is coming across as a shy man who mouths funny lines. (‘Sand is overrated. It’s just tiny little rocks.’ ‘Nice is good.’)  So far so good.

Joel and Clementine get chatting in the train, she having made the first move. And now, signs of stereotyping begin to emerge. Clementine is ‘a vindictive little bitch’, the Hollywood-style ‘free spirit’ who speaks her mind, is attractive, ‘unusual’, gregarious and funny. (She stays at this impossible level right till the end of the film.) Joel, on the other hand, is shy and ‘complex’, but his dialogue is funny, because dialogue must be interesting, character be damned. So, characters meant to be dissimilar, end up speaking similarly.

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Also, faithful to screenwriting principles, we have two ‘interesting’ people who are very unlike each other, whereas, life tells us that even people who are not so unlike can have interesting relationship issues. But no, a film cannot take this chance. They end up at Clementine’s place where she continues being the extroverted ‘free spirit’. In case we didn’t notice, she also proceeds to state everything:

Clementine: I mean, I'm always anxious, thinking I'm not living my life to the fullest, taking advantage of every possibility, making sure I'm not wasting one second of the little time I have.

She states much more, and they set a date for ‘honeymoon on ice’ the next night. And so, to further underline that these people are ‘quirky’, they must go to a frozen lake. Where, to further emphasize her free-spiritedness she must use the words ‘ass’ and ‘fuck’. But wait a minute, these are also ‘sensitive’ people, so they must gaze at the stars and speak about constellations.

  • They return from the frozen lake, Clementine runs into her home for a toothbrush and the film goes into flashback. Joel is sobbing uncontrollably, the day before Valentine’s Day. We are teased with a glimpse of what is the memory-erasing procedure getting under way, after which we flash further back. Joel is with friends. Clementine has broken up with him and refuses to even recognize him. An upset Joel is told by his friend that Clementine has had him erased from her mind. Let’s pause a little here. This is what the manuals would call the end-of-Act-I-moment. (Either this, or the moment a couple of minutes later when Joel decides to undergo the procedure himself.) We’ve been introduced to the characters, we know the situation and now we’re ‘ready’ to get into the ‘real’ story, which is about Joel deciding to get Clementine erased from his mind and then rebelling against the procedure because he has realized he loves her. Why do we have to wait 25 odd minutes before the real story begins? Why can’t it begin at the beginning, like it does in A Short Film about Love, as we shall see subsequently? Eternal Sunshine could begin with Joel discovering that Clementine has had him erased and we could get to know the characters as the film progresses. Why wait for the ‘set up’ to be over? Why the need for such a dogged adherence to the principles of structure? Why can’t the story be allowed to determine the structure, instead of the other way round? Yes, the first 25 minutes of Eternal Sunshine, at least in terms of dazzle, are effective. Kaufman and Gondry have created a feeling of anticipation and suspense and we want to know more. The opening sequences also provide the opportunity of coming full circle in the end. However, there’s a price to pay. Because as per the manuals the real story can begin only at the end of Act I, and Act I has taken up over 25 minutes, the screenwriter is not left with enough time to explore the struggle of the protagonist. Or perhaps the screenwriter is not interested in truly exploring the protagonist’s struggle, so he uses principles of structure to manoeuvre the story down a predetermined path. But more on this a little later.

Joel goes to Lacuna, meets Dr. Mierzwiak, hesitates for an appropriate duration (one scene with friends) and decides to go ahead with the procedure. The memory erasure process begins (backwards) and we see the memory that led to their break-up. We now discover the problem with their relationship – he’s too possessive, too jealous, too suspicious. Basically, he cannot deal with her free-spiritedness. Okay, so now it looks like there could be some complexity to Joel, he could even be interesting.

Except that, very soon, we see a memory where Clem wants to have a baby and Joel doesn’t. Now I’m beginning to get suspicious. Jealousy, not wanting to have a baby... The problems are getting a little too typically male. And multiple, which is what happens when there is no real problem to explore. But let’s wait a bit. There’s an embarrassing scene establishing Mary as a quote freak, before we move on to the next memory and next problem in the Joel-Clementine relationship.

Now you get the king of clichés: she says he doesn’t talk with her and she doesn’t know him! This is turning out to be a self-help-article relationship. (By the way, just so no cliché is left out, he also doesn’t clean the hair off the soap in the shower.) Clearly, multiple problems have been created to distract from the absence of a real problem. When there’s nothing to say, one ends up saying everything. They have no real problem because they’re not real people but types. The film has already become a victim of the manual syndrome. Unusual and unalike characters have resulted in cardboard cutouts and thus we’re left with the problem that there’s no problem between them.

Since a film needs a ‘bad guy’ (because the script knows there’s no real problem, a bad guy may help provide the necessary ‘complications’), Patrick has to volunteer to steal Clementine’s affections and complicate the plot artificially. Why the need for the Patrick-character? Since the story is about how Joel decides to get his mind erased of Clementine and then struggles to retain her in his memories, this struggle should be strong enough to power the screenplay.

But it isn’t, because, as I said earlier, the script isn’t interested in truly exploring his struggle, the promise of the premise: should he or should he not erase Clementine? That would have been interesting, but a) difficult, and b) complex, and therefore not so easy to ‘consume’ by the audience. And so, the script plays a trick upon us: it quickly pushes Joel into the procedure and makes it unstoppable once started.

Whereas, it would have been infinitely more interesting to either give Joel the option to stop the procedure until at least a certain amount of time into it, or give him a few days before he makes up his mind about it (the latter option would also go better with Joel’s character, since it is Clementine who is supposed to be ‘impulsive’, not he). That way, his dilemma could have been explored beautifully: do happy memories prevent him from going ahead with the procedure, or will he go ahead with it because the bitter memories outweigh the happy ones? The screenwriter could explore the conflict in Joel’s mind, which is what this film should really be about.

But since the film refuses to explore this dilemma, it is forced to fall back upon principles of structure. With a curtailed struggle, it needs an Act I – which, on closer scrutiny, turns out to be mostly exposition – to fill the time. After which, the truncated struggle fits comfortably into the Act II template, since the only real obstacle is the unstoppable nature of the procedure.

However, the script knows that this is a rather weak obstacle, and poor Patrick has to step in to bolster it. Patrick, strictly speaking, doesn’t even serve a plot purpose. He’s there just because you need a bad guy to make the protagonist’s struggle seem tougher. (There’s another muddled sub-plot in the film – of Mary and Stan. What does that do? Nothing. Zilch. Nada.) The script is incapable of exploring the complexity of a simple plot. So the plot must be complicated in order for it to seem complex.

Let’s proceed and see how the script falls further prey to a manual-imposed structure. It’s about mid-point now and the main ‘struggle’ of the film needs to begin. Joel needs to ‘want’ to stop the process (the main ‘struggle’) and so, sure enough, we see a ‘happy’ memory. Very conveniently, he didn’t see a happy memory earlier, because that would have meant Joel starting his struggle too soon into the film. So the first few memories have to be bitter. And so the struggle of the protagonist begins. (It’s odd that no one before Joel wanted to exit the procedure, since everyone must have a happy memory or two to motivate them. But then I suppose that would make the central conceit of the film untenable. So we must assume two things: that no one before this loved as deeply as Joel and Clementine. And, no one before this was as smart as them.)

Joel and Clem decide to hide in a memory where she doesn’t belong (how they get to a memory where she doesn’t belong is another matter but I’m not going into the logic of the premise) because the protagonist, as the manuals tell us, must be ‘pushed’ to ‘the end of the line’, no matter how contrived it might look. So they hide in some ‘quirky’ childhood memories with Joel repeatedly stepping out of character and into Jim Carrey mode. Mierzwiak has to be brought in to track Joel and Clementine down. (Mierzwiak also needs to come into the picture so that Mary, his smitten office receptionist, can get a chance to get disillusioned by this process and eventually spill the beans to everyone who underwent the procedure and thus wrap up the plot. So purely functional is this subplot of a naïve young woman exploited by her much older boss.)

The filmmakers have also managed to give us a glimpse into Joel’s somewhat repressed childhood, because everything must have a cause, and the cause must be clearly stated because if it isn’t then no one will get it, seeing as it doesn’t come through in the story that is unfolding.

And soon, the procedure is back on track, ‘pushing’ Joel and Clementine further, ‘testing’ their love further. We see some more ‘struggle’, till, structurally, it’s time for the film to proceed to its ending. At this point the characters, in keeping with the manual approach, are in an impossible situation. There is simply no way out. So now the script must take recourse to another ‘principle’: if we see the protagonists struggle enough, we will forgive the film if it lets them off the hook, however illogically!

And so, because we have seen them make this ‘great’ effort (like hiding in his ‘humiliation’ – when he’s caught masturbating by his mother. See how unafraid the film is?) to stay together, we will forgive the writer for giving them an escape route, an opportunity to be together. And so, Clementine whispers the magic words, ‘Meet me in Montauk,’ and their subconscious retain this, because their love is so true. Somewhere before this, of course, the pretentious title of the film has also been dealt with via a ‘Pope Alexander’ quote. Much in keeping with the manuals, to justify the appearance of the quote a character must be a quote freak.

Flashback over, Joel and Clem end up listening to each other’s tapes about the other person, get mad at each other and then:

Clementine: I'm not a concept, Joel. I'm just a fucked-up girl who's looking for my own peace of mind. I'm not perfect.

Joel: I can't see anything that I don't like about you. Right now I can't.

Clementine: But you will. But you will. You know, you will think of things, and I'll get bored with you and feel trapped... because that's what happens with me.

Joel: Okay.

Clementine: Okay.

One cardboard cutout deserves another. ‘Fairytale’ ending. Everything tied up. Just like the manual said. What could have been an exploration of romantic love turned into a mere technical exercise. We get to know a lot about the two main characters and yet we do not get to know them at all. The problems in the relationship are left unexplored because the emphasis is on creating a clever little film from a clever little premise. Too clever, unfortunately, for its own good."


Will be interesting to know what you think of this analysis. Counter-points anyone?

Also check this out:

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Online Workshop On 'Secrets Of Screenwriting' With Kamlesh Pandey, At 6 PM, On 8th August


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