This year’s iteration of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at the Film Experience snuck up on me quite unawares, making me feel like I’m failing not just as a member of Team Experience, but as a long-time booster of the best multi-site experience on the whole of the film blogosphere. I’ve said before and I’ll say again (like, every Tuesday, probably), but if you’re not playing along, you absolutely should. It’s the most fun thing that I do with this site, and I frankly think that some of the best analysis I’ve ever done has been in this series.
Admittedly, today’s post doesn’t hit that level of pride, because my pick for the best shot from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – that masterpiece of post-modern romance is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, if you can believe that goddamn bullshit – is hardly cunning or deeply insightful. In keeping with my general principle that the best way to approach HMWYBS is to look for the shot that best evokes the themes of the film that seem most important to me, to express something useful about its narrative, and to showcase its cinematography – in this case by the glorious Ellen Kuras, who needs to come back from whatever mud pit she sank into after Away We Go – and while I frequently have to sacrifice one or two of those goals, Eternal Sunshine offered up one moment that pretty clearly gets it in one:
Go away right now if you haven’t seen the film. RIGHT NOW. This comes almost at the end, and if you read the film the way I do, it is the literal climactic moment of the whole picture.
If you’ve stayed, then you know already that Eternal Sunshine is a movie about memory: specifically, the memory of past romantic relationships that didn’t end the way we’d have liked them to, and the pain caused by dwelling on those memories. This is explored through the film in a highly literal way, with the introduction of technology that allows people to eradicate specific, unpleasant memories, but writers Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth clearly have something more metaphorical in mind than the sci-fi machinery of their plot suggests.
The moment I’ve chosen comes when Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) has just about concluded the process of wiping every trace of Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) from his mind, with the last memory of their time together being a moment in a beach house where they first fell in love. It was a happy moment that he has since turned into a knife to stab himself with (to the unhappy person, nothing is as miserable as the memory of joy), but it’s also the strongest single memory he has of the relationship; it is, we can assume, the one he has re-lived more often than any other, dwelling on its every nuance.
And now that it’s about to fade away forever, the aspect of Joel’s memory identifying itself as Clementine (it’s important to stay aware with this film that most of the time we’re seeing Kate Winslet, she’s not actually playing a person, but an echo in his mind) asks him why he has to keep rehashing the same memory, why he can’t simply think of it in a different way and build a new narrative around it. In other words, why dwell on the past in a way that makes you sad, when you can just as easily dwell on it in a way that makes you happy. And this he does, finally shifting his thoughts on his relationship with Clementine into a register where it brings him peace instead of agony, just as the memory starts to disintegrate and the last of her is gone.
So, back to the shot. It is a moment of both transcendence and destruction: Joel has finally learned the healthy way to process his painful memories without having to resort to draconian sci-fi technologies, just as the draconian sci-fi technology is done doing its work. And so we have three things vying for attention in one frame: the close-up on Carrey and Winslet, emphasising just them and their emotions, a memory of feeling rather than event; the fade to white; the diffuse focus. The latter two qualities both obviously imply the end of this memory, but in two different ways: as the focus gets blurrier, it’s a fairly literal evocation of Joel’s memory going fuzzy until they blank out completely, but what of the white-out? Elsewhere in the film, fading memories are associated with black-outs, and generally speaking, the association we’re typically expected to make with death that involves a great deal of light pouring in (and make no mistake, this is a death scene) is one of finding spiritual peace and ascending to a better state of being. And this is exactly what Joel is experiencing, in the last possible moment: a peacefulness of mind that he has not to this point experienced at any point in the movie. It is the one moment where we’re given reason to hope that he is capable of learning from his past, instead of just being wounded by it. I’m not sure that Eternal Sunshine has a terribly optimistic perspective on whether that learning and growth will stick, but it clearly wants to be hopeful on that front, and in its most beautiful moment, it depicts how that kind of real shift in thinking can happen, even if it’s probably too late for this version of Joel to do anything good with it.