Many articles have been written defending getting off your lazy bum and checking out a movie on the big screen, surrounded by sticky floors and the never distant waft of stale popcorn. Usually, these pieces wage war on streaming services by professing their love for a great blockbuster or film festival darling seen with a great crowd on the best screen possible. My defense, although just as passionate, is not one of those pieces, for the film I saw this week was an old one, played in a run-down multiplex. All the inconveniences of the cinema that other critics would like you to forget about happened on our way into the theater. Yet when the film started and I collapsed out of breath rushing to my seat so as not to miss it, the rest of the world in its clanging banging glory faded away. In the altar that is the movie theater, I found a deeply personal moment.
Several years ago, after some great high school rejection from a girl I was crushing on, I just happened to find a DVD copy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at the library. Having heard the film was essential, I dug into it as a coal miner wading through oil. Unexpectedly, I started crying. I couldn’t stop. I was watching the film on a television set at home, yet I couldn’t help but project onto the screen. For years afterwards, any time I felt alone, rejected, filled with teen angst or just plain unlovable, I would throw on Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece at home.
This week I graduate college, armed to take over the world with a major in English, a minor in Film and Television Studies, and a beautiful girlfriend of over two years by my side. Seeing that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was showing as a special event at a theater a half hour away, I recruited my Dad to come with me so I could watch the film with new eyes. As an advocate for the theater experience (and knowing the rumors that this might be a new 4K restoration of the movie) I felt it worth it to leave my personal DVD on the shelf at home and pay for the full AMC experience.
A matinee showing. Dreary day. Overpriced popcorn. An out of breath dash to showtime. Nearly empty theater. Uncomfortable seats. Stupid previews. NOT the 4k restoration. Blown out lighting. Low saturation. At least the sound is fine. Wow, I forgot how good Jim Carrey is in this one. Kate Winslet is magic. Huh, I didn’t notice that foreshadowing before. This film is instantly engaging. Everything else washes away.
I watch as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind introduces the shy Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet). The recently separated couple both discover a service that will erase the pain of their breakup by making them forget one another completely. Only during the procedure, the beauty of their relationship strikes Joel, and he finds himself struggling to remember what he’s lost.
As usual, surveying their relationship has me replaying my own mentally. My girlfriend dyes her hair like that. Sometimes when she’s annoyed with me, I find myself mouthing the complaints as she says them, just like Joel. Clementine wants to do something; she gets so itchy around Joel’s weary routines. While I’m not a car crasher or cheater, I find myself wandering around like her just to lose the feeling of being trapped by depressive passivity. Even their argument over having children gave me pause as I considered the next steps in being with my girlfriend. Creeping up my spine, I got the eerie feeling that Google Earth gives you when you search for your own house. I’ve been there.
Part of the intentionally relatable nature of Eternal Sunshine lies in its direction. While Michael Gondry’s cinematography may not initially seem like theater-worthy material, it’s crafted that way. Every choice in production design, lenses, color grading, lighting, and shot choice is geared towards making you feel like this is almost a home video. You’re experiencing the film the way you might experience your own past heartbreaking memories. At any second you might expect the montage of the couple’s memories together to cut to your relationship’s most personal moments, and the film wouldn’t miss a beat.
The B plot reenforces the Joel/Clementine relationship by introducing us to a group of science types behind the memory erasing procedure. Through their relationships, we’re given a glimpse into how erasing memories of love cheats yourself of humanity. One character (Elijah Wood) takes advantage of Clementine through his knowledge about her procedure, only to slowly discover she craves that real connection that only someone actually present, responsive, and making a real choice can satisfy her need for love. Notice the arc of Mary (Kirsten Dunst), the receptionist, and its reinforcement of this message. Being there for someone else, forgiving but not forgetting their flaws, is love’s requirement.
Repeatedly characters try to romanticize this, or otherwise address it as simply attraction. “I’m not a concept Joel.” Clementine insists, “I’m just a f***ed-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind. I’m not perfect.” Through this film, Joel is able to address how much he hasn’t really been present for the person, but rather passive to the concept of his partner. Love begins when he knows who she is and understands that those things he doesn’t like about her will continue to be there. Rarely does one encounter a piece of art so frank about love that doesn’t bash it completely. Kaufman’s stellar writing is able to navigate both a post break-up world and a relationship simultaneously, which allows for the negative and the positive to complement one another without sacrificing beauty for the academic.
Because of the B plot’s sudden relevance, both Joel and Clementine are unable to control their endgame. No matter how much they resist, it takes outside forces to really change anything until the very end, in which they must just make a simple choice. Is it worth it? Are you any kind of substantial figure? You, whom I love, who treads water in the sea of your faults, whose differences compliment mine like iron on iron, which leaves me questioning who I am in how I’m unlike you. Do I make a decision to be with you, to be present in being yours, and to be aware of your flaws? Would I do it all again, knowing the likelihood of failure? These questions are the prestige of this movie’s trick. The moment of decision dawns at the end of a long night, bringing to light the reality of love; truthfully, love is more than any kind of selfish desire or desperate response to emotion. Destiny is a non-essential entity bending to its wake. Love is a choice we make to adore, knowing like Joel and Clementine that it might just not work out anyway. They know they likely will go through the same cycle over and over again, but it’s better to have endured and experienced than erase their moments. The ending is not rosy eyed nor cynical, but a beautiful tightrope walk between the two that’s exciting and emotional to behold.
Exiting the theater, I was not sobbing as I had my first time watching. Instead, my father and I made cheerful chatter about how good the film was as we passed posters and cardboard cut-outs of future movie experiences and emerged into gloomy daylight. Nonetheless, the screening was memorable because I loved this movie more fully. Embracing my distractions afterwards, I scrolled through Snapchat, did some online shopping, and thought about my to do list for the day. But I paid a little extra attention this time. Maybe I texted my girlfriend a quick little compliment on her post, just to let her know I saw it. I’m here. I’ll be conscious of you as you are, for as long as we’re able to know one another.
We are not just going to the movies. We are being present for something. As intensely flippant as our brains may be programmed to be about anything we watch at home, being in the dark with phones off makes us pause to appreciate the art on screen. No longer are we just some passive passengers being fed entertainment as it best suits our needs. We can be more than that: conscious decision-makers who choose our presence. The undeniable part of the theater experience that triumphs over home media’s convenience is that deciding to be somewhere is showing our affection for it. For just as we make the choice to be with those we love in awareness of their flaws, so can we make the choice to love film through our decisions. We don’t get to ignore all the bad parts of movie watching by flipping through social media, pausing to make food, or fast-forwarding the parts we don’t like. Like people, we can’t just erase theatrical flaws. Making the choice, keeping the consciousness, is what really counts, and helps us to love the movies.