The girl I used to love
Lives in this yellow house
Yesterday she passed me by
She doesn't want to know me now
—The Who, "The Real Me"

(Every other review started by quoting Alexander Pope. I thought I'd change things up a little.)

I don't read the IF newsgroups anymore, but back when I did, it was a reasonably common occurrence for people to compare movies to interactive fiction: everything from Run Lola Run to Fight Club to Memento came up at various points. Thus I was rather surprised to do a Google search and find that no one had mentioned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It employs a lot of IF's signature gimmicks. For one, it takes place primarily in the protagonist's head, and IF often takes place in imagined or symbolic worlds. World-exploring is better suited to an active medium like IF than to a passive one, and phantasmagoria is a lot cheaper in text than it is in visuals. Sunshine has to use a lot of Björk-video special effects that are not really within the reach of the solo creator with a hobbyist's budget.

But Sunshine also pulls off a trick that is much more common in IF than in other media, primarily because of the captive audience provided by the annual competition: it starts off seeming like it sucks, only to reveal that the crappy parts at the beginning are not what they seemed. Normally when an attempted meet-cute at the beginning of a film is a seriously inane and unmotivated conversation between two stunted characters, it's because of bad writing. Here it's a puzzle piece. And since this doesn't initially seem like a puzzle movie, the opening looks more like a really ugly piece of cardboard that the guy didn't even cut straight so there are these bumps and holes and stuff and he must be kind of incompetent. Then the rest of the narrative fills itself in leaving a gap with a very familiar pattern of bumps and holes and stuff and you look at it and say oh. This is a tortured simile but I'll endorse it.

Anyway, this movie is not what I was expecting. I try to avoid spoilers for things I'm actually interested in, so I didn't read any of the reviews before I saw the movie and avoided all conversation about it. Still, I'd heard that it was about a guy who undergoes a procedure to have his memories of his ex-girlfriend wiped from his brain. I was imagining that most of the movie would take place post-op and deal with how he tries to piece together the dangling bits of memory that remain. I did not anticipate that the majority of the film would be a tour of those memories as they are scrambled and erased — it's like an hour-plus version of the screenwriter's "running through Malkovich's memories" scene from Being John Malkovich. But it works, and not just because of the niftiness of the way the chronology twists around and makes you say, "Wait, so that wasn't— that means they were— so that's why he— OH! Cool." There is also some substance here.

It's always hard to know how explicit you should make your themes. You don't want people to miss what you're trying to say, but at the same time you don't just want to write a treatise on your subject — your themes should be illustrated by the action of the story, not by having characters standing around talking about them. Eternal Sunshine sometimes goes a little too far in the direction of spelling things out; if your sweetheart being "lost and gone forever" is a theme of the movie, for instance, it is clever to name her Clementine, but actually singing the song is overkill. (Though this is ameliorated somewhat by making it a plot point.) Anyway, a quick spin through some of the themes:

It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I'm listing this first not because I have much to say about it but because Eternal Sunshine is, above all else, an exploration of this maxim. In the end, it makes a case that the statement is true. Me, I dunno. I suspect that it totally varies from case to case. I am not convinced that a selective memory-wipe would be inherently wrong, especially in cases of abuse and the like. Yes, you can make an argument that even the worst episodes of our lives are learning experiences and our memories make us who we are and so forth. But sometimes we're better off without the learning experiences and sometimes the memories that make us who we are also keep us from becoming everything we could be.

Couples: arbitrary? The film seems to be on both sides of the fence on this one. To an extent, it seems to be arguing that couples are in fact fairly arbitrary — Joel and Clementine don't have a ton of chemistry — but that their shared history is what keeps the members of those couples bonded to one another. But at the same time, it seems that every time they get a chance to start over they end up bonding with the same people all over again, so it looks like who we end up with is not really a matter of chance.

Cassettes. A chunk of the plot towards the end revolves around a receptionist at the brain-wiping outfit sending out tapes that the patients have made in which they list the reasons they want to erase their former lovers from their memories. There is an uncanny sequence in which Clementine receives a tape, and puts it in the tape deck as they head back to Joel's place... only to hear her own voice excoriating this guy she thinks she's just met. (Later she visits his place to find him listening to his own voice tearing into this nice girl he doesn't remember but apparently has a history with.) I think what gives these scenes so much resonance is the fact that most everyone who's in a relationship has a tape like this. Not a literal cassette, but a mental list of every last thing that bugs you about your significant other, from tiny quirks to fundamental character flaws. And every so often you have a fight and you trade little excerpts.

It is weird to think of what it would be like to be in the infatuation stage of a relationship, where all you can do is obsess about everything that is so wonderful about the object of your affections, and then essentially get a message from two years in the future detailing the flip side.

I'm just a fucked-up girl. What a relief. One of the things that initially made me think this movie sucked was that it looked like it was using the trope of "vivacious free spirit teaches repressed guy how to live." And it turns out that it actually is using that trope — using it as skeet. See, much as I liked this movie, it wasn't because I had any special affection for the characters. Both people in the central couple are, if not actively annoying, not people I'd really want to spend time with under most circumstances. And so it irked me that the film seemed to be selling Clementine as the vivacious free blah blah. But, yay, it turns out that the whole idea is that one of the problems with their relationship is that Joel sees her as the vivacious etc. who has taught him etc. and Clementine has no inclination to be treated as some sort of muse. "I'm not a concept," she says at a key point (or a couple of them, actually, but... well, it's complicated.)

Time and place. Despite its far-out elements, Eternal Sunshine felt very real, very grounded in a specific time and place. Late winter in the Northeast. Man, I hate late winter in the Northeast. Bricks and knit caps and frosty early mornings... ugh. It's August, and this movie has me dreading February already. Maybe I would be better off having the memory of endless perfect weather wiped from my brain.

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