“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is a recurring series hosted by Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience, inviting writers all across the internet to chime in on their favorite shots from films. This is our take on the best shot from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
I’ve never been in a romantic relationship yet, which is not to say I’ve never been in love before. Films about love and films about romantic relationships don’t go as necessarily hand-in-hand as they might seem, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is chiefly about the latter. There are particular rhythms to relationships that are perhaps most easily noticed from outside them, and if you can track those rhythms predictably enough, who’s to say you can’t destroy them? That’s the ostensible idea behind Eternal Sunshine, a Jim Carrey comedy whose inane setup hits with a more unexpectedly sharp sincerity than the rest of that ilk. Carrey’s unconventional casting, along with the film’s many other funky mannerisms, is at odds with the clinical meaning of that core setup. Then again, Carrey’s Joel Barish is at odds with that modulated certainty as well.
What’s stuck me time and again over the years about Eternal Sunshine, in spite many friends getting supposedly tired of seeing it, is its unlimited desire to go headfirst into an exciting and promising relationship, in spite the all too likely promise of rejection. It’s something I’ve felt, but, like Joel petrified out of his element in every social situation, have never conjured the courage to act out on. Sometimes I find myself diminishing the validity of that fear, as the momentary or ongoing passion and joy of a relationship should be more than enough reason to take that risk. The way the film visually represents the literal obliteration of a relationship, ripped from memory or experience? That’s a macro representation of what rejection feels like. It’s seeing that possibility erased as if it never was.
As fast as you meet someone, as quickly as you open yourself up to that pain. It’s a gamble many great examinations of love touch on, but not often with the hot-flashing fury of Michel Gondry’s approach, not to mention the free-flowing care of Ellen Kuras’ cinematography. The liveliness he brings to it is shaped more in beguiling structure and flow than in individual shots, though many images rush easily to memory. The instant-recall poster shot on the Charles, or the equally frosty bed-on-a-beach image, but what stays in the mind more are the recurring motifs which taken at face value seem to mean very little.
The recurring spotlight image seems innocuous enough, indicating the darkening of Joel’s memories as he navigates them. It’s obvious enough, but not without an impact that becomes slightly more haunting as the Joel and Clementine hurtle towards the destruction of their relationship, just as they’re realizing how irreversibly beautiful it was, and indeed still is. Love leaves its own damage after its lost, and neither instigator nor victim walks away unscathed. What Lacuna, Inc. does is erase the guilt of leaving another life in shambles, “on par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss,” says Tom Wilkinson’s Dr. Mierzwiak. “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better, even of their blunders,” Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Svevo puts more delicately.
But as Joel realizes in a moment of regret, even the pain of a harsh breakup shouldn’t decimate the joy that relationship made possible. As soon as he admits being for the first time “right where I want to be”…
…that jump is all too easy for others to make. It’s disorienting to have such pain and goofy humor packaged so neatly alongside one another, but Charlie Kaufman doesn’t dare deny either positive or negative emotions their full bubbly and tragic weight, respectively. They even go hand in hand, with the lightness making the dark feel so much sadder, and thus make the possibility of reconciliation all the more exciting. In fact, even as the memory of Joel & Clementine is vanishing before their eyes, a reconciliation has already happened (Assuming that time is a flat circle, or some nonsense like that).
For that reason this shot, something as simple as any other, rings as the most subtly elegant. Joel & Clementine, supposed strangers, lying on a blank slate, even with the cracks present. In the distance, lights riddle the horizon, signs of a chaotic collision they’re blissfully ignorant of ever happening. It’s a place they’re almost destined to cross again in time, just as they did before, but there’s a beautiful serenity to this moment. It’s perhaps a placeholder for a moment that was even lovelier, but it has a tenderness all its own.