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Saturday, April 24th, 2004


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script

by Charlie Kaufman

A review by Chris Bolton

As of this writing, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best film of 2004. That the year isn't even half over is merely a trifle; if there's a better movie released in the next eight months, 2004 will turn out to be one hell of a year.

The film is noteworthy for its performances — Jim Carrey, in particular, does a terrific job of wrapping a straitjacket around the familiar Jim Carrey persona and embodying an introverted sad-sack; and Kate Winslet plays against type as a quirky, neurotic extrovert — and its energetic, visually inventive direction by Michel Gondry (Human Nature). There's also a first-rate, heart-rending score by Jon Brion and the gentle, muted palette of cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Come to think of it, there isn't much not to recommend about the film.

But the star of the show is the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman.

I should repeat that. You've never read a sentence like that, I've never written one, and I'll probably never have another chance to write it again, so here goes: The star of the show is the screenwriter.

Maybe you're also reminded of the longtime Hollywood joke about the ambitious would-be starlet who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter. I'm trying (and failing) to think of another screenwriter who has come into such renown without directing a single film (which is why I won't count hyphenates like Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee) or creating a hit TV series (i.e. The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin or Six Feet Under's Alan Ball). Only Paddy Chayefsky (Network) comes close.

Kaufman came to attention with Being John Malkovich, one of the quirkier films in recent years. For all the hype about Malkovich's unusual story, at its heart is a fairly typical love triangle (well, as typical as it can be when it involves two women who only have sex through the hijacked body of John Malkovich). This was Kaufman's gift: to take the familiar, the recognizable, and spin it. Suddenly the other bland, boring movies looked even more bland and boring. Do we care if Tom Cruise saves the world and gets the girl when Kaufman gives us a puppeteer who turns John Malkovich into a human marionette?

Kaufman followed Malkovich with Adaptation, ostensibly about his own difficulties adapting Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief, and the brilliant Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the most underrated film of the last few years. There was also Human Nature, an early screenplay which Michel Gondry filmed while waiting for Kaufman to finish writing Eternal Sunshine, but it's fair to say that it didn't make much of an impression: Gondry and Kaufman both refer to it politely but mournfully in interviews, like the first-born child who didn't quite turn out right. In that case, Eternal Sunshine is the overachieving honors student.

Obligatory plot summary, straight from the publisher:

Joel (Jim Carrey) is stunned to discover that his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had her memories of their tumultuous relationship erased. Out of desperation, he contacts the inventor of the process, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), to have Clementine removed from his own memory. But as Joel's memories progressively disappear, he begins to rediscover their earlier passion. From deep within the recesses of his brain, Joel attempts to escape the procedure. As Dr. Mierzwiak and his crew (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood) chase him through the maze of his memories, it's clear that Joel just can't get her out of his head.

The bare bones of the plot are interesting enough, but what this summary fails to capture is the film's profound poignancy. Anyone who's experienced heartbreak will identify with Joel's anguish and his eventual desperation to retain even his most painful memories of Clementine. I don't recall another film that illustrates so well how pain is as essential an emotion as joy. What ultimately transpires between Joel and Clementine is very nearly miraculous: they get the second chance, the clean slate, so many of us have lain awake dreaming of, even begging for. This is the rare "romantic comedy" — it's not, really, but what else can you call it? — that understands how truly difficult relationships are, and doesn't cheat the audience with a phony happy ending. The final scenes of Eternal Sunshine are sobering and exhilarating at the same time.

Even a screenwriter as fine as Kaufman is at the mercy of the director, however, and there are elements of Kaufman's screenplay that didn't make it to the film or were changed in some way. This is reason enough to rejoice at the Newmarket Shooting Script series, that publishes the unexpurgated shooting script in its original format, before scenes have been edited out and actors have revised dialogue. There aren't, truth be told, a lot of differences between Kaufman's final draft and the film itself, but the ones that exist will be instructive to screenwriters and film students, and intriguing to fans of the film. There are longer scenes between Joel and Clementine to satisfy those who complain that the characters and their relationship aren't developed enough and at least one entirely unused scene, a memory of their first date in which, as Kaufman notes, "They're talking about the beginning of their relationship at the end of their relationship."

Above all, Kaufman's screenplay is simply a joy to read. Here's the first (well, chronologically — well, sort of — well, anyway) meeting between Joel and Clementine, on an empty train:

(calling over the rumble)

Joel looks over.
I'm sorry?

What? I couldn't hear you.

I said, I'm sorry.

Why are you sorry? I just said hi.

No, I didn't know if you were talking to me, so...

She looks around the empty car.

Well, I didn't want to assume.

Aw, c'mon, live dangerously. Take the leap and assume someone is talking to you in an otherwise empty car.

Kaufman has been accused by his critics of committing the grand sin of intellectualism — crafting cinematic puzzles that don't connect on an emotional level. Personally I don't buy that; Kaufman finds a tremendous amount of humanity in Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) in Confessions, turns Craig (John Cusack) into a nearly tragic figure where others might have settled for a slapstick caricature in Being John Malkovich, and in Adaptation finds just enough pathos in the relationship between Charlie (Nicolas Cage) and Donald (Nicolas Cage) to actually create an emotional impact when the climax of the film turns into a Hollywood parody. But Eternal Sunshine is the screenplay in which Kaufman indisputably hits a human nerve, plumbing depths of emotions without resorting to ponderousness and exploring his characters' feelings while keeping the story constantly moving. Best of all, he operates on a largely visual level, never allowing his script to degenerate into lazy exchanges of overwritten dialogue. His intuitive skills for balancing introspection with compelling action, a forward-thrusting narrative with moments of contemplation, and clever invention with sincere emotion make Kaufman's work enriching to read as well as watch. These gifts are even rarer, and arguably more valuable, than his oft-touted knack for quirky characters and plots.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script allows one to savor the terrific screenplay, and it adds an introduction by director Gondry, a revealing Q&A with Kaufman, and some pictures of deleted scenes to tide us over until the DVD comes out. For those who might wonder why anyone would want to read a screenplay, Eternal Sunshine is the perfect example of how satisfying and rewarding the form can be.

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