Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lost in Translation, and the Personal Response to Film

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

–Alexander Pope

In all the film talk that I’ve taken part in or read about over the years,  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has become sort of a litmus test about what kind of moviegoer you are. Unlike most films that that fall into this category, however, the results of the test aren’t as stark; it’s not like a Fight Club or a Memento… I think it just guages your personality/temperament rather than your ability to understand or appreciate film.

Anyway. I saw Eternal Sunshine when it came out and liked it fine. Went with my wife. It was probably one of the last films I saw before my first child was born, an arrival which ended my theater-going career. Not a bad trade-off; I do thank Christ every day that I live in the home video age, though… in contrast, I give you my parents: they were married in 1968, my oldest sister arrived in 1969. My middle sister in 1970. Me in ’71. They were movie-going folk. Were. How did they hack it? Midnight Cowboy. Five Easy Pieces. The Last Picture Show. A Clockwork Orange. The French Connection. The Exorcist. American Graffiti. The Godfather. All missed out on, only to be caught on network TV years down the road, sliced and diced, panned and scanned on a floor-model Zenith you had to kick once in a while to restore the color. Damn.

But back to Eternal Sunshine. I liked the conceit. I like mindbending movies, your Blade Runner, your 12 Monkeys, so obviously I like Charlie Kaufman and I dug Eternal Sunshine, but it didn’t really stay with me in any way. Not sure why; it just didn’t. I remembered Kate Winslet’s hair.

But it’s been brought up time and again in other films discussions I’ve had, and since Netflix won’t see fit to send me any movies ranked higher than #7 on my queue, I figured I’d give it a second chance and threw it onto my list accordingly. It arrived the other day.

I watched it tonight, and I cannot overstate the impact it had on me. This was great movie. Was it a Great Movie? Damned if I know. But it immediately became the kind of film for which I’d buy the DVD, which admittedly might not be saying much (I own over 200). But I really felt like it said something about the need we have for other people and the importance of life lessons, good or bad.

Yeah, OK. So why didn’t I feel that the first time I watched it? I was with the same girl, living mostly the same life, except for the kids, an aspect of relationships which isn’t touched on in the film at all. Why the dramatically different response?

I’m not sure. If I had to guess, I would think that I was inhabiting a more shallowly idyllic and somewhat ignorant stage in my relationship with my wife at the time, and the movie’s themes didn’t speak to me as deeply as they did now, 6 years later. Taking stock of regrets. Holding onto fleetingly beautiful moments. Feeling as if one’s soul is intertwined with another’s across various planes of existences.

For me, the stakes got a lot higher once I had kids, and the corresponding highs and lows got far more extreme. Are there moments that I’d like to have erased from my memory? Yes. Yes, there are. But what would that do? What would be the point? It’s because of those trying times that I’ve become somewhat of a man, even if I had to be dragged kicking and screaming along the way.

I just didn’t feel the urgency between Carrey and Winslet the first time I saw the film. Tonight, it fairly leapt off the screen. The disparity was striking. And I’m sure I’d have gotten into an internet slap-fight with the 2004 version of myself had we both posted about Eternal Sunshine back then, our opinions are so divergent. Which kind of makes you stop and say, Hey, what’s going on here? Because how can I feel so confidently about my impression of a film if it’s going to change a few years down the road?

Which brings me to Part Two of this post. Kind of unrelated, but not really. I give you a supreme example of this phenomenon. Lost in Translation is another cinematic litmus test, maligned by its detractors as an empty vessel of a movie, an artless blank slate that requires the viewer to provide all the emotional fuel. If you’re one who has longing in his or her heart it will work for you, and if you don’t… well, I guess the movie won’t work for you, but of more concern for me, it means you’re not human. But hey, that’s just my take.

But Lost in Translation. A shell game of a movie because it relied on the viewer’s personal response to the film. Well, duh. Well. Duh. That’s called going to the movies. I’ve always believed in that anyway, but after seeing Eternal Sunshine again and having a vastly different experience with it, the belief is validated.

This is why I always try to couch my statements about movies in wussy terms like “I think,” or “in my opinion,” instead of stark talk like “this film is,” or “that film isn’t“. It’s not me equivocating; it’s an acknowledgment of the subjectivity of the medium.

I don’t know what my point is, by the way. Just wanted to get it out.

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