Tuesday, April 06, 2004

I Wish I'd Never Even Met You

I imagine that invective has been hurled at as many people as have been told the lie, "I love you."

Back before Garth Brooks went insane trying to top the Beatle's sales records, he recorded this sweet, poignant little song called "The Dance" where the singer laments the ending of a love, observing that he could have missed the pain, but then he'd have had to miss the dance. Way before that, there was a movie about a guy who essentially regretted his entire life, and before he could rectify what he saw as a big mistake, an angel slamdanced his ass through what might have been had he not been there, leaving him sobbing with joy over Zuzu's petals (and I don't mean the band). I think every sitcom that made it past two seasons has done a very special episode along those lines, with the possible exception of "Seinfeld" as that would have been about something. My personal favorite was "I Dream of Jeanne's" treatment of it, because I like gazing upon Barbara Eden in a pink harem costume, primarily.

Suffice to say before I actually reach the molten core of the earth on the way to China, it's been done a few times.

And then along comes Charlie Kaufman with The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Now most of us know that there are only somewhere between 6 and 30something total plots in fiction ever, depending on whom you ask and which seminar you pay for. That's why when a one detects a unique voice warbling in the chorus, it's such a joy that it sends you out to the concession stand because you actually want some popcorn as a companion for the voyage rather than traipsing out there from sheer habit.

It seems as if our best modern screenwriters find their muse by pondering a simple question:

What if you could be someone else?
What if you have to adapt a book to a screenplay that's impossible to adapt?
What if you were dead and didn't know it?
What if you were a superhero and didn't know it?
What would an alien invasion really be like?
What if the most evil guy in the world was your dad? (Both Lucas and Coppola got traction off of that one.)
What if life really was just a virtual reality program?
What does Diane Keaton look like naked?

... and then spinning out the possibilities from there.

So far Charlie Kaufman proves to be the master at this game. Granted, Shyamalan is good, but Kaufman's just a freak.

(Quasi-Spoilers ahead. If you've seen a preview, you probably know this stuff, but you may not know it to the detail presented here.)

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a phenomenal movie. Two lovers who hit a waterloo in their relationship decide to have their memories of the other erased, one as a lark, the other in retribution. But, the latter changes his mind after he's committed to the process, so we watch in agony as he tries to hold on to his memories as they evaporate. We end up in flashback hell (in the literal and not the pejorative sense) where the flashbacks go out of focus and blip out while we are in them, as the guy actively tries to fight the process. The timeline confusion conundrums in this movie are worse than trying to figure out exactly when Sting disappeared, yoga-like, into his own anus - or how many times he's done it - which infinite digression he's on. (Btw, Trudy, aka Mrs. Sting, let it out recently that she and Sting swing, prompting me to have a nightmare about a gruesome tantric threesome with them from which I awoke screaming, "You can't touch this!" to which my wife groggily inquired, "Why are you dreaming about M.C. Hammer?") However, through a miracle of vivid storytelling, Kaufman has made the convoluted time-shifting comprehensible.

Kate "Queen of the World" Winslet reported on the "Actor's Studio" that she had to read the script several times before she could follow it on the page, so was all the more amazed when it was easy to follow on screen. She said sometimes a single line she had to speak would cross over three time boundaries. It's exhilarating to watch. So is she, btw. What a babe.

Jim Carrey proves again what everyone who's been paying attention knows: He can act, mang. Maybe he's finally broken that barrier that Robin Williams and Billy Crystal did, and will now be considered for more serious projects. Yes, Jim, I think the mask is finally off.

This is the first movie this year that's wafted me out of the theater all whacked on happy sauce (that's "endorphins" to you, Mr. Smartypants Science Geek). But, I might need to disqualify myself to an extent on any professional detachment about ESOTSM, as this is precisely the kind of story I'm going to love regardless: A Love Story disguised as Science Fiction. (In the same way that Michael Blowhard likes anything with naked ingenues slinking around speaking French, or the way Andrea likes anything with hobbits, or the way Steven likes anything with Japanese cartoon chicks with big ... eyes, or the way James likes anything with dames, fedoras, a two-pack habit, and a laconic voice-over. You get the point, methinks.) In the list of movies I love and watch about once a year are Starman, Altered States, and Brainstorm all of which are love stories covered with a shiny sci-fi plastic coating. Eternal Sunshine is firmly in that tradition.

As we know, sci-fi is really just a vehicle for isolating an element or theme (that may or may not be preposterous) in a way you couldn't if you used a more realistic frame. Love stories, Revenge stories, bad vs. evil, and so on can be made fresh and new, or dealt with in a startling way, simply by telling it through sci-fi.

Maybe you could make a tender love story about an estranged married couple finding love again by somehow realizing that they still love each other, but how cool is it to have this happen by these people playing actual recordings of their emotions for each other, literally proving what we just have to take on faith here in the real world. Or, as in Eternal Sunshine, exploring not only the loss of a love, but the loss of the beautiful memories of it? Nicholas Sparks attempts this trick "realistically" in his novel The Notebook, but unless you've got a strong stomach for raw sentiment, and somebody touching your heart without your permission, it's easier to take in the form of Eternal Sunshine.

Five stars baby, out of four.

Bonus! Answers to the above questions, in case you were wondering:

What if you could be someone else? - Being John Malkovich
What if you have to adapt a book to a screenplay that's impossible to adapt? - Adaptation and anything by John Irving
What if you were dead and didn't know it? - The Sixth Sense
What if you were a superhero and didn't know it? - Unbreakable
What would an alien invasion really be like? - Signs
What if the most evil guy in the world was your dad? (Both Lucas and Coppola got traction off of that one.) - Star Wars, The Godfather, Angelheart, Hellboy, Little Nicky, and My Father, the Wingnut - The Collected Stories of the Bush, Cheney, and DeLay Daughters (not yet in production)
What if life really was just a virtual reality program? - The Matrix and Vanilla Sky
What does Diane Keaton look like naked? - Something's Gotta Give and Looking for Mr. Goodbar

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