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In this analysis of the style and structure of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), the following research question shall be addressed: “how does filmic style and narrative structure evoke atmosphere, define character, and provide cues that generate audience reactions?” It will be argued that the film constructs a bittersweet tale of love using an unconventional and fragmented narrative structure; portraying the effects of memory erasure by immersing viewers within the subjective world of the protagonist’s mind.
Eternal Sunshine tells the story of Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski’s passionate, yet often painfully incompatible romance. From its humble beginnings at a beach party, their relationship blooms over the period of about two years, but ultimately fails. When Joel learns that Clementine has undergone a surgical procedure on a whim to remove all memories of him, he is so wounded that he tracks down the doctor and demands the same operation immediately. Midway through the procedure, however, Joel begins to regret his impulsive decision, realizing the importance of his past, as well as the inevitable loss of some of his most cherished memories with Clementine.
The first five shots of Eternal Sunshine are highly significant in terms of both narrative structure and stylistic implications. The film begins by fading-in from black to a deep focus close up of an unshaven Joel, awakening the morning after the memory-erasing procedure (though this narrative information is not revealed until much later). The off-screen sound of a car door closing rouses him, and it is later discovered that this noise comes from the memory technicians departing after the operation. A variety of shot lengths are used in this opening sequence to communicate information about Joel’s facial expressions, body language, and surroundings. Ultimately, the act of waking coupled with the natural morning sunlight creates an atmosphere of a new beginning, although it is one tinged with a sense of loss. The use of hand held cameras simultaneously evokes the illusion of realistic footage, and viewers are invited to question why Joel awakens this way, establishing a narrative enigma concerning past events.
Joel’s waking expression is rather vacant, conveying the barren emptiness of his now “spotless” mind. The shot is illuminated from the right, and upon opening, his dark hazel eyes are drawn to this light source as he utters a sigh. The next medium shot is an eye-line match that frames Joel’s window, using an upward tilted perspective from his bed. The morning sunlight shines through, providing the only lighting for the scene and signifying a new beginning. The exclusive use of natural lighting additionally suggests an existence devoid of memories, as the atmospheric lighting techniques that accompany memory throughout the film are absent. Subtle, non-diegetic music; sound that does not have a source within the story world (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, 330), also commences here, with a triple meter bass ostinato accompanying guitar chords. A straight cut introduces the next medium close up of Joel sitting up in bed, tracked by the camera. He sighs, rubs his forehead and begins to remove the bedspreads, which provides a match-on-action transition into the next shot – a long shot of Joel moving towards the end of his bed. The décor of the space is very plain and uninspired, heightening the atmosphere of emptiness. A piano melody enters above the guitar as sunlight engulfs Joel’s darkened silhouette on the end of his bed. Before the next shot a short ellipsis is implied, and it commences outside as a medium long shot of Joel, now shaven and dressed in dull winter clothing. Sunlight momentarily shines directly into the lens before the camera tracks him to his car, revealing a large dint on its side. Confused and irritated, Joel thuds his briefcase upon the car bonnet as ambient background noises of children playing blends with the music. Although no dialogue is spoken in these shots, the sparse instrumentation and minimalist structure of the background music serves to heighten the mood of an existence that is somehow lacking essence. Hence, the opening shots begin to define Joel’s character, whilst providing cues to evoke an atmosphere of a somewhat empty new beginning.
Eternal Sunshine is essentially a love story, and a clear binary opposition – a category with two mutually exclusive parts that depend upon each other (Graeme Turner, 104) – is established between Joel, who is introverted and withdrawn, and Clementine, who is extroverted and eccentric. This opposition allows the characters to effectively compliment and conflict with each other, thus forming the basis of the narrative complication. Despite this somewhat traditional aspect of the story, the manner in which the narrative is structured is by no means conservative. In Film as Social Practice IV, Turner notes that conventional narratives begin in a stable point of equilibrium, which is then disrupted by some power or force motivating the protagonist’s quest, usually ending with the restoration of equilibrium (107). Eternal Sunshine, however, follows no such structural formula, and events are presented in a fragmented, non-linear fashion. Indeed, the film actually commences after the relationship, moving from the present to a series of reverse order memory flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, before finally returning to the present (whilst constantly interweaving secondary plotlines involving the Lacuna team). Another opposition of sorts is therefore established in the narrative itself between memory and present events, with the complicated structure serving to disorientate viewers and portray the complex nature of an individual’s personal memories. In Postmodern After-Images, Peter and Will Brooker state that “resistance to linearityâ€¦ [is an] archetypal postmodern technique” (58), and thus Eternal Sunshine uses a postmodern narrative style to communicate its story of memory’s role in love.
Throughout the film, myriad elements of the mise en scene evoke atmosphere, develop character and provide audience cues. Firstly, colour and costuming serve to accentuate the binary opposition between Joel and Clementine. Joel is only ever seen wearing very dull colours, foregrounding the reserved nature of his character, and he often blends into large crowds. On the contrary, Clementine’s eccentricity is revealed by her kaleidoscopic clothing choices. Also, the colour of Clementine’s dyed hair acts as a symbolic indicator of the state of her relationship with Joel, changing chronologically from green, to “Red Menace”, “Agent Orange”, and finally “Blue Ruin”. Green is traditionally a colour associated with new life, and it suitably marks the beginning of the relationship. The deep red dye appears to symbolize a climax of romantic passion, and indeed many of Joel’s best memories are from this colour stage. Orange perhaps embodies a diluted, fading version of this passion, while blue denotes an atmosphere of sadness and depression, appropriately appearing at the point of the relationship’s “ruin”. In one particularly symbolic scene, a crane shot frames Joel and Clementine lying together on the frozen Charles River. Some distinct cracks are easily observed in the ice beneath them, indicating the fractures that will inevitably appear in their relationship, and this notion of an intrinsically flawed romance adds to the bittersweet tone of the film. Finally, many elements of the mise en scene are skillfully utilized within subjective shots to portray the erasure of Joel’s memories: characters suddenly disappear, text on signs and letters fades or vanishes, objects are “deleted” from shots in fragments, and facial features are smeared. For example, in the beach-house scene, Joel’s memory of the event literally crumbles piece by piece in his mind.
The use of atmospheric lighting is one of the most important filmic techniques employed by Gondry to construct the subjective memory scenes in Eternal Sunshine. In the present, lighting is generally either natural or realistic, but memory shots adopt a more unique lighting approach, emphasizing this narrative opposition. Firstly, low-key lighting and darkness often play a major role in such scenes, with lights either gradually fading to black or suddenly turning off to represent the removal of memories. The most prominent and effective use of atmospheric lighting, however, is a clearly recognizable spotlight effect that pervades memory scenes and becomes a lighting motif throughout the film. This peculiar device ranges from a small, torch-style light, through to a very large and powerful spotlight reminiscent of a helicopter searchlight (the best example being in the Charles River memory scene). The spotlight effect seems to serve a dual function: in one sense, it represents an intrusive, artificial intervention in Joel’s memory (implying the operation procedure), and he and Clementine are often trying to escape its glare. Also, especially in darkened scenes, the restricted glow of the spotlight could represent the limits of remembered detail in Joel’s mind, as is argued by Jason Sperb in his article Internal Sunshine: Illuminating Being-Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when he states:
The spotlight signifies the limited perception of Joel’s remembering, which remains in and of the present. He cannot again completely experience the moments he thinks he remembers; Joel can only see limited illuminations, fragments in his imagination vaguely informed by his understanding of the past (7).
The circular shape of the spotlight could also bear some importance, perhaps signifying the cyclic nature of Joel and Clementine’s relationship. Finally, throughout the film, this and other lights occasionally turn red to imply a state of urgency or alarm. Hence, the combination of the elements of the mise en scene succeeds in creating atmosphere and crafting the effects of memory erasure within Joel’s mind.
Perhaps the most striking element of cinematography in Eternal Sunshine is the almost invariable use of hand-held cameras. This imperfect, sometimes clunky technique often creates the illusion of genuine home video footage – an aspect that undoubtedly increases the authenticity of subjective memory scenes. As Ellen Kuras (the film’s cinematographer) stated in an interview, “the camera movement is not always the most gracefulâ€¦ with the entire film shot handheld, we ended up using sled dollies, wheelchair and chariot dollies, but no traditional dollies at all” (John Pavlus, 2). In terms of movement, the camera often wanders freely, glancing around objects and tracking characters using mobile framing. Such techniques are most evident in memory scenes, and some scenes in the present utilize more conventional framing, perhaps serving to accentuate the stark juxtaposition between memory and the present. In the scene where Joel and Clementine meet on the train, initial long and medium shots become more intimate medium close ups and close ups as the awkward tension between them reduces and they begin to feel more comfortable conversing. Similarly, clever tricks of size perspective are used in the childhood kitchen scenes to achieve the illusion that Joel is child-sized. Cinematography techniques are also exploited to convey the effects of memory erasure in subjective scenes, and the most notable of these are disorienting blurring effects and racking of focus, where “the lensâ€¦ [is] refocused at various planesâ€¦ adjusting perspective relations” (Bordwell and Thompson, 243). Finally, speed of motion is also occasionally altered within memory scenes, with normal and reverse fast-motion effects used (for example, when Joel is sketching the skeleton picture) to suggest an atmosphere of distorted temporality.
The soundscape throughout the film is similarly used with great effect to evoke atmosphere and provide cues that generate audience reactions. Firstly, an internal diegetic voiceover is sometimes used, with Joel’s diary entries narrating certain scenes from both the present and within memories, encouraging viewers to sympathize with his plight. Some clever sound-image relations are also present, for example, when Joel hastily decides to squeeze through the doors of a leaving train, his voiceover ironically declares that he is “not an impulsive person”. Similarly, in a memory scene, Joel yells, “it’s all falling apart” to Clementine, as a car actually falls from the sky in the background. Indeed, a series of interesting sound techniques are implemented within memory scenes. For example, off-screen voiceovers of the memory technicians working in the present are often heard, reinforcing the fact that certain scenes are occurring subjectively within Joel’s mind. Effects such as degrading the sound quality, slightly asynchronous sound, which “â€¦occurs earlier or later than the events which we see in the image” (Bordwell and Thompson, 337), and the use of a digital deleting sound-effect all serve to depict the erasing of Joel’s memories. Finally, in film, “the rhythm, melody, harmony, and instrumentation of the music can strongly affect the viewer’s emotional reactions” (Bordwell and Thompson, 325), which applies throughout Eternal Sunshine. For example, a playful woodwind scherzo accompanies Joel and Clementine’s meeting on the train, adding to the flirtatious tone of the scene. Similarly, a chromatically sliding cello often signifies disturbing moments, and the dissonant yet beautiful broken guitar chords in the beach-house scene serve to heighten the bittersweet atmosphere and affect the audience’s emotions.
The final stylistic element that requires analysis is the use of editing throughout Eternal Sunshine. Continuity, which is the style that “generates the illusion of a smooth, unbroken continuity across cuts by focusing our attention on story and characters and away from style” (Budd, Craig and Steinman, 112), is rather varied in the film, with certain memory scenes and most present scenes adhering to the conventions of this style. For example, in the “dining dead” scene, a series of shot-reverse shots and eye-line matches are used to depict Joel and Clementine’s tense conversation. Such techniques give the scene a paced interest and offer balanced character perspectives, whilst remaining easy and natural for viewers to follow. Also, a montage is used to convey a large quantity of information to viewers in a short amount of time when Joel goes home to gather all Clementine-related objects. Unlike scenes in the present, continuity is often radically altered in subjective scenes. For example, when Joel tries to turn Patrick around to face him in the bookstore, a series of quick jump cuts repeatedly prevent the action. Also, jump cuts are often used to suddenly change memory locations, or to entirely erase characters (especially Clementine) from scenes. Finally, it is necessary to examine the film’s closing scene and its implications. The ending, although slightly ambiguous, seems to be a rather tragic prediction of Joel and Clementine’s future. The final shots observe the couple walking away together along the snowy Montak beach, suggesting the possibly of a happy ending. Suddenly however, quick jump cuts loop and replay their actions multiple times, indicating that their relationship is destined to continually fail and recommence in an inevitable cycle of love and pain.
Thus, with particular attention devoted to the opening shots, it has been argued that via its mise en scene, cinematography, sound, and editing, Eternal Sunshine successfully evokes atmosphere, defines character, and provides cues that generate audience reactions. Ultimately, these stylistic elements, in conjunction with the fragmented narrative structure of the film, subjectively portray the effects of memory erasure within Joel’s mind, whilst constructing a bittersweet tale of an inevitably failing romance.
List of Works Cited:
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Focus Features, 2004.
Turner, G. Film as Social Practice IV. London: Routledge, 2006.
Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K. Film Art: An Introduction. Fifth Edition. Boston:
McGraw Hill, 1997.
Budd, M., Craig, S. and Steinman, C. “Continuity Style Editing.” Consuming
Environments: Television and Commercial Culture. London: Rutgers University Press, 1999. 112-123.
Brooker, P. and Brooker, B. Postmodern After-Images: A Reader in Film, Television and
Video. Sydney: London, 1997.
Sperb, J. “Internal Sunshine: Illuminating Being-Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind.” Kritikos. 2 (2005):1-12.
Pavlus, J. “Forget Me Not” American Cinematographer 85.4 (2004):1-3.
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