Apologies, of course, for the blogging drought. I was on vacation in San Francisco earlier this month, enjoying the beautiful weather (70s and sunny the whole time), and only now am I feeling really settled again. Anyway.
There's a scene toward the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that I keep thinking about. [SPOILER ALERT] Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), who believe they've just met and fallen in love, have each received cassettes in the mail on which they badmouth the other in the context of a prolonged, unhappy relationship. (At this point in the film, we clearly understand how this is possible; the characters don't, or are just learning.) Clementine sits on Joel's couch for seemingly the first time, sharing glances with this sweetly shy man she's just met, but the tape he's received is also playing in the background: an embarrassing succession of complaints he's made against her, laced with weariness and bitter resentment. It's a remarkable scene in the way it sketches the entire scope of their relationship, the present and the future (although it's really the recent past), in one moment. It presents the eager, generous sentiment of puppy love -- "I would never hurt you" -- in the same space as the inevitably hurtful realities of long-term relationships.
And this, I think, is the film's major accomplishment: it uses its narrative experimentation, its sci-fi logic to reach an emotional truth about love that couldn't be ascertained otherwise. I'm reminded of Rick Moody's short story "Boys," collected in Demonology (PDF; RealAudio). The story is about a family with a pair of sons, and the narrative gimmick is that almost every sentence is structured as a variation on the basic line, "boys enter the house." But within a few short pages, Moody hurtles from boys entering the house crying to their mommy to boys entering the house to prepare for weddings of childhood friends, like a flipped-through photo album, pausing to take in the more vivid shots. And so, though these boys obviously grow up and change, the story's brevity and the repetition of that phrase -- "boys enter the house" -- suggest with great poignancy that these are the same boys, even when they're adults. As with Eternal Sunshine, time is compressed. We see them at every age at once.
Oddly enough, both Charlie Kaufman and Rick Moody have reputations for being, as the British say, too clever by half. Their reliance on gimmicks and smarty-pants irony, it's said, masks an inability to tell a good, emotionally driven story. With Moody, I'm inclined to agree to some extent, as some of his riskier experiments do seem indulgent and impenetrable. (I've never had issue with Kaufman because his films are always nothing if not tremendously entertaining.) But regardless of where you stand, these two works are powerful exceptions.