Freeze Frame: The Lovely Regrets of the Spotless Mind

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This is part of an ongoing weekly series called “Freeze Frame,” where we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features.)

I was attending Roger Ebert’s film festival this past weekend – probably one of my happiest places on Earth (I’ll recap the highlights later today). More than 1,000 people, gathered to celebrate all the good movies that for some reason no one saw when they were first released, eager to hear their favorite film critic talk to filmmakers of all stripes, collectively honoring cinema as something worthy of serious consideration.

Charlie Kaufman was there, with Synecdoche, New York – the movie Ebert dubbed as the best film of last decade (watch Kaufman’s Ebertfest Q&A right here). I, personally, would have chosen a different Kaufman-written film for that distinction: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I singled out on our list of the 10 best sci-fi films of the decade. And after flying back to New York last night, I found myself watching Sunshine again on DVD – the heartbreaking journey through Joel’s mind, as memories of a failed romance are swiped in random order.

Starting with the most painful memories, we work backwards, remembering all the good. And then we come to the final sequence, where that first spark of love is obliterated as well:

There’s so much regret here, not just that a love didn’t work out, but also that we might not have put our best foot forward in chasing after the one we loved. Joel mourns his actions, Clementine apologies for the unspoken anguish she caused. We see what their love could have been, even as it crumbles in front of their eyes.

It’s at 4:30 in the above clip that Kaufman’s script – melded with Michel Gondry’s trippy visual metaphors and haunting mise en scene – gets me every time. Clementine comes downstairs, to offer a proper goodbye to the last lingering memories of their time together.

Our love lives are stories of hope and failure, of euphoria and regret. We plunge headfirst into each and every relationship, brushing aside all the consistent evidence from our past that this will likely end in ruin. We hope against hope that, this time, there will be a magical spark which defies logic. And all of these jumbled, contradictory, illogical emotions are packed so tightly into this final sequence that my heart can hardly withstand it.

The key here is that it isn’t all rosy. We see the end in the beginning for Joel and Clementine, how her zealousness and drinking will clash with his softer sensibilities. And yet he regrets, and she regrets, and they try to embrace each other’s heartache in a virtual goodbye that could never play out like this in the real world.

It makes me think back to all of those I’ve loved and lost, to all of those I’ve pushed away or tried in vain to keep hold of. The absurd emotional contradictions that define romance.

And yet then, at the very last second, there’s that whisper, generated by Joel’s own mind and put in the voice of Clementine: Meet me in Montauk. Why? They already have definitive prove that this will never work, that their brand of love will only lead to pain. And yet the hope endures. And Joel’s mind tucks away that hope in the deepest darkest recesses.

These seven minutes, when combined with perhaps the five or six minutes that follow, might compose my all-time favorite 15-minute movie sequence. They are, at the very least, the 15 minutes I think the most about, that have changed me the most.

Most of my freeze frames have focused on a single shot or single scene, but consider this an edition that tries to capture a mood or state of mind. The closing moments of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind occupy an emotional space that no other film can touch.