In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
When I first pitched Scenic Routes, back in the summer of 2009, one of my big selling points was the idea’s sheer inexhaustibility. Over the past seven and a half years, I’ve analyzed 175 scenes, yet barely scratched the medium’s surface; while the list of films I’ve tackled is long, it’s dwarfed by the list of notable films I haven’t addressed in this space, including such all-time classics as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Vertigo, Apocalypse Now, and Pulp Fiction. On top of which, new movies featuring memorable scenes keep getting released every week. Despite the plentiful opportunities remaining, I’ve been thinking about retiring the column for a while now, and the time has finally come. In theory, though, there’s no reason why the column couldn’t continue indefinitely.
Except for the obvious: Nothing lasts. I’m gonna be dead one day. So will the internet. So will Earth. Eventually, physicists currently believe, the universe will achieve thermodynamic equilibrium, at which point no work of any kind, by any definition, will be possible any longer. So it’s all rather futile, really.
Writing the column has been a lot of fun, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do it for so long, with total freedom from the first entry to the last (apart from a few films that got nixed because we couldn’t find them on DVD to pull the clip). “I should finish by writing about one of the great movie endings,” I immediately thought, and just as quickly, I knew exactly which one it should be. The one that makes emotional (if not logical) sense of the deeply depressing paragraph just above. The one that examines why we forge on anyway. This one:
Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind boasts a fantastic (in both senses of the word) what-if premise, imagining a technological development that allows people to selectively erase unwanted memories—including all memories of a specific person. The movie ends with Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), who believe they’ve just met each other and are giddily infatuated, discovering, via tape recordings mailed by a disgruntled employee of the memory-wiping firm, that they’ve already had a two-year romantic relationship that made them both miserable. Joel has already heard Clementine detailing his character flaws (“He’s boring. Is that enough reason to erase someone?”) in the scene preceding this one, and now Clementine gets to stand there and listen to this man she thinks she barely knows insult everything from her intelligence to her fashion sense. Neither one can believe they would ever have those feelings, much less say anything so mean. The evidence is hard to dispute, though. It’s like being magically transported into your future, except that your future is actually your past.
What’s extraordinary and beautiful and deeply moving—so much so that I’ve yet to make it to the closing credits with dry cheeks—is the simple, perfect way that Kaufman resolves this potential nightmare. It’s not just that Joel and Clementine choose to continue seeing each other, knowing in advance that it’s going to turn ugly down the road. It’s that Joel accepts the situation with a casual shrug and a single word: “Okay.” And that Clementine acquiesces just as readily, likewise merely saying “Okay.” (Those are the last two words spoken in the film.)
Inside Out justifiably received a lot of praise for acknowledging that sadness is a necessary part of life, rather than something to be avoided at all costs—and Pixar’s film arguably had a higher degree of difficulty, given that it was at least partially aimed at children. But Eternal Sunshine makes more or less the same argument on an even grander scale. Misery is the price we pay for experiencing ecstasy; turning your back on happiness when it’s right in front of you is all but impossible, no matter what the eventual cost. That’s the story of every extramarital affair, but Joel and Clementine are in essence knowingly cheating on themselves, with themselves. (Cue “Escape [The Piña Colada Song].”)
It’s never been clear to me whether Kaufman views these two characters as admirably quixotic or ludicrously self-deluded. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Director Michel Gondry repeats the final image of Joel and Clementine running in the snow, creating a loop. (This isn’t in the screenplay, which just ends on Clementine’s “Okay”—the most baller move I’ve ever seen in script form.) That suggests an infinite repetition of the same mistakes, though the implied pessimism is offset by Beck singing “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” on the soundtrack. Regardless of what was intended, I can’t help but perceive these lovers’ renewal of vows, so to speak, as intensely romantic—and not exclusively in the lovey-dovey sense. Maybe it resonates less strongly for those who believe in an afterlife. From my perspective, though—convinced, as I am, that my experience after death will precisely mimic my experience prior to birth—everything I do, viewed through the longest possible lens, is ultimately doomed to failure. I say an unconscious “Okay,” accepting the crummy terms of the proffered deal, with every breath I take. That’s what keeps me going. Gimme the good stuff now, and I’ll pay the damn bill when it inevitably comes due.
Getting to write Scenic Routes for nearly eight years gets filed decisively among the good stuff. Thanks to everyone who’s read the column over that time—even the handful of you who keep citing the Children Of Men piece (which I stand by! Have I mentioned how much I despise La La Land‘s opening number?) as proof that I’m irretrievably wack. While I occasionally badmouthed scenes from films I dislike, just as a change of pace, my primary goal was always to proselytize for movies I dearly love; if reading about a scene inspired anyone to seek out the film in question—and I know from the comments that it has—then I feel like I achieved something worthwhile. Even if nobody will remember any of it a thousand years from now, or even possibly a dozen years from now. It doesn’t matter. Now is sufficient.