Armchair Cinephile

The lasting cinematic pleasure of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'

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In addition to having the year's best title, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus) has proven to be one of 2004's most lasting cinematic pleasures - thrilling and provocative intellectually, but grounded with a deep emotional resonance that's surprising for those who dismissed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as a gimmicky ironist, and even for those of us who believed there was more to him than that.

Part science fiction, part romance, part bumper-car ride through the brain's byways, the movie imagines a new technology that lets the broken-hearted erase painful memories. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey in a brilliant, un-Carreylike performance) hires the pain-erasing brainwashers only to realize, mid-procedure, that his heartache is too precious to abandon. Together with the remembered version of his ex-girlfriend, Barish tries to sabotage the erasure while it's happening. What follows is unlike anything you've seen in a movie, and it works on so many levels that it really rewards multiple viewings.

The DVD features the generic promotional "making-of" material that one expects, and a slightly more substantial short conversation with Carrey and director Michel Gondry. (In which we learn that, in a very un-Hollywood move, Gondry dropped everything mid-production to get improvised street scenes when he heard that the circus was marching through Manhattan near his location.) A couple of deleted scenes and a fake commercial for the memory-wiping Lacuna service follow, along with a creepy computer-enhanced video for the Polyphonic Spree's buoyant song "Light and Day." (Strangely, the film's giddy theatrical trailer is not included.) Finally, an audio commentary features the director and screenwriter talking about the film; Kaufman doesn't speak as much as one might hope, but the track is an informative addition to this beguiling movie.

The last film Paul Schrader made as a director before moving into his high-style phase (the fashionably synthetic world of American Gigolo and Cat People, then the brilliant sound/image/content fusion of Mishima), Hardcore (Columbia/TriStar) contains hints of what's to come, in the form of neon lights and garish underworld decor - but the film's look is derived from its plot as realistically as Schrader's debut Blue Collar.

George C. Scott plays a decent if stiff Midwestern man whose daughter either runs away or is abducted during a field trip to California. A private detective reports that she has made an anonymous, untraceable porn film, and Scott catches a plane to the coast, determined to do the sleuthing his private eye cannot.

Trying to find the film's makers requires Scott to take ever more dramatic steps, shedding his square clothes and eventually posing as a scummy man casting his own porno flick. Rather than go the 8mm route and having this world eat into the hero's soul, Schrader trusts his protagonist's Dutch Calvinist faith to hold true - a poignant tribute from the filmmaker, who was a devout Calvinist until the cinema stole his innocence.

As a detective story, the story is pretty straightforward; encounters with Peter Boyle (the P.I.) aside, the main interest is in watching Scott attempt to bottle his worry while maneuvering a world that couldn't be more foreign to him. Despite the openings for over-the-top pathos, the film does little to embarrass itself 25 years later.

Columbia's DVD boasts not a single bonus feature, but the picture is decent (though suffering some video interference from '70s textile patterns). At least this one, unlike some recent Columbia discs, is not a pan-and-scan release of a widescreen film.

It's very difficult to see Steven Spielberg's big-screen debut, The Sugarland Express (Universal) with eyes unburdened by the armies of stupid car-chase movies that followed it. After making a thrilling TV film, Duel (also recently released on disc), that starred a menacing truck, he went on the road again to focus on a state's worth of highway patrol cars that pursue two endearingly dumb fugitives and their hostage cop down dusty Texas roads.

Goldie Hawn and William Atherton aren't looking for fame, they just want to get their baby, who has been entrusted to foster care since they're both convicted thieves. Things get out of hand, as they tend to, and poor Atherton seems to know where this road is headed from scene one. We do too: There will be cars running into ditches, miles and miles of flashing police lights, and at least a couple of crashed-up cruisers along the way.

But Spielberg handles it all with enough wit and style that New Yorker critic Pauline Kael pegged him immediately: "He could be that rarity among directors - a born entertainer," she wrote in 1974. This DVD release feels a little like an afterthought, bearing no extras at all aside from a badly transfered theatrical trailer. The director has an understandable aversion to audio commentaries, but that shouldn't stop Universal from putting together some documentary material about his leap from boob tube to silver screen - if only to try and explain how fresh this all looked in 1974.

John DeFore on DVD

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