Watch a video essay about the importance of editing in Michel Gondry’s masterwork.
Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? This age-old question is at the heart of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the film, Jim Carrey plays Joel, a man who decides to undergo a procedure to have all memories of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), wiped from his brain.
Due to the movie’s non-linear structure, as well as how it was changed drastically thanks to a whole subplot being cut from the final version, Eternal Sunshine is the perfect vehicle to showcase why editing is so important. And in a recently released video essay, Film Radar does just that with Michel Gondry’s 2004 feature.
The video explores two different aspects of editing in Eternal Sunshine. The first is what information the film presents the viewer with. In other words, the decision to include some scenes and delete others. The second is about how that information is delivered to the viewer: in what order and for what desired effect.
It’s pretty normal for the first cut of a film to be far longer than the final product. Even as long as four hours. Then, the film is edited down to a standard runtime of around two hours. Often, when people hear there was a four-hour version of their favorite movie, they’re eager to get their hands on it, but they’re called “rough cuts” for a reason.
In the recent case of Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the most famous example of a movie with multiple versions available, fans have been hoping to see an extended cut. But director Denis Villeneuve contends that the one we saw (which is still a whopping 2 hours and 44 minutes) is the best — and therefore only — version of his film.
While it may be hard to reconcile that there’s extra footage out there from your favorite movies that you’ll never get to see, Film Radar’s video perfectly exemplifies why deleting certain scenes can actually be the best thing for a movie.
In Eternal Sunshine, the deleted scenes in question are those featuring Joel’s ex-girlfriend, Naomi (Ellen Pompeo). The final cut of the film still bears mention of the character, but we never actually see her. In the video, we see some of her excised scenes in context, displaying how they would’ve significantly impacted the film.
The scenes completely change the way we view the Joel character. What comes across in the finished film as an endearing shyness instead plays like guilt and selfishness in the alternate cut. The scenes even make us question the morality of Joel and Clementine’s relationship — did the romance begin as an affair?
So, why did Gondry make the change? We must consider what emotional reactions the film wants to provoke in the audience: empathy for the introverted Joel and desire to see him and Clementine get together, even though we know a painful break-up awaits them. With that in mind, cutting the Naomi scenes makes sense. The film wants us to answer yes to my initial question — that it is better to have loved and lost — and those scenes might have inhibited that.
Cutting those scenes, but maintaining Naomi’s existence by briefly mentioning her, also fits better with the film’s themes. Eternal Sunshine explores the importance of memories and the way they impact our future. Even if the recollections fade away, those moments still happened and are still important. Yes, Joel’s relationship with Naomi is in the past, but it’s still relevant to what lies ahead.
For one thing, Joel’s new relationship is a reaction to his last. His initial attraction to Clementine likely has to do with her being the antithesis of Naomi. She is exciting and spontaneous, both in her personality and appearance. It’s still important that Naomi be a part of the story, but her scenes could taint Joel and Clementine’s romance. That is why eliminating the scenes, but not the fact that her and Joel’s relationship existed, works perfectly for the film.
Chronology is the other aspect of editing explored in Film Radar’s video. Eternal Sunshine plays in reverse as we experience the story of Joel and Clementine backwards. As Joel’s memories are erased, we see them play out on screen, starting with the most recent moment and ending with the beginning of their two-year relationship.
The technique is effective because it makes their relationship seem to be improving as the film progresses when the opposite is actually the case. By the end, those negative recent memories have long faded and the viewer is left thinking more about the good times and therefore wants to see Joel and Clementine together. This is an impressive feat considering we can still recall that these two will eventually make each other miserable.
Eternal Sunshine gives us all the information we need about Joel and Clementine’s relationship. But because of the way this information is presented, in a reverse chronology, the film achieves the desired effect of the viewer again answering affirmatively to that initial question: yes, it is in fact better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.