I rewatch some of my favorite movies every year. Part of what makes them my favorites is the layers and nuance. No matter how many times I watch them, there’s always something I never noticed before. It could be anything, from a plot-driven wardrobe change to a prophetic set decoration in the background. But the main reason I do it is because revisiting the stories gives me the same nostalgic comfort as the smells and sounds of my parents’ house, no matter where I am.
I save a number of movies for the winter holidays, chiefly because they’re snowy and holiday-ish. Since it’s the first time I’ve sat down with them this season, so I went with two of my absolute favorites.
The Family Stone is about an uptight woman who goes home with her boyfriend for Christmas, meeting his rambunctious, tightly-knit family for the first time. He plans to propose to her, but he needs his family’s (more specifically, his mother’s) approval so he can give her his great-grandmother’s ring.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind focuses on a quiet man who is having his recent ex-girlfriend erased from his memory though a purposely dubious scientific process. He’s asleep during the procedure, but as he relives each moment with her in reverse-chronology, he realizes he doesn’t want to lose these memories after all.
They’re both favorites of mine for different reasons. The Family Stone has a fantastic ensemble cast and captures an authentic large family dynamic that I grew up in. Eternal Sunshine caught me completely by surprise the first time I watched it as an incredibly unique take on what could be just another love story. Both films are meticulously detailed and blend comedy with drama effortlessly, staying light-hearted despite their heavy topics.
For whatever reason, this time around I wasn’t able to let myself get lost in the stories. Distractions from roommates and roomates’ dogs didn’t help, but it was more than that. Knowing I was going write this afterwards had me on the lookout for similarities or themes I could write about, which is the opposite of my intention for this as a regular bit. It should be easier with new films, but I saw The Hobbit 2 at its midnight premiere, so I didn’t want to spend more of the weekend at the theater.
Since I was paying more attention to aesthetic, something that jumped out at me was The Family Stone‘s use of mirrors and reflections. Sometimes characters would be looking thoughtfully into them, sometimes they were just in the background for no apparent reason. To their credit, never once did the camera accidentally catch a glimpse of itself and break the fourth wall. With the sheer number of knick-knacks and thingamajigs scattered throughout the house, there’s no way the mirrors were unintentional.
Thinking about it now, a big theme of the movie is knowing yourself and how family can see right through any acts you put on right to your true self. The aforementioned couple (Everett and Meredith) with an impending engagement are the ones with major self-image issues, which makes it fitting that they’re the ones who gaze at themselves early on, seeing only their coupledom and not how it was affecting their own identity.
The rest of the family spent more time looking through windows, likely an allusion to how transparent the woman’s act was to them. There’s a great moment when they first arrive and Everett tells her, “They’re all watching you, you know.” Meredith looks around frantically but can’t spot the window they’re all peering through.
I didn’t have that figured out when the end of the movie arrived, though, and when I started the next I had no idea what I was going to write here. Like most things in my life though, I got lucky.
The main characters in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are Joel, the eraser, and Clementine, the erasee who has already had him erased. He finds out about it from friends and decides to have her erased in misguided retaliation.
At the beginning of the procedure, he relives each memory verbatim, saying the same things and experiencing the same feelings. It’s all going according to plan, but when one of the technicians talks about Clementine (who he has been unethically dating through his knowledge of the past relationship), it takes him out of the memories. The first clearly surreal moment has him watching himself have his brain scanned in preparation for the erasing. The doctor actually turns to him and remarks, “This seems about right. This is what it would look like,” referring to his third-person out-of-body memory experience. From that point on, he doesn’t relive the moments but witnesses them. It becomes a mirror into the past.
When Joel gets to the time when conflicts first caused major rifts between them is when he realizes he was just as much to blame as she was, if not more so. At the time, all he was focused on was what he was feeling and not what he was doing or how he was making her feel. The regret sets in and that’s when he has to find a way to stop the procedure from inside his own head. He tries waking himself up, hiding out with her in other memories she was never in, and even revisiting erased memories to no avail. By the time he reaches the budding moments of their relationship, he can only watch as it crumbles away, wishing he’d done things differently.
Most movies send their protagonists through the ringer on a journey of self-realization. What makes these two more similar to each other is how they deal with relationships and the effect they have on the individual. Everett is so intent on marrying Meredith before (spoilers) his mom succumbs to her illness that he doesn’t see how it’s changed him or appreciate Meredith for her own merits. It’s not good for him and certainly isn’t fair to her. Joel has the opposite problem in that he’s so focused on his own feelings and how Clementine could improve his life that he never gives any thought to her feelings or why she’s dating him in the first place.
Those sound like conflicting messages. Know yourself before you’re in a relationship; see the relationship instead of yourself. But they’re not. Everett has to tear down the golden child ideals he holds himself to and Joel has to shed his insecurities. Once they do they’re able to take their eyes off of themselves, see the women in front of them for who they are, and take a leap of faith.
Browse through any relationship advice column and you’re sure to find suggestions to “be yourself” and “treat her right”. The problem is, who you are is constantly changing, and women don’t want to be taken care of so much as cared for. More of the so-called experts should be saying “see her for who she is, not what she represents” and “learn whether you’re right for one another”.
It might lead to more break-ups, but if there’s a moral to these stories, it’s that sometimes a break-up is the best thing that can happen to you.