Good Reads: “Sideways” & “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

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Introducing a new series, Good Read examines Oscar-winning screenplays and analyzes what it is that makes them awards worthy, unique, and culturally significant.

Kicking us off, I’ll start with one of the strongest pairs the Academy has ever selected with 2004’s Sideways, written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor (based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Rex Pickett), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth. (Links go to pdf scripts available online).

One of my all-time favourite films, the greatness of Sideways is built on its character work. No explosions, no melodrama, few crimes; the script is all about honest and grounded characterizations, with perhaps the odd exaggerated trait.

With such a subdued and an arguably uncinematic subject, Payne and Taylor make use of every moment – combatting the uptight intellect of Miles with the willingly laid-back nature of Jack. Their conflict is finely detailed, tuned to the right levels at appropriate times, and escalating at the right points. They cut each other down often, but Payne and Taylor have a sense for how they don’t always necessitate a response. The script thrives off their rocky friendship to carve their arcs, of which are connected to their relationships with women.

Superficially, they’re both terribly unsympathetic two-faced characters. Miles is selfish and pompous and Jack is irresponsible and arrogant. But the script allows us to connect with them through their loss of potential.

Miles is an aspiring writer who has yet to be published. He was a potential husband and father until his divorce knocked him sideways. Jack is the antithesis of Miles, his losses are connected to the flawed attributes of his character – he’s losing his freedom by his marriage, and eventually his acting opportunities by having his nose broken.

It’s a script about dealing with failure, some are in denial and some anxiously take it to heart. They’re characters with many dimensions. One of the most interesting moments that express their facets is the double date restaurant montage. Montages are extremely tough and can often feel lazy and distant, but Payne and Taylor are efficient and get into Miles’ head.

It’s an overwhelming scene on page, even going as far as mentioning how the photography and editing changes as the characters get drunker. It even goes to Hell, though ostensibly they didn’t have the budget for the visual effects. (see here on page 58:)

Although Miles resists throughout the first half of the film, Jack achieves what they set out to do. But just as Miles is ready to move on from his divorce, he refuses the call. Instead, he’s compelled to use his drunken confidence to call his ex-wife to attempt to catch up with her instead of bonding with Maya. It’s how he deals with failure when opportunity engulfs him. It’s deeply sad, deeply human, deeply understandable, and shows the limits of his character in a tender and authentic way.

In 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked Sideways at #90 in their 101 Greatest Screenplays of all-time.

It took me several viewings to decipher Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’m a huge Charlie Kaufman fan, so I was determined to encrypt it, and now I love the film dearly. Now it feels simultaneously simple and complex. It never offered easy exposition on what was going on but didn’t necessarily shy away from telling us either.

The script delivers its payoffs in very unconventional ways due to the jumbled structure. The opening act feels like an origin story. Instead, it’s closer to the climax of the plot until the film’s third act provides an epilogue. It doesn’t get anymore straightforward afterwards, but its backbone comes from its strong emotional current provided by its protagonist’s perspective. The inventive concept of memory erasing offers unusual scenarios, such as when Clementine doesn’t recognize Joel early on, and it offers gut-wrenching moments.

When it has the creative freedom to erase things in the memory sequences there’s a liberating irreverence to what they can put into or take out of a scene to see its effect. This pseudo-reality allows Kaufman the ability to confront clichés and contemporary aspects of the human condition. (see page 53 for a memorable example, complete with details of how the memory is portrayed as fading:)

The tone of the story is strange and self-aware (such as when Clementine acknowledges the ‘seduction’ part of the evening), but it’s able to get away with being frequently on the nose because its insights ring true. It’s difficult to do this with a script that stays within the confines of reality. By exploring the ‘what if’ scenario of ‘what if you could erase pain,’ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind offers the opportunity to talk about it in detail, articulating and dealing with the reality of relationships and self-perception through fantasy.

The original script included a bittersweet touch where Joel and Clementine continue erasing each other until their 80s. If it could happen, it would. The resulting film certainly opened the door for a slew of low scale-high concept films with a decent handful that work just as well. Few feel as rich yet stripped down, vibrant yet bitterly cold, romantic yet cynical. Kaufman’s words cut to the core and their sci-fi premise takes them there.

In 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at #24 in their 101 Greatest Screenplays of all-time.

eternal sunshine oscar

There are many other fine screenplays from 2004; Before Sunset, The Incredibles, Collateral, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Shaun of the Dead, 3-Iron, A Very Long Engagement, Head-On. A personal highlight for me is the Jaguar shark scene in The Life Aquatic. Wes Anderson touches a delicate yet cathartic note when everyone’s reaction to Steve’s sadness as he relents upon his impact in the world is to put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

– what are your best written films, scenes, characters or moments from 2004?