In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we hear that verse after a despondent lover, Joel (Jim Carrey), has paid to have his memories of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), removed by a newfangled memory-erasing machine. As she’s gradually purged from his head, he’s having a vision of himself and Clementine strolling along a Manhattan avenue amid a parade of circus elephants— a metaphorical sight gag, i.e.: Elephants never forget. The most marvelous, the most resonant, the best movie of the aughts isn’t overtly political, but writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry weave together so many 21st-century fears that this truly screwball romance has the kick of a Philip K. Dick paranoid fever dream. Futuristic neuro-technology—in this case a private, home-delivery brain drain—helps to repress any trauma, to ease every pain except the dull one that insinuates, “Something is missing. This isn’t real.” Pope’s vestal’s lot turns out to be anything but happy. As the final memories are expelled, the screen is like a mushroom cloud: the blooming of the couple’s love and its obliteration in the same instant.
When I first reviewed Eternal Sunshine, I made the mindless auteurist’s mistake of treating it as too much un film de Charlie Kaufman and slighting the contributions of Gondry—who has transformed (along with, among others, Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham) the art of music videos. Here, Gondry splinters the syntax and flouts the laws of space and time, yet the emotional and musical line is astoundingly fluid. While this was a decade in which George Lucas, who came of age in the rough-and-ready seventies, turned full-time to digital image, generating such breathtaking corpses as Attack of the Clones, Gondry proved that computers don’t have to be the death of the artistic soul—that you can create miraculous visions if, as in his The Science of Sleep, you find a way to attach (metaphorically) that USB cord to the unconscious mind.
Other filmmakers didn’t need futuristic devices to evoke an anguished, bell-jar subjectivity in which connections to the outside world are corroded. David Lynch’s Hollywood dreamscapes—so alluring, so fetid—made Mulholland Drive among the most lucid incomprehensible visions in all cinema. In the underrated Munich, Steven Spielberg chillingly dramatized the shrinking of a righteous avenger’s world. Roman Polanski delivered his masterpiece, The Pianist, a film that made poetic sense of both the horrors of his childhood and the abomination of his crime against a 13-year-old child. Here is a Polish protagonist (played by Adrien Brody) forced to view the slaughter of his people from a helpless distance, enclosed in a small room with nothing to sustain him but fantasy. Polanski leaves the central question lingering, unexamined: Is the artist entitled to special treatment? Is he morally exempt?
Subjectivity is everywhere in movies now, from the limited vantage points of Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity to the narration-heavy Up in the Air. Only a decade ago, first-person voice-overs were rare, a stern taboo in the lectures of venerated motivational screenwriting guru Robert McKee. Then Charlie Kaufman mocked McKee (played by Brian Cox) in the self-deconstructing Adaptation, and all at once, it seemed, you couldn’t get away from garrulous narration— I went, I thought, I felt, I saw, I blah-blahed. Films became like memoirs. Like blogs. In many of these movies there’s a loss of drama: Everyone but the narrator is an Other. But narration also liberated writers and directors to fool around with storytelling. (500) Days of Summer leapt around in time and space in ways that had you humming the syntax.
There are, of course, exceptions to the solipsistic-fantasy trend. After the late Robert Altman, the most refreshingly objective, stubbornly humanist, socially committed director remains Jonathan Demme. His documentary Jimmy Carter Man From Plains and the gorgeous concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold (a portrait of an enduring musical family in a city with a heritage being wiped out by “progress”) were followed by the phenomenal Rachel Getting Married. Here Demme’s vision was double-sided: a breakdown in the nuclear family offset by a larger, multicultural communion that foretold the short-lived euphoria of Barack Obama’s election.
In the end, we might remember the aughts less for specific films than the technology that both created them and piped them into our homes: what we wanted when we wanted it. I was recently on a panel with indie-movie veteran Bingham Ray, who pointed out the most crucial difference between watching at home and in a theater: control. In a theater, you’re forced to cede power to the projectionist and, hence, the artist, whereas in your living room your hand is never far from the remote. You don’t invest the same attention when you know you can pause, go back, or fast-forward. You’re removed from the real, uncontrollable world, calling the shots, the avatar, just like your heroes onscreen.