I just got finished watching Waking the Dead. It is a love story, of sorts. Follows around Billy Crudup as he runs for Congress in the early 80s while he pines for Jennifer Connelly (and harbors some doubt that she actually died ten years prior in a car bomb). Unusual, both in terms of narrative structure and in terms of approach. Overall, I quite liked it.
However. I got to thinking about another love story with an interesting narrative structure and approach: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And subjecting them to comparative analysis.
Neither film has the problem of most romances: poor or lacking chemistry. Winslet and Carrey are an incredible pairing. And Crudup and Connelly (and their amazing eyebrows) work well together.
Neither film is incoherent. Both Eternal Sunshine… and Waking the Dead succeed in telling subtle, occasionally complicated stories.
But here’s the thing: Waking the Dead is depressing, whereas Eternal Sunshine… is not. Which is odd, I think. Because Waking the Dead has such an uplifting premise: that love continues after death, between people with fundamental differences, in spite of inconvenience. And Eternal Sunshine… has such a bleak premise: that love cannot solve problems, is premised on uncontrollable and facially inconsequential variables, and is so powerful as to transcend memory and pain. But as I said, the former is depressing, but the latter is not. I suppose one could dismiss the whole analysis by pointing out that the latter has comedic pretences, whereas the former does not. But I think that a cop-out.
The fact is, Eternal Sunshine… succeeds in being uplifting because it is satisfied with love being temporary. It does not matter whether one is certain one will fall out of love, that it will all end in tears, and that nothing lasting will be created. It does not even matter whether one remembers it. The value in a loving relationship is in the moment. Posterity be damned. That two people love each other now is enough. In fact, that two people love each other now is all there is. This is a freeing worldview because it does not pay lip service to an ultimately unachievable and meaningless eternity.
Contrast with Waking the Dead. Waking the Dead is another in the long line of stories that pair two people as “meant for each other” in some fashion. The “star-crossed lovers” syndrome. Which is fine. But Waking the Dead, like most of its romantic kin, takes it a step further and creates a sense of “love” which does not die or diminish with time. In fact, Waking the Dead seems to suggest that we can only know the protagonists’ love is real because it does not fade with time. Because the likely-dead member of the pair lives on in the heart of her lover. Which misses the point.
There is a scene in Waking the Dead where Billy Crudup’s character’s sister tells him the fact that he still holds a torch for his likely-dead girl is “sad.” And the audience is made to feel as if the sister is wrong for not understanding him. It isn’t so much that she is right, but that the filmmakers missed the point. The question is not whether it is sad that he cannot get over his lover’s death, whether or not he can find love elsewhere. The question is why are we told to feel as if the sister’s practical point-of-view is contrary to love. It isn’t.
What made Eternal Sunshine… such a break from tradition–and so ultimately uplifting–is recognition of this: you cannot measure love by its longevity. You cannot measure love by its longevity any more than you can measure it by its practicality. How long love lasts is of no consequence whatsoever.