“There’s a world where I can go/And tell my secrets to/In my room/In my room” —Brian Wilson, “In My Room”
Jim Carrey is always best when he surprises us. As much as I love Dumb and Dumber and Liar Liar, I’m still partial to The Cable Guy, a risky film that took Carrey’s trademark zaniness in a much darker direction. If The Cable Guy was a risk, however, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a revelation. Charlie Kaufman’s script reads like a love story written by Philip K. Dick, and it would’ve been easy for Carrey to simply match the screenplay’s surrealism with a whacked out performance of his own.
But that’s not what he did. Perhaps the most astonishing feat of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is that you forget Jim Carrey is Jim Carrey. Like other actors whose personalities frequently overwhelm their roles — Robin Williams comes to mind — Carrey’s greatest challenge has always been to get out of character, to shed the mask (see what I did there?) and move beyond the popular persona he’s crafted.
Aside from a few lackluster roles here and there, Carrey’s been absent from the spotlight for the past several years. Rumors have circulated about relationships ending and battles with serious depression, and, given the recent spate of celebrity suicides, some of us have been understandably concerned about the man’s general well-being. But then Carrey surprised us again.
Maybe you’ve seen I Needed Color, a six-minute documentary profiling Carrey’s efforts as a painter and sculptor. The video has racked up millions of views as it’s made the rounds on social media, and little wonder: it’s a beautifully produced piece of work that provides a small window into Carrey’s rich inner world. Far from languishing in isolation, he’s been attacking canvases and clay with a fevered sense of gusto, and, judging by the vibrant tapestry on display in his studio, he’s been nothing short of prolific.What if we followed Carrey’s lead and aimed to celebrate certain aspects of our common human experience for the sake of love?
Describing the feeling of being marooned in New York one particularly “bleak winter,” Carrey intones, “I think I needed color.” And there’s truly no shortage of color on display in his paintings. In fact, Carrey’s candy-colored dreamscapes look almost appetizing in their saccharine intensity. Throughout the video, we watch Carrey hunt down his desired shades on blank canvases, mixing and matching, spattering and smearing, his clothing freckled with paint. Interestingly, the face of Jesus is a recurring image in Carrey’s paintings. Though he’s predictably vague about Christ’s actual identity, he’s clear on the fact that he wants to communicate a universal sense of compassion and acceptance through this theme.
Not everyone’s a fan, of course. The Guardian’s art critic excoriated Carrey: “He just should not be showing this stuff to anyone and expecting anything except derision.” (We can only imagine this man’s disappointment were he to become an art teacher.) Certain amateurish elements in Carrey’s work do stand out, though. Look closely at one of the featured abstracts and you’ll see the word “drugged” is misspelled. Later in the video, Carrey likens the process of healing from a failed relationship to having one’s heart reenter earth’s atmosphere. We’re then treated to the oil-on-canvas counterpart of this description — a picture of a colorful human heart performing roughly the same operation as an earth-bound space shuttle.
Still, the man’s talent is undeniable, and it’s clear he’s just getting started. As his need for color continues and his studio swells with a growing body of work, it’s conceivable that Carrey will keep refining his craft. Who knows, maybe he’ll paint something subtle enough to at least avoid the wrath of disillusioned art critics who avenge themselves on thespians who trespass on their territory.
Perhaps the most striking feature of I Needed Color is Jim Carrey’s articulacy regarding his newfound passion: “I think what makes someone an artist is [that] they make models of their inner life. They make something physically come into being that is inspired by their emotions or their needs or what they feel the audience needs.” A clear introvert, Carrey talks about being the type of kid who couldn’t be punished by being sent to his room because his room was “heaven” — his own private world of dreams and possibilities.
I can relate. My parents used to complain about the fact that they had to resort to creative forms of punishment because grounding me wasn’t an option. As with Carrey, my room was a place of near-limitless possibilities, and there was just no way for mom and dad to diminish its appeal. It was the one place where I could explore my inner life unhindered.
Later on, I would learn the paradoxical truth that this inherently private pursuit can be made public through various forms of performance. This recognition started when I realized I had a natural penchant for impressions (most of my victims were teachers), a talent that’s allowed me to skip small talk and awkward introductions on numerous occasions. Soon I was entering imaginary worlds in front of audiences as I acted in various plays. Parents, teachers, and friends would note the wide disparity between my reserved outward demeanor and the flamboyant characters I’d portray onstage. I still have the prosthetic nose from Cyrano de Bergerac to remind myself that I can at least feign nobility of spirit.
By the time I picked up the guitar, forming a band was a foregone conclusion. On any given day in the suburbs, you can stroll down the street and hear countless teenagers damaging their eardrums in their parents’ garages. Few things are as cathartic as your first clumsy attempts at harnessing your chaotic reserve of adolescent emotions for the sake of songwriting. Try this with a group of musicians and someone’s liable to end up with a black eye. (Watch out for those drummers.)
But writing is the only pursuit that’s come close to offering me what Carrey seems to have discovered in painting. Though it’s often relentlessly frustrating, I’ve come to relish the painstaking process of searching for the right structure, the right sentence, the right phrase, the right word; it’s how I make models of my inner life. I’m reminded of this grueling task as I watch Carrey chase down a color that matches the vision in his head.
One of the most thrilling and terrifying aspects of doing this kind of work is bringing these inner compulsions to life and publishing them to the world. David Lynch once remarked that the apartment in Eraserhead is a perfect replica of what was in his head before he made the movie. I’m still not sure I believe him, but I’m haunted by the possibility of such an immaculate translation of the inward.
While it’s true that this is the ambition of every serious artist, it’s also a deeply human habit of seeking to make a connection — a small gesture aimed at making the world a less lonely place. Part of what makes Carrey’s work so endearing to me is its indelibly generous quality; there’s the clear sense that this man is offering you not just another performance, but a gift.
At the end of the video, Carrey remarks, “The bottom line with all of this, whether it’s performance, or art, or sculpture, is love. We wanna show ourselves and have that be accepted. I love being alive, and the art is the evidence of that.” This hopeful statement stands in stark contrast to so many of the despairing testimonials we’ve heard lately. In a time when so many celebrities are succumbing to despair, it’s heartening to see Carrey offer such a holistic response to his heartache. It’s good to see someone who loves to be alive.
For many of us, 2017 has already been a particularly bleak year. We understand that if we simply absorb the incessant pessimism and disillusionment, it can have a hardening effect that turns us cynical and indifferent. But what if we resolved to not add to the surrounding anguish? What if we followed Carrey’s lead and aimed to celebrate certain aspects of our common human experience for the sake of love?
If that sounds banal, naïve, or hopelessly trivial, it might be worth monitoring your own heart on the matter. Is there a chance that the prevailing cultural mood has tampered with your sense of hope? Celebration always runs the risk of looking trivial in troubled times, but that doesn’t make it any less vital.
I’m also certain that many of our efforts at celebrating our lives will, like Carrey’s, look amateurish at first, like an infant’s first faltering steps. But if Carrey’s right about true artists being the ones who give us models of their inward lives, he’s also showing us that any genuine performance is a gesture of hope, a flickering beacon of the human spirit. Lest we all become too hung up on the romantic image of the solitary artist in her studio, these genuine performances are not limited to works of art. They can include everything from planning an elaborate meal to cultivating a lush garden.
N. T. Wright once wrote, “Jesus Is Coming — Plant a Tree!” No gesture of hope is too small. One of the hallmarks of the Church is a sense of anticipation, the blessed expectation that all shall be made well. What I love most about I Needed Color is Jim Carrey’s palpable sense of anticipation; it’s such a startling riposte to my own jaded perspective. Carrey needed color, so he went after it. We should do the same.