May 31st, 2004
Ah, Memorial Day. What better time to review Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
In the weeks after The Squirrelly was born, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Wracked with sleep deprivation, my memory — which barely ranks an “adequate” even under the best of circumstances — essentially packed up and went on sabbatical. It got to the point where the only thing I could remember from one moment to the next was the fact that I couldn’t remember a thing. I went out a bought a big whiteboard for my kitchen so I could write down anything of relevance; when people told me things I’d politely request that they retell their stories some day in the future when I emerged from my fog. It was odd to be cognizant of the fact that all these momentous things were happening to me as I struggled through the first days of fatherhood, and to be equally aware that I would soon recall almost none of them.
That’s thing about memory: it defines you, yet it’s so damn fickle. Many films have grappled with this paradox — Memento, The Bourne Identity, Total Recall, etc. — but few have done so as thought provokingly as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
It’s a retelling of the classic story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl visits Lacuna Incorporated to have all memories of their relationship purged via a high-tech neurological procedure. The next time the ex-lovers cross paths, Joel (Jim Carrey) is astounded to discover that Clementine (Kate Winslet) has no recollection of their time together; when he’s clued in to what she has done, he resolves to visit Lacuna and have the relationship excised from his head as well.
Here I expected the film to fast-forward to the aftermath of the operation, when Joel and Clementine, neither able to recall their previous life together, cross path again and wacky hijinks ensue. That just demonstrates the folly of trying to predict anything in a film written by Charlie Kaufman, he of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Where any other film would have glossed over the details of the erasure, using it simply as the means to an end (wacky hijinks), Eternal instead embeds the bulk of the story right into the procedure, cutting between the recollections in Joel’s head that have been targeted for elimination, and assorted concurrent events in the outside world.
Thus, the audience learns the history of the relationship via Joel’s memories, even as they are being eradicated from his mind; every advance we gain in our understanding of the couple is matched by a corresponding loss in Joel’s . This has the effect of making these scene especially poignant, as if these memories are being taken from Joel and entrusted into our care. And, surprisingly, wacky hijinks never ensue. Although the script is plenty bizarre and there is no shortage of funny moments, the subject matter is, by and large, treated with respect and sobriety.
What’s interesting about Eternal is that the central story is not the science-fiction premise of memory erasing, but the very traditional love story at it’s core. It’s a credit to the skill of Kaufman and director Michel Gondry that the mind-bending aspects of the framing device enhance rather than detract from the telling of Joel and Clementine’s story. Absent the unusual premise, Eternal could have been a frightfully dull mediation on the very time-worn tale of human relationships: passion + time = boredom and irritation; instead, the filmmakers pull off a masterful slight-of-hand that, like Lacuna Incorporated, makes us forget that we’ve seen this story a dozen times before, allowing us to enjoy it as if seeing it for the very first time.