There’s that school of philosophy that addresses
the question of whether or not memory determines reality.
You know, the idea that once passed, events only exist in
memory, so if they were to be forgotten, for all intents
and purposes, they never happened. Movies have been looking
into this for years, from the film version of Slaughterhouse
Five, to Ah-nuld’s own tour through
metaphysical debate, Total Recall.
The problem with films like these, however, has been the
allegorical sheen placed over their themes. Slaughterhouse
Five tries to present recaptured experience as a consciously
forceful way to act out, sapping memory of its natural mystery.
Total Recall gets its viewpoint muddled up in a parable
about class struggle amid a rampant technology culture.
Plus, it just plain sucks. Neither film really gets inside
memory as a place of ambiguity, as a constant state of flux
where concrete knowledge gives way to modified perception,
where God is in the perpetually morphing details that, in
spite of themselves, tell the story of the past as well
as it can be told.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind understands
that concept and runs with it wholeheartedly. Clementine
(Winslet), explaining her revolving door of hair
colors, says that she “applies her personality in
a paste,” proving herself a person best suited for
memory: We all know how hard it is to pin down those details
when searching the backrooms of recollection, and Clementine
is a character who makes it just as hard in life. Maybe
that’s why Joel (Carrey) allows her to draw
him out of his shell—she’s a model for altering
how you let yourself be perceived, and it’s no secret
how bored he is with himself.
The film begins with their chance meeting after Joel impulsively
(a word we find doesn’t normally apply to Joel) decides
to skip work and take a train to the beach in the dead of
winter. He ends up taking Clementine to her apartment, and
when he gets to his own place, he calls her (another thing
obviously not typical of our Joel), and so the relationship
begins. The film then takes us to after their breakup, with
Joel attempting to make amends by visiting Clementine at
the bookstore where she works, only to have her politely
treat him as a complete stranger.
Joel does some digging and finds out that not long after
their breakup, Clementine visited a clinic called Lacuna,
Inc. Upon making a visit to the clinic, Joel discovers that,
as its name might suggest, Lacuna, Inc., specializes in
“memory wipes.” Apparently, the experience of
her relationship with Joel was so terrible that Clementine
chose to have all memory of him erased from her mind. After
speaking with Dr. Mierzwiak (Wilkinson, equal parts
soft bedside manner and chilling disingenuousness), Joel
decides to return the favor.
Enter Joel’s Mind. As individual memories begin to
fade from view, Joel, running through them like some realist
version of a Salvador Dalí dream sequence, begins
to regret his decision. He gradually comes to understand
that his memories define him. Soon, after yanking Clementine
from her appropriate place, the two begin memory-hopping
to screw up the landscape and hopefully confuse the faceless
procedure erasing their surroundings.
It’s fantasy with the philosophy amplified to the
nth degree, and what eventually emerges is Charlie
Kaufman’s most humane story yet. His screenplays
for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, while
terrifically skewed and magically clear-eyed at the same
time, both fell into a trap lined with soulless satire.
Spike Jonze is a master of chic cynicism, and while
his biting irony gave each film sharp wit and a cracked
intensity, they were ultimately mannered and empty. Only
in fleeting moments could you glimpse Kaufman’s earnestness;
the rest of the time he was overshadowed by Jonze’s
Michel Gondry shows himself to be a humanist with
Eternal Sunshine. Unfortunately, toward the final
third of the film, he lets loose his indulgent side, and
the wrap-up, while it makes sense within the scheme of Kaufman’s
vision, dips into a little dewy-eyed folly here, a little
hard-edged retribution there, eventually trying to wind
the two together without ever really developing either.
But until then, Gondry doesn’t falter. His breezy
direction, never sentimental but always sincere, lets Kaufman’s
story settle into a rhythm unlike any of his previous screenplays:
Eternal Sunshine, in the end, comes off as a delicately
charitable act. Which makes sense, because, really, with
a character named “Clementine,” what can you
expect but kindness?