On Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
“Cerebral” is obviously a relative term in Hollywood, but if it suits anyone there it’s Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is a cerebral screenwriter in a new and oddly literal sense of the expression: he writes about the cerebrum. He’s our antic auteur of gray matter, exploring quirks and paradoxes in the seat of human consciousness. Occasionally, his weird-science fixation goes broadly biological, as in Human Nature, in which he drifted into whimsical pseudo-Victorian anthropology. But in his better efforts, whether they’re projecting characters into a famous actor’s head (Being John Malkovich) or splitting creative impulses into twin schlubs (Adaptation), Kaufman’s whiz-bang conceits and narrative daredevilry are, essentially, adventures of—and even in—the brain.
Naturally, these films tend to be mind games. Each time, we enter a new Kaufman universe as if waiting for a dose of psilocybin to kick in: antennae up, alert to hidden patterns, warped inventions, alterations of expected reality. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the first of these surprises comes within a matter of seconds: a restrained, naturalistic performance from Jim Carrey. This is not necessarily auspicious, given that his last attempt to hang up the rubberface was The Majestic, but something feels different this time. We meet his Joel Barish as he wakes up in bed, stubbly and with hair styled in a shaggy chestnut overhang—an appearance that may or may not be cultivated to evoke the hero of that other mainstream organ of profound life lessons, “Six Feet Under.” Carrey’s subdued performance—led by a dark, dolorous stare—soon draws us into his inexplicably spaced-out world.
Joel leaves his Long Island home for work in Manhattan, sharing in muttery voiceover a sense of wan dislocation as he joins the daily grind. But on the commuter rail platform he’s seized by a wild impulse and dashes to the opposite track to catch a train to Montauk. Wandering on the desolate winter beach, he spies a comely, punkishly blue-coiffed female and smiles meekly. He runs into her again at a diner, and again on the train home. Joel and Clementine (Kate Winslet) don’t meet cute so much as weird — handsome uptight white guy and sexy headcase coming on too strong. He offers her a ride home from the station, she asks him up for a drink, and by the opening credits, Joel’s sobbing over the dissolution of their love affair.
It’s shortly after this narrative stunt — a vertiginous jumpcut past a yearlong relationship—that Eternal Sunshine becomes recognizably a Kaufman film. The devastated Joel soon learns that Clementine has, through a new medical procedure, had her memory of him erased. Furious, he storms into the offices of Lacuna Inc. and demands to have her erased, too. We then join Joel—drugged asleep yet experiencing the procedure in real time—as the technicians strap their shiny metal contraption onto his dome and start deleting his romantic hard drive. Unstuck in time, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Joel wanders through his own psyche from memory to memory, re-experiencing his true love, realizing his folly, and then trying to circumvent the erasing process—fleeing the synaptic marauders with his damsel, ever deeper into his labyrinthine memory. It’s an intracranial action/romance.
Kaufman has tapped one ripe vessel at this cultural moment, when blockbusters stage Jungian-myth epics in silicon-only realities and many of us spend hours a day in some form of broadband consensual hallucination. Yet it’s largely French director Michel Gondry who brings the movie out of timely high-concept and into vivid emotional life. The director of Human Nature and several of the most eye-catching music videos of recent years (including the White Stripes’s Lego fantasia “Fell in Love With a Girl”), Gondry looks to be a Gallic corollary to Kaufman’s other indie-scenester rock-video accomplice, Spike Jonze. With this adamantly lo-fi visionary, Kaufman has found a shrewd marriage of conceptual sophistication and fanciful, childlike imagery. Together, they skew clunky instead of sleek, low-tech instead of high-, analog instead of digital—seeking a small, quiet space to tell this sweet love story with global resonance.
Lying drugged in bed, Joel looks over toward what should be his apartment wall and sees an earlier scene from the movie playing there—almost literally through a glass darkly. He realizes that he’s inside his own mind, that the erasing process has begun. Gondry has found a new visual language for flashback here, similar to the one he tried in the White Stripes’s “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” video. There, the spectral history of a broken home is projected onto scrims stretched across the various rooms of a house. The conventional mode for rendering this would be some kind of multiple exposure, which has lost its magic as surely as have blue screen, CGI morphing, and other techniques that a toddler would now read as Special Effect. Following some sublime atavistic impulse, Gondry instead opts for low-tech, painstakingly wrought effects—labors of love rather than Industrial Light and Magic—and the results are somehow more dramatic. Lighting, set changes, camera placement, and other subtle manipulations work to achieve an unmooring surrealism that recalls Cronenberg’s Beckettian game world in eXistenZ. Unlike the CGI-driven through-the-looking-glass freakout that announces passage into The Matrix, these interworld transitions are often initially imperceptible. Interiors unobtrusively accrue props and details from earlier (and later) scenes—as in Polanski’s mise-en-scène terrorism—and we realize our visual narrator is unreliable, and deeply fucked up.
After reliving a confrontation at Clementine’s Barnes & Noble workplace, Joel storms away from her, and the lights in each section of the store go dark sequentially behind him—like one massive closing, a stepwise collapsing of time and space. Joel walks from memory to vanishing memory like a character entering and exiting rooms on a stage set. As he comes and goes, supporting beams and struts and props from the previous scene carry over into the next before finally disappearing—a cinematic adaptation of theatrical techniques. This is a poetic visual representation of a lament John Knowles once made: that we perform this month’s play in front of last month’s sets, too entangled in memory to see what’s before us.
As Joel storms away from one argument, the street-corner scene dissolves behind him into a soft white mist—the pristine oblivion of the spotless mind. But as we get to know the characters, these erasures grow increasingly ominous—a cold blackness swallowing sweetness and laughter. In piecemeal fashion, Carrey’s Joel and Winslet’s Clementine reveal themselves to be a quirky, believable couple—smart, kind of artsy, nutty, cranky, vaguely lost, a bit marginal. A crane shot looks down at them in one tender scene, lying side by side on an iced-over river, enjoying the childlike innocence of the early stages of love. Soon, Joel must steal Clem off to his actual childhood, hiding her in the remotest recesses of his consciousness — off the doctor’s preset neurological grid — as the cauterizer seeks them, often represented by a cold-white beam like the sweeping searchlight of a prison tower.
Topside in the bedroom—next to Joel’s inert, silver-helmeted body—another plot unfolds between the staffers of Lacuna Inc. Head brain-sweep Stan (Mark Ruffalo, in thick black glasses recalling his Videodrome counterpart) oversees the procedure with his moleish sidekick Patrick (Elijah Wood), who reveals a recent breach of professionalism more drastic than their boozing on the job. Patrick has fallen in love with their last client, Clementine, and begun pursuing her, with Joel’s own already beta-tested lines. By the time perky Lacuna receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) shows up, gets stoned, and dances in her underwear to indie-rock, it’s apparent that the brave new world of heartbreak eradication isn’t as risk-free as it seemed.
Kaufman and Gondry’s mix of archaic technology—cassette tapes, Rube Goldberg skulldomes—and modern digital hardware suggests another critique of our blanket faith in science. Ruffalo’s laptop ministrations often trigger that familiar Microsoft “chirp” that indicates a completed function—a saved file, a deleted file, an obliterated person. You begin to understand that the procedure is akin to murder, much in the sense that Martin Amis described suicide as an act of global genocide: you’re wiping out the whole world. Clem’s heavy boozing hints at another, more prosaic, betrayal—opting for oblivion over one’s lover. When Dr. Howard Mierzwiack (Tom Wilkinson) is summoned to assist the failing procedure, the smitten Mary tries to impress him by quoting Alexander Pope: “How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!/The world forgetting, by the world forgot/Eternal sun-shine of the spotless mind!/Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.” The lines are from “Heloise to Abelard,” about the star-crossed French lovers John Cusack dramatized in a street-corner puppet show in Being John Malkovich. In a sense, Kaufman has here recast this ancient tale of two lovers torn asunder— one supposedly castrated, the other locked in a nunnery, still loving a man beyond physical love, pining that “I have not yet forgot myself to stone.”
When Joel and Clem finally get their chance to forget themselves to stone, to avoid the grief they know is coming and walk away, Kaufman closes the film with an argument for love similar to the one Woody Allen used to end Annie Hall—we do it, basically, because we need the eggs. “It’s the perfect ending to this piece-of-shit story,” Carrey bellows early on, railing at Clem’s retreating, soon-to-be-erased figure with all the bitterness a memory purge entails. By the end, his change of mind makes this the most genuinely romantic film of the year. Kaufman and Gondry rebut the logic of the MRIs, brain scans, and gizmos running the show and prove that no amount of tech support will silence, sweep, or optimize the drive of the human heart.
© 2004 by Chris Norris