No Thanks for the Memories

Joel Barish exists only as memories in Charie Kaufman's screenplay. (courtesy photo)
'Eternal Sunshine' forever banal

Like Memento, Paycheck, The Bourne Identity, Total Recall, and other recent movies too numerous to remember, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind turns on memory manipulation. Like Capturing the Friedmans, it is symptomatic of a society vulnerable to false memories and suffering from collective amnesia so acute that even college students cannot recall who fought whom in World War I. Does anyone remember how Memorial Day got its name?

A clinic on Long Island called Lacuna has developed a neural technology that makes it possible to expunge particular memories from a client's brain. Exasperated by her boyfriend's ambivalence and his reluctance to have a child, Clementine Kruczynski (Winslet) decides to wash that man not right out of her hair but out of her mind. Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Wilkinson) and his assistants oblige, in one efficient session eliminating every trace of Joel Barish (Carrey) from her memory. When Joel comes to see her at the bookstore where she works, Clementine has no idea who he is. In retaliation, Joel visits Lacuna and pays them to erase Clementine from his mind, almost entirely.

Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) in a bed, yes, on the beach, in Eternal Sunshine (courtesy photo)
With Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman proved himself a maestro of metafiction, of scripts that move in and out of the illusory world that they create. We are immersed in movie fantasy and then propelled into another layer of awareness. Eternal Sunshine invites us to experience the romantic memories of Joel and Clementine, but it also reminds us that, like the cinematic medium itself, those memories are mutable. What we see on the screen is being deleted while we watch.

"How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!" declares Mary (Dunst), the receptionist at Lacuna, reciting a passage from Alexander Pope she seems unlikely to have remembered. "The world forgetting, by the world forgot: Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!" Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind projects nostalgia for oblivion, as though amnesia meant blissful innocence. And yet though memory is agony, it is also identity; without it, we are nothing. A spotless mind is an empty one. So Joel tries desperately to restore his mental file on Clementine. The plot is complicated when Patrick (Wood), a timorous technician at Lacuna, falls in love with Clementine and begins to appropriate Joel's memories for his own purposes. Howard terminates his own adulterous affair with Mary by purging all vestiges of it from her brain.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Dir. Michel Gondry; writ. Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Pierre Bismuth; feat. Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo (R)

The ideas behind Eternal Sunshine are more exciting than their actual embodiment. Neither Joel nor Clementine is especially exceptional, and their relationship is eminently forgettable, even without the help of Lacuna. They meet on a beach, and they frolic on an ice-bound river, but neither character alone or together offers much to make a viewer regret the procedures of erasure. Set just before Valentine's Day, Eternal Sunshine, like the movie Groundhog Day, offers multiple takes on the same recurring scenes. Aware that, except in the moment, they exist only as memories, Joel and Clementine attempt to evade extermination at the hands of Howard and his Lethean assistants. They come to realize that the present is always vanishing, that they survive only instantaneously before they become memories, and that memories are fragile, changeable, and mortal. In other words, Joel and Clementine are like the rest of us, condemned to make our peace with transience. "What'll we do?" asks Clementine. "Let's enjoy it," replies Joel. If it is impermanence that makes each instant precious, Shakespeare, conscious of the brevity of their encounter, advises his beloved: "To love that well which thou must leave ere long."

It is hard to enjoy all 108 minutes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, chiefly because the memories that flicker across the screen are so banal. "We'll always have Paris," Rick assures Ilsa in Casablanca, as though the image of their pre-War romance can defy the entropy of mental retention. As long as there are screens and lights, we'll at least always have Rick and Ilsa. And they're a pair more memorable than Joel and Clementine. •


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