Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
In 1999 and with little effort, I coerced a fellow film nerd to see Being John Malkovich with me. It had shat rainbows all over my brain the week before, and he needed to experience the same. Glee crept over him, and an hour in he giddily asked me “what happens if he goes into his own portal?!” Fans of the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze know the answer to these type of questions. The pair’s second collaboration, Adaptation, was equally as artistically rewarding and just as inventive as its predecessor, but it also moved toward more human ground. Malkovich was an excercise in detached metaphysics, and its sterile tone matched that lack of sentiment; Adaptation was much more dependent on a real personality (two, actually).
Kaufman’s latest script is his most human, and his finest, to date. It’s not a Jim Carrey vehicle, although it stars Jim Carrey, and it has gotten plenty of hype: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (The audience learns that the title is a quotation from a poem by Alexander Pope.) The film, which may be a masterpiece (although I don’t know how one determines such a thing with any precision), carries similar Kaufman/Jonze themes and approaches to new brilliance: perception, ego, metaphysics, love, convolution â€” only, Jonze did not direct it. Fellow music video master Michel Gondry, another former Kaufman collaborator, guided the project.
To compare Jonze and Gondry in terms of ability is pointless; they are each a pop-visual pioneer rooted in the cross-roaded possibilities of technology and expression. For this particular film, however, the clever-on-clever combination of Kaufman AND Jonze probably would have been too loathsome in its own deliciousness. Jonze’s idiosyncratic flair would also have detracted from the impact of Kaufman’s achingly rendered characters. If nothing else, seeing the film will help you tease out what exactly is fundamentally Kaufmanian about all his previous work; the whey of what is missing can be credited to Jonze.
On to Gondry. He establishes mood well. The film’s prologue is captured in lonely winter light, featuring Carrey’s, as Joel Barish, expressive face in depths of humdrummery. And although the mind-journey that comprises most of the film takes Joel (and the audience) across the expanses of inter-human relations, New England, and time, the film maintains a gauzy visual motif, evoking memory, confusion, emotion, and kinds of loss. Even at its most esoteric moment, when Joel projects his consciousness back to when he was a toddler (and this is as close to a Malkovich-in-his-own-head moment the film gets) it is a grippingly real moment. Gondry evokes sentimentality without making the movie sentimental. Knock Carrey endlessly, but he can, at least on film, project the elemental emotions convincingly. I guess we just all have to choose to forget the whole Fire Marshall Bill thing.
Kate Winslet is immediately memorable as Clementine, a quirky single riddled with impulses and heart. A real heartbreaker. And HEY,if before this film, you thought the possibility of Carrey and Winslet convincing you they were in the sort of love you use against loneliness, take this as the most provocative praise I make: they are.
Kaufman’s metaphors are not wholly abstruse. Clementine is a name meaning “forgiveness,” Montauk serves as a visual representation of a limit (of memory or of forgetting) as well as a beginning (meeting of land and sea), the name of the back-alley medical office that offers the service of erasing people from their patient’s memory is Lacuna, Valentines Day. The film is brilliant in how it arranges these elements, in its syntax. It pauses a complete relationship and traces the usually confusing threads of regret, doubt, and dissonance that creep into any romance. In other words, it is atypical. And yet it’s about fundamental human failings. Only Kaufman can arrive at such crushing but accurate observations by taking such a bizarre and convoluted route. That the film ends with a pair of technically-speaking “strangers” listening to tape recordings of themselves harshly isolating the flaws of each other is a perfect example of the filmmakers’ allegiance to paradox. It’s like discontent at first sight.
There is humor, but muted. David Cross, typecast in an unscrupulous bastard cameo, has one of the best lines, and one that defines comedic tone. In a moment of domestic strife, his wife comforting the lovesick Carrey, he is building a birdhouse with abandon. His wife chastises him for making noise. “I’m building a birdhouse.” Only Cross could make that the slightest bit wry, because otherwise it’s pretty devastating.
Like Swingers or Joni Mitchell’s album Blue, Eternal Sunshine is about loss, albeit in the singular Kaufman/Gondry way. Instead of a lover ruminating on the shards of their former relationship, a former lover has his memory erased but realizes George Bailey-style during the procedure that it was the wrong choice and struggles to secure a safe corner of his brain to hide his remaining memories of his beloved. The film reminded me of a Denis Johnson poem, a sonnet that concludes
of all of us between the two of these:
harmony and divergence,
their sad story of harmony and divergence,
the story that begins
I did not know who she was
and ends I did not know who she was
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doesn’t shut the door so fully on hope or comfort.
The soundtrack has been spoken of more and better elsewhere. Yeah, the cover Beck sings fits the film and it’s a lot like everything on Sea Change. That’s all I’m going to say about that.