Heres the most surprising of the (many) reasons why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great movie: its plausible, a scientifically up-to-date work of fiction. Thats so rare in Hollywood, it makes me wonder if its an accident.
I remember all the amnesia movies, in which waking up with no name or place memories is treated as something other than freak-show rare. Then Memento was discussed by fans and reviewers as far-fetched, when an inability to form new memories is by far the most common type of amnesia there is (if the main character had been 70, youd have just called it Alzheimers). It turned out that a twistier, more exciting movie could be made from the workings of real brains than from dim near-fantasy.
In movies, too, were used to dozens of garbage films where hypnotists recover perfectly-stored (yet unused) memories from the flawless files of the human cortex: an illusion that bled scarily into real life for the Daycare Witch Trials of the 1980s, when prosecutors browbeat and coached children in a quest for repressed data about Satanic rituals and sex-abuse games. Suddenly, out of the warped minds behind Being John Malkovich, comes Eternal Sunshine, which gets memory as right as anyone currently can. We real humans store our memories, not as detailed maps, but like those memory-saving computer programs that store a map reference here and a vector there, and draw the maps fresh every time. We associate, as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine does, a city (Montauk) with a line of dialogue (Ive never been as perfectly happy as I am right now) with a pet name (Tangerine) with an action (making snow-angels). We center our associations around the emotions they involved together.
The stronger the emotions involved, as stored in the brains limbic system, then the more often the memories are thought together consciously, in the neocortex. If theyre associated with a really strong emotion love, fear, anger one object from the memory can bring back the whole vivid scene. Good as new, though not necessarily the _same_ as new.
If you eliminate the emotional pull if you snip away the memorys ghost in the limbic system then the memory itself, like the memory of yesterday's lunch, will soon crumble and die, unused. But if you revive the emotional charge before the memory is gone, the memory will be rebuilt: altered, as it often is anyway, but with the original associations. Or so Eternal Sunshine predicts, and so far we have reason to guess its right.
The prediction doesnt pop up til scene two. Scene one, on a nearly empty train on a snowy Valentines Day, is a classic screwball comedy set-up. Jim Carrey, rumpled and stubbly and shrunken, his energy submerged, has the Cary Grant role. Kate Winslet, radiant with the first of many primary-color ponytail haircuts, is the babbling female who drags the man into life. Hes Joel, and in theory hes looking for love, but he notes in his journal that my chances are diminished by my unwillingness to look strangers in the eye. Its his first journal entry in two years, which doesnt seem right to him. Shes Clementine, and shes willing to pester strangers well beyond the point of fairness. Shes seen him lots at her bookstore job, and she doesnt need a journal: she can talk and talk and talk, lifting and slouching and shrugging, moving her hands expressively and shining her eyes. She talks well: a bit loony, but fun, the Katherine Hepburn/ Rosalind Russell/ Barbara Streisand role.
Joel wonders aloud who makes up the garish punk names for her hair dyes, but he doesnt tell stories; he insists he doesnt have any. When she begs him not to make jokes about her name, he doesnt even have jokes; shes so amazed that she sings Oh my darlin Clementine from Huckleberry Hound herself, and he shrugs in confusion. Still, she makes them go home together.
I didnt like the first scene at the time: Cary Grants stiffs were never _this_ stiff. Joel says that hes trying to be nice, just as he says she seems nice, but nice is exactly what he isnt: hes cold and cut off, rejecting, and I was amazed shes supposed to put up with it. But the 2nd-most surprising reason why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great movie is that, when I stayed patient and attentive, every hanging question or doubt fell into place. All of them.
The first scene ends with Joel at the wheel of his car, happy; the second begins with Joel at the wheel of his car, crying. We see the note from Lacuna, Inc. even before he has to fend off questions about whether hes made Valentines plans with Clementine yet. Clearly we've jumped time, and they've known each other a year or more, but Joel doesnt want to talk about it. That's because, when he visited her at her bookstore, she gave no sign of recognizing him, and kissed a frail-looking young man named Patrick in his presence without looking smug or self-conscious.
He hasnt opened the Lacuna letter, but a lacuna is an empty space or a missing part; a gap, and it most commonly refers to gaps in memory. The Lacuna note wasnt to him, but he reads it anyway: its a short form letter with the names filled in bold. Clementine Kruczynski has had Joel Barish deleted from her memory. Please do not mention Joel in her presence any longer.
The technology is in its infancy. Lacuna is still run by the man who invented the person-deleting procedure, and most people dont seem to know the technology is real: This is a joke, right? is Joels first reaction, not because he doesnt realize Clementine is impulsive but because, well, how does she delete a person from her brain? He barges into the Lacuna offices ready to demand
well, to demand something, anything. What he gets is an explanation of the procedure. What he then gets (by barging in aggressively: Valentines is their busiest season) is an appointment: if Clementines going to live her life free of the sour memories of what theyve become, so will he. The pain, anger, and guilt will be wiped clean. Clementine was wrong for him anyway, right?
The 3rd-most surprising reason why Eternal Sunshine is great might be the casting. Now, Im not a real movie critic, so I adore Jim Carrey: he or Robin Williams is my favorite male actor, and I love Jims effervescent smile and his physical energy and his bounce and his voices, the way he can carry a scene whether hes goofy or earnest or manic or consoling or just a friendly sort of overconfident. But Id never seen him look like he was born (as he was) in 1962, lined and wan. Id never seen him underplay, and if you need someone to underplay, why ask Jim?
Theres an answer, it turns out: since he is Jim Carrey, he and Clementine do make sense together. To prepare for the memory wipe, Joel has to rummage through his apartment and remove anything that might remind him of Clementine: photos, books or CDs, souvenirs. Goofy pictures he drew for her (well see her smile over a drawing of them with skeleton bodies: Aww, you made me look thin!). Journal entries, too: theyll all be shown to him as he's drugged, and the monitoring equipment will measure his brain activity when the objects start their memories.
Doll calls up scene, we see the scene relived, scene is zapped into oblivion: that's the doctors' plan. Coffee mug calls up next scene, that scene goes bye-bye: search and destroy. The more scenes we see, the more we see Joels stiffness as the armor that hides his boyishness from a man's world. Clementine was right: beneath his tense lined forehead is a brain that helps her invent bad romantic dialogue to replace the drive-in movies speakers (when a camera pans back to reveal two people emerging behind the kissing couple, he interprets the depth cues as Ohmigod, you have people coming out of your butt!). Joels outwardly dull: hell never be fun to take to clubs. But we can see how hed make a small room crowded with imaginary life.
Id never thought Kate Winslet was beautiful before: electric blue hair and cockiness suit her. Id never guessed how easy it is to make Elijah Woods youthful innocence look blank and creepy, as he does while helping wipe Joels brain. Kirsten Dunst is a logical choice for the secretary, Mary, whos pretty but insecure about her intelligence: her decision to memorize some Bartletts quotes about memory, to impress Lacunas founder, gives the film its title.
Woods brainwipe partner Stan Fink is played by Mark Ruffalo, whom I like a lot, so Im not surprised how easily he pulls off a John Flansbergh (They Might Be Giants) dorkiness when you mess up his hair, while still looking manly and desireable when he takes his glasses and shirt off. Stan has to be strong enough to take charge when his creepy partner flips out, and strong enough to impress Mary; but he also has to be weak enough to panic when the brainwipe of Joel has problems. Ruffalo aces both tasks.
Why does the operation have problems? I might be wrong about Eternal Sunshines biggest surprise: maybe its that Charlie Kaufman has a heart. Joels recent memories of Clementine are all bitter, but his older memories aren't. Before the operation, hed asked if it risked brain damage: Technically, the procedure _is_ brain damage, he was reminded. Unconscious and chained to his medical equipment, he decides he no longer wants that damage, so he fights as best as he can.
The movie wins major visual style points here: like the real unconscious mind, it free-associates in dreams. Joel and Clementine will relive a scene, then have it dissolve. Theyll hop between real memories and dreamy metaphors. Theyll run here and teleport there; theyll hold remembered chats that turn into imaginary discussions of the procedure, and then theyll joke about now as if it was last year. We are cut, just as freely and without warning, from Joels brain to Stan and Mary, to Patricks courtship of Clementine, back to Joel.
Images go away and then come back, changed and degraded; a cute pair of panties can be a talisman, but so can the image of a boy crushing a bird with a hammer. Director Michael Gondry has made strange, vivid music videos for Bjork, the White Stripes, and the Chemical Brothers: he knows how to make images linger.
But less so than the story. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about love and hate, infatuation and spoilage, and the pros and cons of pain. The first time we guess its message, we might think its sensible enough but kind of obvious. The second time, its more sensible and less obvious; by the end, its been deepened so many times that its as new as it is old, and earned. The most flexible word in the English language is fuuck, which is probably why so many writers overuse it, but Kaufman has a better idea. He prefers our second most flexible word, okay, and I dont think its ever done work as perfect as here.
With apologies to my fellow Epinionators, I only read one review of this movie before writing this: it was by the excellent David Edelstein in Slate, and David called it the best movie in more than ten years. Henry Fool and Lawn Dogs came out in 1997, so I lowered my expectations: I watched the movie asking if it was the best movie in the last _seven_ years. It's an excellent question to be asking, because it heightened my concentration.
So. Is Eternal Sunshine, for me, the best movie in the last seven years? Um
probably not. But, well... maybe. Be ready for that maybe.
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