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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Aired 4.13 and 4.14, 2004


Now playing at the Riverfront Cinema in Santa Cruz, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who also did Being John Malkovich , Human Nature, and Adaptation. It's directed by Michael Gondry, and unlike those other films, which combined quirky weirdness, interesting camerawork, and absurd humor, this one moves toward a more serious and pathos-filled take on love.

There's a new technology that enables people to have their memories wiped so that they can decide to forget a bad, traumatic, or painful experience. But that's not how the movie begins. The movie begins, we think, at the beginning: two people leave their respective houses, travel to Long Island, meet at the beach, and willy nilly, fall in love. Jim Carrey is Joel Barish, a loser kind of guy, miserable in his boring, tawdry life. Kate Winslet is Clementine Kruczynski [Crewshinsky], a chaotic, voluble, excessively enthusiastic and aggressive sort who succeeds in meeting Joel out of sheer persistence on the train back from Montauk.

But this is not, in fact, the beginning of the story. That's all I'll say. This is a story about two people who fall in love, have the ordinary ups and downs of any relationship, founder on a series of impasses and, finally, break up. Enter the memory-erasing technology. First Clementine then, desperate, Joel as well, show up to get their memories of each other wiped. Tom Wilkinson hits just the right note as the sympathetic, understanding, but also megalomaniacal Dr Howard Mierzwiak, while Kirsten Dunst plays Mary, his adoring assistant who, it will turn out, has a secret memory of her own.

In order to accomplish the procedure, the patient has to return all his memorabilia, all the objects, photographs, trinkets he's accumulated from his life with the person he wishes to erase from his mind and heart. Ah, but does the heart work like the mind? Can zapping an area of the brain also cauterize feelings? This is the philosophical question the events of this movie cause us to contemplate.

Then, after all remnants of the person have been removed from the house, the doctor's assistants visit the patient as he sleeps and hook him up to a contraption that will finish the job. The idea is that, upon waking, all traces of the recent past regarding the particular person will have vanished. A new life. A new beginning.

This is where Charlie Kaufman's work is most familiar, when we move to the inside of Joel's brain and follow along with him as the machine pursues each and every one of his memories of Clementine. It's hard to tell, in there, whether Clem is the pure product of Joel's fantasy or whether, perchance, their great love has actually allowed her to enter him and act, react, feel, talk, be the person she is, but on the inside of another. I liked the conceit, that love lets another person in, that he or she is more than mere products of the other's imagining.  

The most moving part of the film-if we can, in fact, be moved by these basically unlikable characters and the wacky premises of the movie-is when Joel, who realizes, desperately, that he does not want to forget the great love of his life, finds a memory in which to hide Clementine and takes her back to his childhood, to the most hidden and secret of memories, to his shame, to places where the memory-wiping machine cannot follow. There's something heart wrenching about the idea that, to spare oneself the pain of loss, one might go back, go back all the way, and preserve the object of love in the earliest moments of one's conscious life.

If I understand the movie's point correctly, it could be saying any of the following things: the accidental encounter that is love is also destiny; or, once you have traveled a certain path, you cannot permanently and completely destroy the memory traces of that path and something in your heart will cause you to lean again in the same direction, even if you don't know why.

A cynic would call it repetition compulsion. But every repetition also involves learning something new. In this movie, Clem and Joel do, finally, talk about what brought them to their impasse. They also learn what their fundamental incompatibilities are, in ways they never could have done simply by living out their relationship together. It's a sobering look at love, but a sympathetic one too. And the concept is simply brilliant, even if it's hard to get inside and really feel for these characters whose lives and emotions, banal and sometimes pathetic, too uncomfortably remind us of our own.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.