Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
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
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
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.