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Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Lost and Gone Forever

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Of all affliction taught a lover yet,
‘Tis sure the hardest science to forget!

Alexander Pope, from “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717)

Joel (Jim Carrey) is the kind of shy workerbee guy who sets down his thoughts and feelings in an illustrated journal and finds it hard to talk to women. The story of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry from Charlie Kaufman’s original script (from a story by Kaufman, Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth), unfolds from Joel’s saying something harsh to his impulsive girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) which prompts her to have her memories of him removed by an electronic process devised by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak ( Tom Wilkinson). When Joel goes to the bookstore where Clementine works to apologize, she looks at him just as if she didn’t know him, because she doesn’t anymore. Nothing could be crueler to a guy like Joel and when he finds out there was a reason for Clementine’s blank expression he’s next in line for the process.

The main sections of this lost-love story come in reverse order. The central section is a string of Joel’s memories of his relationship with Clementine as the memory hunters isolate and eradicate them, while Joel lies sleeping helpless on his couch (and the surgeon’s assistants party and act on their own ill-advised flirtations). Joel submits to the procedure in an access of unmanageable pain, but finds while reviewing the memories in his sleep that he can’t bear to part with them.

The movie then becomes an ironic romance in which Joel, the baffled, overmatched knight, tries to rescue the memory of his damsel from the dark knights hunting it down. It’s put together like a puzzle but generically it’s not that complicated: like many a knight before him Joel succumbs to temptation and has to fight his spiritual adversaries as a consequence. In this scheme Dr. Mierzwiak is the evil wizard and Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood as his technicians the rival knights.

In order for the doctor to locate all memories associated with Clementine, Joel had to bring in every item in his apartment that he associated with her in any way and reel off his memories into a tape recorder. Realizing in his sleep that the hunters won’t be targeting memories not associated with Clementine, Joel ingeniously tries to “hide” her in memories formed when she wasn’t present, during his childhood, for instance. Altogether, this section has the most inventive moviemaking, warp speed switcheroos involving tricky editing, sound effects, set design, and special effects, as memories bleed into each other, literally fade or fall apart, and are wiped out. This is where Gondry, the commercial and music video wiz, gets to strut his stuff, which he does without detracting from the story, and it also makes some sense of the casting of Jim Carrey, when, for instance, he plays a pint-sized four-year-old Joel to Clementine’s sexy-leggy adult babysitter.

As in most ironic romances, film noirs, for example, the hero fails, but here he gets the girl anyway. In Eternal Sunshine the latter is the heartbreaker. As the subplot involving Kirsten Dunst as Dr. Mierzwiak’s coy vamp of a receptionist shows, without a memory you’d make exactly the same mistakes all over again.

The movie is swift and highly engaging, and even many of its drawbacks as popular entertainment work in its favor. First and foremost, it isn’t a conventional love story in that it doesn’t expect you to identify with the central couple. We first see Joel and Clementine, with no memory of each other, “meeting” for the second time, and we never think they were meant for each other. Just the opposite. We can believe that an introvert like Joel would go for an extrovert like Clementine, and that she might randomly fall in with him, but the moviemakers aren’t concocting movie-star chemistry in the usual sense.

This is in part because Joel is so clearly the focus of Kaufman’s identification. Clementine is enticingly open to the world in comparison to Joel but also irritating, and finally she’s not convincingly conceived. You think of Joel as a guy like Joel, but Clementine isn’t an equally recognizable female correlative or complement.

Looking back at Kaufman’s scripts for Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), I’d say he has no feel for women in a realistic sense. It’s probably plainest in Human Nature (2001). The movie follows Patricia Arquette‘s sympathetic protagonist through all her phases but refuses to come together around her; Tim Robbins is the anti-human figure, but he’s destroyed by his screwed-up love of women, and the movie coalesces as an explanation of that.

In Malkovich and Adaptation Kaufman puts at the center a male artist figure who is unable to impress himself on the world, and the women around him represent the sexual element of his frustration (probably the most piercing element of it, for most shy men). In Malkovich, Cameron Diaz is the unkempt girlfriend who doesn’t express what the protagonist has in him, and Catherine Keener is the fantasy A-type female who seems to (to him, though not to us), but whom he can’t have. She’s worse than unavailable, she’s actively dismissive, hostile–and she steals his girlfriend.

In Malkovich, thus, there’s nothing between a lump and a lesbian. It’s like a joke based on the heterosexual male’s most primitive response to sexual rejection: if a woman doesn’t want you she must be a dyke. The movie is uncertain enough that you can’t be sure the joke is intended, but that uncertainty seems a necessary condition for Kaufman and director Spike Jonze‘s creativity. By contrast, the allegory in Adaptation works more neatly (the twinned artist and commercial hack have to collaborate to reach the audience; the second half of the movie is what they “would” have come up with) but is for that very reason less involving.

Kaufman’s is a sexually immature point-of-view, but not only has it made for some fascinatingly twisty storytelling, it hasn’t been entirely bad for the actresses. Kate Winslet can’t do much with Clementine, but in Malkovich Catherine Keener became one of the few actresses in American movies to win an audience by playing a bitch (the first since Ida Lupino?). The efficient, knife-edge propulsion of her body, the swivel of her head, the hanging-judge eyes, tell you she’s her own woman on her own terms. Combined with maybe the funniest nasty-flat delivery of any actress ever, Keener makes unavailability more enviable than enticing. Her dryness and remoteness are extremely powerful; she’s not exactly a goddess but she is the inviolable shrine that encloses the statue of one.

The fearful male’s perspective is key to Kaufman’s kaleidoscopic talent (as it is to R. Crumb‘s). It also constitutes a major part of his sincerity, and much of his irony is at his own expense. As Nicolas Cage‘s performance in Adaptation made clear, Kaufman knows what’s ridiculous about himself, he just can’t help it. (Gazing up at her in trembling awe, he and Jonze gave us a better version of Keener than that supersour ironist Nicole Holofcener who cast her as a gawky loser and punished her in both Walking and Talking (1996) and Lovely & Amazing (2002).)

At the same time, Kaufman’s outlook does limit what Winslet might have done. In addition, Kirsten Dunst’s character at first seems like a user, then she seems used, then she makes an ill-conceived and devastating gesture in response. The role is a replay of Miranda Otto‘s more conventional homewrecker in Human Nature but you never know how to respond to her and may find yourself pulling back. (A first in my experience with Dunst, even as the wicked little bloddsucker in Interview with the Vampire (1994) and as the spoiled baby doll in Little Women (1994).) You may also pull back from Clementines’ strident, out-there personality, and her character is incoherent as well (in the romance she’s both the fair lady who has to be rescued and the temptress), but these very failures at least preserve the detachment required to keep the movie from going mushy.

A bigger drawback may be that the movie doesn’t ask Carrey to do anything he’s especially good at. At one point Clementine derisively describes Joel’s hurt puppy-dog gaze to perfection, but part of the fault is the actor’s. He also (over)used it in The Truman Show, the Carrey movie for people who can’t take him at his most sensational. As Joel he’s asked to be “human” in a small way and you feel the waste. His talent is rarer than that; it’s only when he’s not subject to the high concept of a movie, as in The Mask (1994), that he’s able to show us all he’s got in him. Here the script and the moviemaking take care of the pyrotechnics and he’s an obedient participant.

But these failures don’t get in the way, or not in a way you notice because Kaufman’s writing is always a bit dim and depressive. His director has to bring a lot of energy to the show because Kaufman himself is “brilliant” in a way that doesn’t encompass the shedding of light. And he sacrifices amplitude in his scripts to maintain control (which is also something you could say of Sacha Guitry, though the Frenchman’s spirit is less agonized if not less ironic). Being John Malkovich supplies the metaphor: Kaufman’s scripts are all about crawling through the dark, cramped corridors in his head.

In keeping with this, Eternal Sunshine is about the limitations of personal experience, about how being yourself will lead you down blind alleys repeatedly and life is so bewildering you’ll be grateful for an experience even knowing beforehand that it won’t end happily. The movie “says” you can’t keep both your memories and your sense of romance, but it makes the process of disenchantment highly stimulating and terribly pretty and, as a result, more painful. It offers a low-ball estimate of experience, of course, but with an enlivening spin.

A friend of mine suggested that the movie is romantic because Joel and Clementine decide to start up their relationship the second time knowing what it already led to. That is, my friend liked the movie’s marriage of romance and reality. But by American movie standards Eternal Sunshine doesn’t even register on the romantic scale. Not compared to a movie like Portrait of Jennie (1949) which makes you feel that Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten as the doomed pair must be together although it’s impossible: she’s dead. (To quote the folk song “My Darling Clementine”: “In my dreams she still doth haunt me, robed in garments soaked in brine,/though in life I used to hug her, now she’s dead I draw the line.”)

The urge for romance may be unkillable but to me Eternal Sunshine is inherently ironic, the inevitability of disenchantment fashioned into a lovely, intricate bauble. And nowadays, when pop culture is foisting inflatable dolls like Jessica Simpson and Nick Whatshisfame on us as great lovers, who doesn’t prefer disenchantment? The producer David O. Selznick originally had Portrait of Jennie printed over a canvas-grain transparency to make it look like an oil painting, and poured Debussy‘s exquisitely cascading first “Arabesque” over the whole mess. Aesthetically, old-Hollywood romantic dreck like that can’t compare to the craft and intensity of Kaufman and Gondry’s work in Eternal Sunshine. Irony doesn’t represent their failure of commitment, it is their commitment.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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