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Movies: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Ah, Memorial Day. What better time to review Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

In the weeks after The Squirrelly was born, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Wracked with sleep deprivation, my memory -- which barely ranks an "adequate" even under the best of circumstances -- essentially packed up and went on sabbatical. It got to the point where the only thing I could remember from one moment to the next was the fact that I couldn't remember a thing. I went out a bought a big whiteboard for my kitchen so I could write down anything of relevance; when people told me things I'd politely request that they retell their stories some day in the future when I emerged from my fog. It was odd to be cognizant of the fact that all these momentous things were happening to me as I struggled through the first days of fatherhood, and to be equally aware that I would soon recall almost none of them.

That's thing about memory: it defines you, yet it's so damn fickle. Many films have grappled with this paradox -- Memento, The Bourne Identity, Total Recall, etc. -- but few have done so as thought provokingly as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

It's a retelling of the classic story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl visits Lacuna Incorporated to have all memories of their relationship purged via a high-tech neurological procedure. The next time the ex-lovers cross paths, Joel (Jim Carrey) is astounded to discover that Clementine (Kate Winslet) has no recollection of their time together; when he's clued in to what she has done, he resolves to visit Lacuna and have the relationship excised from his head as well.

Here I expected the film to fast-forward to the aftermath of the operation, when Joel and Clementine, neither able to recall their previous life together, cross path again and wacky hijinks ensue. That just demonstrates the folly of trying to predict anything in a film written by Charlie Kaufman, he of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Where any other film would have glossed over the details of the erasure, using it simply as the means to an end (wacky hijinks), Eternal instead embeds the bulk of the story right into the procedure, cutting between the recollections in Joel's head that have been targeted for elimination, and assorted concurrent events in the outside world.

Thus, the audience learns the history of the relationship via Joel's memories, even as they are being eradicated from his mind; every advance we gain in our understanding of the couple is matched by a corresponding loss in Joel's . This has the effect of making these scene especially poignant, as if these memories are being taken from Joel and entrusted into our care. And, surprisingly, wacky hijinks never ensue. Although the script is plenty bizarre and there is no shortage of funny moments, the subject matter is, by and large, treated with respect and sobriety.

What's interesting about Eternal is that the central story is not the science-fiction premise of memory erasing, but the very traditional love story at it's core. It's a credit to the skill of Kaufman and director Michel Gondry that the mind-bending aspects of the framing device enhance rather than detract from the telling of Joel and Clementine's story. Absent the unusual premise, Eternal could have been a frightfully dull mediation on the very time-worn tale of human relationships: passion + time = boredom and irritation; instead, the filmmakers pull off a masterful slight-of-hand that, like Lacuna Incorporated, makes us forget that we've seen this story a dozen times before, allowing us to enjoy it as if seeing it for the very first time.

Posted on May 31, 2004 to Movies


I like Jim Carrey's "serious" work.

Posted by: dayment on June 2, 2004 12:22 PM

I'm glad that your review addressed how the topsy-turvy nature of the narrative allows the viewer to experience the main characters' relationship in a fresh and surprisingly intimate fashion - while the same story told straightforwardly would be less diarming, and likely fail to engage the viewer.

This was lost on the author of the Salon review who found the storytelling distancing and irritating. I had wanted to respond to that review, but was unable to articulate my thoughts. Thanks for doing it for me!

Posted by: jdbo on June 2, 2004 1:51 PM

I didn't see this movie, though I wanted to. At least I think I've never seen it. Who can be sure of anything anymore.

Posted by: Duane on June 2, 2004 2:27 PM

Carrey was surprisingly good.

Posted by: The Commissar on June 2, 2004 3:27 PM

Nothing "surprising" about Carrey's performance, in my humble opinion. The Truman Show was another good show on his part, and if you ask me, The Majestic failed, not due to Carrey's acting, but entirely due to a bland, predictable screenplay. I think we should expect many more good things from Jim Carrey--he's an excellent actor--if only those casting him will quit TYPE-casting him.

Posted by: John on June 2, 2004 3:35 PM

(I have Gondry's dvd... it makes me soooo happy...)

Posted by: pippi on June 2, 2004 3:54 PM

Well said! I enjoyed this film a lot.

Posted by: Seth Thomas Rasmussen on June 2, 2004 6:02 PM

I enjoyed this film more than I can adequately express. Though the story was focused on relationships, in particular the one between Joel and Clementine, I found that it also made a good point about how memories make up the self, and how the relationships one has mold the self constantly. I liked that the film explored the concept of life experiences and relationships being worth the pain they cause, because of how they help us to grow. In a weird way, it's a comforting story that tells the viewer that all the crap we go through is worth it in the end, and we should never trade our experiences for ignorant bliss.

Posted by: Natalie on June 2, 2004 10:15 PM

I agree with your comments, I think you expressed what it is about the film that's amazing very well.

I love that bit in the film, and it comes at different places for different people, where it all just clicks, and you understand the whole sequence of everything.

I think one of the things that made it for me was 'Oh My Darlin' Clementine' and understanding why he doesn't make the joke the first (which turns out to be the second) time around.

Posted by: Melissa on June 3, 2004 3:00 AM

This was the first movie I've walked out of for a very long time, and my wife hated it even more than I did. We stayed for about an hour, until it became clear all the characters, with the exception of Joel, were so appallingly self-indulgent that we felt we didn't want to spend any more time in their company.
Also, we're getting old, so dope smoking drunken medical technicians who goof off work on the offchance of getting laid is a pretty frightening prospect.

Posted by: Philip on June 3, 2004 6:03 AM

I haven't seen it yet, though from what I gather this movie is one of those where people either love it or really,really hate it (like Lost In Translation).

I tend to enjoy Carrey's more serious work. I think he definitely has more acting chops than most give him credit for.

Posted by: misty on June 3, 2004 6:24 AM

Regarding the Memory.

The same thing has happened to me since the birth of my little chitlin (May 4th, cuter than ten billion baby animals, thank you). My affliction is so severe that I can't even remember that I forgot something, which is really unsettling when confronted with proof that you actually experienced something, yet have zero recollection of it whatsoever.

Posted by: scott partee (halfass) on June 3, 2004 7:59 AM

Both my wife and I very much enjoyed this move and found it to be poignant, human, and thought-provoking. I have difficulty understanding how someone who walked out could pan the movie without allowing it to come together for them, but, diff'rent strokes I guess...

I also found the characters incredibly self-indulgent, but I think that is intentional. The idea that someone would actually tinker with their memory to 'erase' a relationship is like having life-threatening elective surgery to remove a single eyebrow hair. I think Kauffman's point is that only individuals devoid of true understanding of self and others would consider such a procedure (or participate in its execution).

Posted by: Trashpicker on June 3, 2004 8:35 AM

My sweetie and I left saying, "Do they remind you of anybody?" I appreciated seeing the negative side of the free spirit character; kooky, yes, but incredibly high maintenence and with a tendency towards dangerous impulsive behavior, such as erasing one's memory or going out with Elijah Wood's loser character.

Posted by: Teresa on June 3, 2004 9:35 AM

10 billion animals would be loud.
i'm sure some would be hungry.

Posted by: bob on June 3, 2004 2:18 PM

here's my thing: even tho joel was able to 'hide' clementine and salvage at least a trace memory of her, you're not at all assured that clementine was able to (or even wanted to) do the same during her own 'erasure'. so it's not too convincing in the 'end' when they get back together again, becuz you just have to assume her own conversion was either 1) incomplete 2) somehow linked to joel's in some sort of shared jungian 'noospace' or 3) they were just 'fated' to be together... the movie never established any of them. hence a 'lacuna' that requires you to either a) overlook and ignore it b) have faith that it's resolved off-screen or on the DVD or c) intimate that the movie deserves less praise than one would think given all the fawning strawberry accolades.

Posted by: phloyd on June 3, 2004 7:52 PM

A response to phloyd:

I don't think you -have- to assume reasons 1, 2, or 3. What if Clementine got back together with him because, no longer remembering that just recently she found him boring and no longer bearable, she felt only the genuine connection between them that had existed before, i.e. got back to the passion and romance, the boredom and irritation now being gone. And, since Joel truly realized how much he didn't want to lose her (hence his sabotage of the procedure), he'll make a more active attempt to change so he can prevent her from leaving him again.

That's what I got out of it, anyway.

Posted by: wildsoda on June 3, 2004 11:08 PM

The acting was good and I enjoyed the beginning and end of the movie, but the middle dragged. I got the point - he's trying to avoid having the part of his memory get erased - now get on with it! It seemed as if the director or screenwriter realized this problem - the subplot between the Dr. and his assistant seemed like it was a last minute add-on to help make the middle of the movie more interesting.

Posted by: Zach Everson on June 4, 2004 9:44 AM