Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a shy, quiet young man meets a free-spirited, brash young woman, and the two hit it off despite their disparate personalities. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) plays out like this for its first 16 minutes. The man is Joel (Jim Carrey) and the woman is Clementine (Kate Winslet). On a spur of the moment decision, for no real reason, Joel takes a train out of town. He feels adrift, directionless, without purpose. Then, he meets Clementine, and everything is shaping up for the better.

But already, there are a few details that set things slightly askew. Joel has a journal with some pages torn out. He doesn't remember ripping the pages out, and he finds it odd that he apparently hasn't made an entry in two years. When he speaks to Clementine, she has the strange feeling they've met before. Most puzzlingly, when Joel is parked outside Clementine's place, waiting for her to get something, he's accosted by another young man (Elijah Wood) who asks him what's wrong and what he's doing there.

The true nature of what's going on is revealed soon enough. Joel and Clementine were in a relationship for two years. When they broke up after a fight, Clementine went to a company that erased all traces of Joel from her memory, and soon after, Joel also went through the procedure. Much of the movie takes places inside Joel's memories as they get wiped away while the memory doctor Howard (Tom Wilkinson) and his assistants Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Wood), and Mary (Kirsten Dunst) have their own subplots in the waking world that address many of the ethical questions I had about such a service.

The title of the movie comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard," and it's quoted by Mary. To think what a joy it must be to be able to not have to carry around all those hurtful memories and negative feelings. To be free of all that lingering pain, shame, and regret. Ignorance is bliss. That's what Lacuna, Inc. is offering in the film: to wipe away all those bad moments from your brain.

Yet, as Joel discovers during the procedure (which occurs while he sleeps), eliminating Clementine from his mind not only means getting ridding of the bad parts, it means losing all the happy moments, those memories he cherished. She was such an integral part of his life that to cut her out is to cut out everything she was a part of, leaving a huge gap, an emptiness. Being able to wipe your memory superficially sounds like a neat idea, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind demonstrates it is ultimately a sad, unfulfilling venture.

Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michael Gondry, the film is by disorienting. The story is not told chronologically but jumps around, often moving in reverse order of Joel's memories as they get erased. His memories are all over the map from quiet, sedate, and meditative to freaky, nightmarish, and humiliating.

As the memories get wiped, people vanish and buildings crumple like something out of a fantasy tale. When Joel finds himself in the Lacuna offices, wanting to call the procedure off, he encounters employees who now have faceless, monstrous visages; Carrey is surrounded by shadowy corridors with a spotlight seemingly lighting his face, and the effect reminded me of the desperate, documentary style of The Blair Witch Project. Later, Joel is in a childhood memory, hiding under a kitchen table and later bathing in a sink, and the environment dwarfs him; the effect is comically surreal, like something out of a Terry Gilliam movie. Other moments, like the scenes on the beach as the snow, are beautiful.

Ultimately, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes down to the power of emotion over intellect. You can erase memories from your mind, but that won't remove love from your heart. As the viewer is torn from memories to dreams to reality, the emotional center of the film - Joel and Clementine's relationship - keeps us anchored without getting too overwhelmed. This is not a wacky, goofy comedy, and Carrey pulls off the serious, sad role with aplomb while Winslet turns in a great performance as the unconventional free spirit.

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