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Forget About It
by Lucius Shepard
March 11, 2004

I almost always enter a theater expecting to enjoy the movie I’ve been assigned to review; however, I must admit that in certain instances my objectivity has been trashed by the fear that I’m about to suffer a flashback to the last awful thing that happened to me during a film featuring some of the same actors, the director, or a scriptwriter whose work I’ve come to see. Thus it follows that having experienced Human Nature, the previous genre picture directed by Michael Gondry and scripted by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), being yet haunted by the memory of Patricia Arquette covered in fur, I was nearly devoid of hope as regarded their latest excursion into the genre, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Even had Gondry and Kaufman not been involved, the odd cinematic coupling of co-stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet would have caused me some anxiety, being reminiscent of that cosmically unfortunate pairing of physical comedian Adam Sandler and dramatic actress Emily Watson in Paul Anderson’s Punchdrunk Love.

The movie derives its title from an Alexander Pope quatrain:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

I’m not sure how the “blameless vestal” fits in, but the rest of the quote seems appropriate to the theme. Spotless Mind is yet another entry in the burgeoning science fiction sub-genre of movies either directly based upon or inspired by concepts exploited in the work of Philip K. Dick (though it could be argued that John Varley’s work has somewhat more relation to this particular film), the majority of which deal to one degree or another with the problematic aspects of technologically altered memory. The most recent film to reference this material, John Woo’s Paycheck, starring the less talented half of the late Bennifer, was perhaps the stalest and most unimaginatively mounted science fiction thriller in recent memory, a category that includes some remarkably stale and unimaginatively mounted attempts at simulating Dickian paranoia. Few of the films that preceded it have done much to establish a grand tradition, and the forthcoming September release, The Final Cut, a Robin Williams thriller treating of similar subject matter, promises no better. In spite of this record of artistic and (for the most part) box office failure, Hollywood has become so enamored of this sub-genre, it causes me to wonder if somewhere in Los Angeles there does not live a madman with an editing machine modified to perform delicate mnemonic cuts who delights in tampering with the memories of studio executives and watching them endlessly repeat their mistakes. Of course if such a man exists, he is doubtless extremely frustrated by his redundancy.

Spotless Mind is not, like the majority of its predecessors, a garden-variety action film that treats the human condition as an aspect of high concept; it actually seeks to illuminate that condition through an examination of the love relationship between geeky introvert Joel Barish (Carrey) and the hyperkinetically eccentric Clementine Kruczynski (Winslet), two mutually attracted opposites who, as the movie opens, meet for the second time at the beach in Montauk on Long Island, the same exact spot where they met for the first time many months before, an event that neither of them now remembers. These are fragmented people, impaired from having had their memories of one another excised (when Joel asks if there’s a danger of brain damage from the memory wipe, he’s told “. . . the process is brain damage”) and bewildered by the shadows of love and anger. Their fumbling stabs at reconnecting, their inept expressions of the residue of the attraction that initially brought them together, seem despairing and childishly confused, and they try to reject those feelings. But something, some undeniable trace of what they were, continues to tug at them. As they ride the train back from Montauk, sitting separately, peeking at each other, their flirting takes on an awkward desperation that calls to mind the tragedies of junior high. We are influenced to believe that whatever happens to Joel and Clementine, it will not be good.

At this point the script conveys us seamlessly back into the past, to the morning when Joel discovers that Clementine has had her memories of him erased after a terrible argument. Broken-hearted, unable to cope with loss, further motivated by a petulant desire for revenge, he decides to have his memories of her deleted. To that end he hies himself to Lacuna, a business situated in a shabby office wherein the inventor of the process, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), a doofus-y middle-aged sort with the hint of a dark side, instructs Joel to clear his apartment of every item that may remind him of Clementine. After Joel complies, delivering the treasures and detritus of the relationship stuffed into garbage bags to the Lacuna office, he’s drugged, placed in his own bed wearing pajamas and a silvery metal hood that markedly resembles the headdress of the Sphinx, and the memory wipe begins.

Spanning a leisurely procession of cleverly written and emotionally honest scenes, Spotless Mind has by this juncture established itself as a quirky, affecting relationship movie driven by the performances of its co-stars. Unless you’ve seen certain of Carrey’s TV and film work from the late 80s and early 90s, films like Doing Time on Maple Drive, it’s conceivable you don’t believe that he’s capable of doing drama, but here he’s thoroughly persuasive in his low-key depiction of a lonely, inarticulate man who’s more comfortable hunched over his journal, drawing cartoons of women, than he is in talking to one. As the flaky Clementine, whose moods shift as drastically as do her day-glo hair colors, Winslet hasn’t been this energized since her debut in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Though they’re an ill-matched couple, a combination that ensures volatility and promises emotional disaster, as actors they play off one another astonishingly well. We like these characters and, more importantly, we believe in them. We would be quite happy with an ordinary narrative detailing their passionate ascendancy and decline. However, once Mierzwiak’s sloppy, irresponsible assistants, Patrick (Elijah Wood, in a sharp departure from his wholesome alpha-hobbit role) and Stan (Mark Ruffalo), set up shop in Josh’s bedroom, tracking down and eliminating Joel’s memories of Clementine, the pace of the picture accelerates and comes to verge on the horrific. Utilizing techniques honed in his hallucinated videos, most notably with Bjork, Gondry veers his style from the drear naturalism of the early scenes. Splashy camera work draws us into a surreal chase across the memory map of the relationship. Joel, you see, is having second thoughts. He has recalled the reasons why he loved Clementine and is now trying to hang on to his imperiled memories and, in essence, to her. He begins to flee with Clementine (or rather with his central image of her) across a landscape composed of their days and nights, a landscape that’s being dismantled as they pass through it. They leap forward and backward across the timeline of the relationship, moving through rooms with pulsing walls; gray spaces from which the detail is being scrubbed, peopled by faceless figures out of a Francis Bacon nightmare; snowy beaches that morph into frozen rivers; with now and then a sudden detour into Joel’s infancy and to incidences of childhood humiliation and trauma.

While Joel is engaged in this doomed struggle, Stan and his girlfriend Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Lacuna’s receptionist, party beside their sleeping subject, drinking, smoking pot, and finally having sex on the bed next to him. Patrick has excused himself in order to see his own girlfriend through a crisis—the girlfriend turns out to be Clementine. It’s soon disclosed that when Patrick performed her memory wipe, he became infatuated and, in order to win her, has stolen Joel’s mementos of the relationship (in addition to a pair of Clementine’s panties), thereby becoming expert in manipulating her. The juxtaposition of these three frantic actions, interposed by jump cuts and featuring boozy hand-held camera passages, form a giddy collage that is perfectly mated to the subject matter, but more than a little disorienting—indeed, there are times when the frenzied pacing and idiosyncratic imagery create a feeling in the viewer that borders on vertigo. This vertiginous feeling is provided with an intellectual equivalent when it’s discovered that one of Mierzwiak’s employees has been memory wiped and was part of an office love triangle, a revelation that ultimately serves as a crucial plot point and causes us to suspect that the reason underlying the curious behavior of all the characters may be that they, too, are impaired. And perhaps it’s all a touch too vertiginous, because it’s during this section that the movie’s focus blurs and its energy begins to dissipate. Eventually, inevitably, Joel’s last memory of Clementine—their initial meeting—is erased and he is returned to a painfully blank solitude, while Clementine inhabits an isolation no less painful, albeit heavily populated with meaningless relationships. But of course this is simply the end of their first story. The story that began with their second meeting still has to play out, and it’s here that the movie falls apart.

The denouement of one of the earliest and most successful films dealing with technologically altered memories, Blade Runner (I’m speaking of the version that received theatrical release), consists not of footage shot by Ridley Scott, but of outtake footage culled from another film (reportedly Kubrick’s The Shining) that shows a road passing alongside the wheels of a car, while Harrison Ford’s voiceover narrates a far more optimistic result than that conceived by Scott. Apparently the studio considered the original ending a downer and therefore not accessible to the mass audience to whom they wished to appeal. It may be that something similar has occurred with Spotless Mind. I can’t be certain who dictated that changes be made, but it’s clear that there were changes, since late drafts of the Kaufman script show the characters in old age returning for yet another memory wipe at film’s end, suggesting that they have become habituated to the process, relying on it as a panacea for all their emotional difficulties. The much less bleak ending imposed upon the script by agencies unknown makes a certain glib, hazy sense, but feels tonally disconnected from what has preceded it and, since it’s equally as leisurely paced as the opening, gives the impression that rather than reaching a conclusion, the movie is running out of gas.

At this moment, Charlie Kaufman is one of the few scriptwriters in Hollywood whose name creates an audience expectation of a certain attitude and style, the type of expectation generally reserved for directors. The hallmark of his scripts is a post-modern cleverness, and that cleverness often seems both their greatest strength and greatest weakness. There’s no doubt that this is Kaufman’s most human script—unlike his previous ones, its chief concerns are its characters, not the ideas they may represent. That being so, dialing back on the cleverness might have been in order, because as things stand, the archness of the writing frequently distracts from a story that had the potential to be a contemporary tragedy with the darkly comic weight of Kafka or Celine. Despite these weaknesses, Spotless Mind outstrips its sub-genre by constructing a low-fi take on high concept, treating peripherally the notion of what it means to be human and, more centrally, examining the hearts of two particular humans within the frame of that philosophical context. That it falls short of achieving its ambition inspires a poignant dissatisfaction of the sort we would not feel in relation to the failure of a film with less ambition. And so the most profound tragedy here is that what might have been an important film, perhaps even a landmark film, has been reduced to a merely interesting and, in sum, forgettable two hours in the dark.