Visiting my parents’ house, I walked down the corridor on the floor given to elderly Alzheimer’s parents. Some looked worried. Some are angry. Some just sit there. Not knowing what was going on in their minds, I wondered if anxious and angry people had any idea of who they were and that something was wrong. I remember the passive while watching “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Erased from memory, they are always present in the present, which they accept because it is everything.
How happy is the vestal’s unblemished treasure!
The world forgets what it forgets.
The eternal sunshine of a clean mind!
Every prayer is accepted, and every wish is granted…
This passage fits nicely into a very long poem that I doubt the character Mary would have memorized. The audience doesn’t need to know that; many probably don’t know much more than he does when he mentions his author Pope Alexander. He cites as he tries to impress the boss he loves. Kaufman has a talent for painlessly explaining his subjects right there on screen. Consider how much information about evolution he embeds in his scenario for ” Adaptation ” .
Kaufman, the most talented screenwriter of the 2000s, pays close attention to thought processes and memory. His screenplay for Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” (1999) involved a way to spend 15 minutes in someone else’s mind. Michel Gondry’s “Human Nature” (2001) is concerned with the theory of Nature vs. Nurture about our behavior: Did we start this way, or did we learn it? Jonze’s “Adaptation” (2002) contrasts the physical evolution of orchids (which take fantastical forms for a living) with identical twins, one writing from their nature and the other from their upbringing. In George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002), he shows game show creator Chuck Barris living a double life as a deadly CIA assassin (Barris believes this story to be factual). Kaufman’s first film as director, “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), was his most challenging. He tries nothing less than to dramatize the way our thoughts cope with our various personalities and tries to organize aspects of our experience into separate compartments that we can control.
This sounds like a topic for an evolutionary or neuroscience class, but Kaufman and his directors structure it like a film that runs fairly clearly along the path we seem to be following, until we come to the boundary of identity. “The Eternal Sunshine of the Immaculate Mind,” such as “Malkovich,” creates a fantastic device for its peculiarities, and wisely refuses to explain it. What we do know is that an unknown company in Boston is offering to erase your memory of a certain person or whatever. Period.
The movie opens like Meet Cute. Granted, this is a film built around Meet Cutes, some not so Cute. A serious and worried man named Joel (Jim Carrey) gets on a train for no reason and at the station meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), who thinks they’ve met before. He didn’t think so. He survived. She comes home with him and they sleep together. They actually met before and fell in love, but it ended badly and their memories were erased.
That’s pretty clear. It also becomes clear, later, that when the injured Joel discovers what Clementine did, in retaliation he attempts to erase it from his memory. His head is encased in some sort of aluminum soccer helmet attached to an alarmingly small laptop controlled by a technician named Stan (Mark Ruffalo), who drinks beer with his co-worker Mary (Kirsten Dunst). They jumped into his bed in their underwear when Joel’s thoughts “went off the map.”
Terrified, Stan calls his boss, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who worries, might as well be him. Inside the helmet, Joel struggled desperately to contain his memory loss of Clementine. He totally changed his mind about changing his mind. Kaufman has now jumped the rails and plunged us into a maze of time and reality. We see Joel and Clementine at various times before the erasure, after hers, and during hers—when she even tries to hide her memories by disguising them both as childhood playmates.
Some viewers were confused by the movement of this film through chronology and location, but I think the paradox will be explained if we realize that everything happens in only one place, Joel thought. The breakup is explained by his fragmented memories of when they were together before, during and after the deletion. The train station sequence at the beginning is closer to the end of the film’s timeline.