Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is best known for a pair of offbeat, madly creative, but scorchingly misanthropic existential comedies directed by Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Both films dazzle with their continual creative one-upsmanship as Kaufman piles conceit upon conceit, yet eventually one feels, to borrow a metaphor from Slant critic Jeremiah Kipp, as if one is watching a chess player pushing pieces around to be clever rather than to win, unconcerned how hopelessly he strands them.
In my review of Adaptation I charged that "Kaufman creates protagonists who torture and berate themselves, but never get out of themselves — not even when, as in Malkovich, they literally get into someone else’s head. Even this awakens no shred of concern for any other human being, but becomes merely a new forum in which to seek self-gratification, a goal Kaufman’s characters inevitably pursue to the most grotesque and disturbing extremes."
Obviously, a Kaufman film called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn’t going to be as cheerful and wholesome as the title might suggest. Despair, isolation, and loneliness continue to hang like a fog across his world. Eternal Sunshine also resembles his other films in its characters’ milieu of general dissipation, casual sex, drug use, and so on.
Yet there’s a difference this time. In this film Kaufman’s characters finally lift their heads out of the fog and dare to hope — to move beyond narcissism and solipsism and actually try to make contact with one another. It’s not a film that everyone will care to see, but I think it’s ultimately humanistic and hopeful rather than nihilistic and misanthropic, and that’s something.
That said, from the opening scene it’s clear that Kaufman hasn’t lost his driving anxieties and obsessions. The film opens with a shot studying the sleeping face of Joel (Jim Carrey in a remarkably restrained performance). The expression on his face as he comes to and squints painfully around the room suggests that consciousness itself is a frightfully unbearable imposition. He slides stiffly out of bed, unready to face the world, and we know at once that Joel is a typical Kaufman male protagonist, pathologically introspective, emotionally paralyzed, no more at home in the world than in his own skin.
Later, watching Joel meet a seemingly capricious, almost predatory young woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) with distinct echoes of Catherine Keener’s character from Being John Malkovich, I began to feel some resistance to the notion of characters being burdened with such hangups and quirks for no better reason than that they happen to be characters in a Charlie Kaufman story.
Eventually, however, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this time there actually is a reason why Joel and Clementine are such damaged goods, and that it’s integral to the plot. What the reason is is the film’s key conceit; not to reveal too much, I’ll just say that as in Being John Malkovich, there is a magical-realist fantasy conceit, and that we eventually realize that Joel and Clementine’s relationship might from one perspective be said to have been doomed before it started, to have ended before it began.
Or has it? Yes, they’re both damaged goods, capable of being petty, shallow, spiteful. Beyond that, the world they live in is in many ways against them, full of capricious forces and unprincipled people seeking in various ways to tear them apart. To a large extent, Eternal Sunshine is about the mistakes we make without knowing why, the consequences we don’t understand until it’s too late, the plain human selfishness and sin and stupidity that broadside our better intentions and hopes.
Yet in the end, perhaps, the film suggests that it finally comes down to a matter of choice. For all the factors outside our control, for all our own selfishness and pettiness, ultimately we must always choose to give up or choose to go on. Whether Joel and Clementine in fact make it as a couple, how long they are able to make it last, is another question; but Eternal Sunshine seems to suggest that at least they aren’t doomed from the outset. Whether they fail in the end or not, at least they have a chance, a choice. And certainly they can be together in trying, in contrast to the protagonists of Kaufman’s earlier films, all bottled up inside themselves, hermetically sealed off from one another.
Ironically, Eternal Sunshine does echo the device of earlier Kaufman films of locating much of the action within the mind of one of the characters. In fact, many of the scenes between Joel and Clementine are the equivalent of a dream sequence, in which one of them is only a projection of the other’s mind.
Yet far from turning the other person into a mere object of fantasy, this device instead illuminates the significance of memory in our relationships with other people. Love depends upon a shared history, shared memories. Who we love, in large part, is who we are. Even if we lose the one we love, whether through death, a breakdown in the relationship, or some other cause, the significance of that love in our lives survives in memory.
But suppose we lose even our memories? If we don’t even remember that it happened, does it matter at all? What if death is the end, if all our memories die with us? If that happens, does it have any value, any meaning? Did it ever? If not, is any happiness we experience in this life a chimera, a dream?
Kaufman’s films have always raised big questions — or, at least, characters in his films have raised big questions. In the past, I’ve never gotten the impression that Kaufman himself really cared about the questions, or for that matter about the characters — only the dramatic effect of catching the characters musing about the questions. This time it finally seems like there may be a level of emotional investment beyond the glibness and cleverness. And for the first time he allows us to hope that there really may be a ray of eternal sunshine beyond the fog of self-absorption, and that ignorance and forgetfulness may not be a necessary prerequisite of bliss.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.