Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2004, at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

There were a few columns in Asmiov's over the past year about "slipstream", a kind of space in between science fiction and mainstream literature. Like most attempts to define what science fiction is, it's an elusive term. It basically implies that a story isn't "fantasy" or "magic realism"; that despite the unusual events and devices, everything is possible, and takes place in our world. But, it also implies that the mechanisms aren't terribly important, that what's important is the characters.

The folks at Analog, a sister publication of Asimov's, might point out that this is a load of rubbish; in an editorial, that magazine's editor basically said that mainstream writers and critics set those priorities because that's all their medium has. Good characterization is not anathema to good science fiction, but what makes science fiction unique and exciting is its ideas, and that unless you've got a firm handle on your ideas, you can't really get characterization right, because the characters won't live in a cohesive world.

Enternal Sunlight of the Spotless Mind falls squarely into the slipstream category. It uses science-fictional constructs to get into the head of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), but once given a little thought, those constructs seem kind of shaky. If Lacuna, Inc., is so effective in erasing memories of a lost love, to the point where its clients don't remember visiting, how do they get paid? How do they develop any kind of reputation - their referrals must come from people who opted not to use the service. How do they exist as anything but a plot device?

Well, they can't. For the purposes of this movie, that's good enough. It gets the audience inside Joel's head, where he serves as a guide (for both the audience and the technicians) through the relationship with his girlfriend of about two years, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). At first he is happy to see them erased; the most recent memories are harsh and angry, and he feels justified, since she has already had him cut out of her brain. Soon, though, the associated memories will reach happier times, and Joel is in his semi-conscious state able to hear the technicians (Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst) talking, which gives him reason to reconsider.

This is a tricky script by Charlie Kaufman, not so much because it requires director Michel Gondry to visualize a mental landscape and how it might be torn down, but because several characters must play dual roles of a sort. As Joel observes his memories being erased, he talks to the scientist who invented the process (Tom Wilkinson) and Clementine. But he doesn't, really - he's talking to himself, of course. Perhaps the film's biggest weakness is that we don't get a terribly clear handle on Clementine oustide of Joel's mind. There's not that great a difference between how Joel sees her and how she really is.

That's not really the movie's point, though - Kaufman offers up a grim determinism; it becomes clear early on that giving the same starting conditions, people will make the same mistakes (or, to be less judgmental, take the same actions). I'm not so certain that makes sense; it seems to me that even if one's memories of a relationship are erased, the effects that it (and everything else that happened at the time) had on your personality should linger.

That's a science-fictional read, though, and while Kaufman does use the science to force the issue, the point is that you can't run from your past, that even if you could excise the memory, you're never going to get it right until you face your issues. What makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind an above-average movie is that it delivers that potentially trite sermon in an imaginitive, intriguing way.

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