If you could, what memories would you delete?

Recently, I set up shop in a new office on the campus of the university I attended several years ago. I don't believe in ghosts, but the ol' alma mater is haunted with memories. Over there—the classrooms in which I tried to comprehend Donne, Dostoyevsky, and Derrida. And there—the cafeteria where I consumed mass quantities of grilled peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. And there—a sprawling lawn where my first rock band survived a disastrous performance. It's a joy to have this mini-tour of the past every day.

But the place is also crowded with painful memories of a failed friendship, broken trust, and humiliation. The prospect of revisiting those memories again made me pause before relocating to this place. I did not want to be reminded. But what a blessing awaited me! Several places of personal significance had been demolished and replaced with strange new structures that mean nothing to me at all! This has had an interesting effect—I never dwell on those memories anymore. It is as if those memories have been deleted. I have to work hard to recover them.

Jim Carrey as Joel

Jim Carrey as Joel

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the characters have that option—they can have their unwanted memories erased. Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) supplies this service through Lacuna, an obscure company promising to improve your life by sifting out signs of things you wish you had not experienced. Mierzwiak and his irresponsible, pot-smoking staff (Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and trainee Elijah Wood) schedule consultations with customers to target bad memories. They box up all tangible evidence of the memories (photos, gifts, mementos, diary entries), file them away, and then get into the customer's brain for "memory surgery." Cards are sent out to any related individuals, informing them that they have been deleted from the customer's memory: Would they please, out of courtesy, refrain from contacting that person again?

That is exactly what Joel (Jim Carrey) decides to do with memories of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). He's upset about the breakup, which occurred when Clementine decided to axe Joel from her own memory.

Most films about technological breakthroughs tend to dwell on what would happen if something went wrong. So, of course, as Joel undergoes Clementine-erasure, something goes terribly wrong. While technicians fuss over 3-D brain schematics, he is stranded, unconscious, wandering in a dream-state of confused memories. As he staggers through overlapping episodes of his past, he encounters Clementine for the first time … again. He remembers his infatuation and all of the things that first caught his attention. It makes him reconsider his decision. But what can he do?

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Elijah Wood as Patrick

Elijah Wood as Patrick

As he falls into panic, details of this memory world begin to disappear. Memories are being sent to the Trash Bin Folder of the doctor's computer. Frantic, Joel grabs Clementine—or at least the memory of her—and starts heading for the dark alleys and bomb shelters of his mind. The chase is one of the most exhilarating and original scenes in the history of chase scenes.

Anybody who saw Being John Malkovich or the Academy-award-winning Adaptation will quickly recognize the signature surrealism of writer Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman seems obsessed with exploring his characters' psychological makeup, and Sunshine feels like the fruition of ideas that were beginning to grow in his previous scripts.

While Kaufman's previous scripts seemed tailor-made for the quirky talents of director Spike Jonze, this story seems a perfect fit for Michel Gondry, who makes Eternal Sunshine a memorably zany rollercoaster ride through a wonderland of bizarre landscapes and shifting reality. Gondry's first feature collaboration with Kaufman, Human Nature, received discouraging reviews and vanished from theatres. But Eternal Sunshine plays to his strengths. Gondry's most memorable works have been his brilliantly designed music videos for artists like Bjork, and Radiohead. This great feature-length work is sure to earn him even grander projects.

Gondry maps out Joel's past with breathtaking imagination and sleight-of-hand, creating a visual collage from Joel's memories that is a masterpiece of editing and aligning entirely different times and places. It's not a new idea; the great Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece The Mirror is a surreal and profound poem sewn from the threads of his memory. But Gondry's a more playful, puckish storyteller. He cannot resist the wild possibilities presented by Kaufman's script. Sometimes it's as if Joel's past has been disassembled like a LEGO project and haphazardly pieced together into something frightening and new. I've never seen something so true to the experience of dreaming, from the way people's faces morph from one thing to another to the way events take place against incongruous backdrops. These imaginative tangents are enough to show up most Hollywood productions as creatively bankrupt. Gondry joins a short list of directors—alongside Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Richard Kelly, Sofia Coppola and David O. Russell—who will inspire a new generation of inventive artists.

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Kate Winslet as Clementine

Kate Winslet as Clementine

Gondry gets great work from his lead actors. For the first time, Jim Carrey seems less like a maniac and more like the kind of guy you'd like to talk with over coffee. It's his most mature performance, something we caught glimpses of in The Truman Show. On the other hand, Kate Winslet has spent far too long in stuffy, stifling roles, and here she lets her explosive energy break through. She makes Clementine an irresistibly attractive flibbertigibbet whose whims are as surprising as the changing color of her hair (which shifts from "Tangerine" to a color stolen from a Tom Waits lyric—"Blue Ruin.") She's the highlight of the film, and the first appealing female character Kaufman has devised.

The supporting cast is also surprising. Wilkinson is properly preoccupied with his technology, so that we sense he is driven by something he himself would rather forget. His assistants are a baffling bunch—amusing, entertaining, but hardly compelling. Ruffalo seems to squint at life through a thick fog in spite of his thick glasses. Elijah Wood, in his first significant post-Frodo role, plays a likeable trainee until we see what a fiend he is at heart. Kirsten Dunst turns her role as a foolish secretary into something complicated and broken. But their part of the story feels too frivolous to pull off the emotional and dramatic turn that takes place in the final act.

Eternal Sunshine is unique in the Kaufman canon for other significant reasons. Being John Malkovich portrayed human beings as irredeemably depraved and selfishly opportunistic. Adaptation's characters, in their desire for personal satisfaction, descended into base behavior as well. Eternal Sunshine's characters may have damaged their lives beyond repair, but they are fumbling toward wisdom that should be clearer to the viewer than it is to them.

Most importantly, the film offers powerful insights about relationships. Joel and Clementine have a chance of enduring if they refuse to forget the things they love about each other in the midst of trial and tribulation. Memory erasure, like most break-ups and divorces, is just a flight from the fact that love is hard. Even though Joel and Clementine are not married, viewers may come away with a deeper understanding of marriage, about submitting to each other at great personal cost for a higher reward.

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Kaufman also emphasizes our neediness as human beings. Most Hollywood films tell us we have everything we need within ourselves. Eternal Sunshine indicates that we need each other, even in those times when togetherness disrupts happiness. Happiness is based on temporal, unstable things, but joy comes from transcending the temporal and holding on through all the waves of infatuation and falling out, lust and letdown, delight and disappointment.

Great art reflects the truth in a way we could not have seen by any other means. Kaufman's chronologically confused comedy makes me glad that I cannot delete bad memories in moments of weakness. Those unpleasant echoes of failure and betrayal inform my decisions every day. They keep my ego in check and help me steer clear of similar pitfalls. They also remind me that God's grace has lifted me up out of that pit and set me in a higher, better place.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Do you have memories you wish you could delete? What purpose do you think those memories serve? What trials and traumas in your life have been important in your development as a person?

  2. In friendships, relationships and marriages, how do you respond to betrayal and disappointment? How would you hope a friend or a family member would respond to mistakes you make? How does God respond to those who fail him?

  3. We may not be able to erase memories (yet), but what sorts of things does our culture offer us to help us avoid coping with the hard things in our lives?

  4. Read Philippians 4:13 and Isaiah 43:18-19. What do these verses teach us about what we should do with our memories? Is it really possible to "forget the former things"? What's that really mean?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

This film is about a boyfriend and girlfriend who behave recklessly, selfishly, hastily, and irresponsibly in their relationship. While the movie offers good lessons from their mistakes, it does reflect elements of their behavior that make the film inappropriate for younger or less discerning viewers. There is harsh language, drug use, profanity and frank talk about sexual behavior.

compiled by Jeffrey Overstreetfrom Film Forum, 03/25/04

Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry brought their formidable imaginations together for this year's most challenging and original comedy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in excellent performances, and features an impressive supporting cast that includes Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, The Patriot), Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man), Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me), and Elijah Wood in his first post-Frodo performance.

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Carrey plays Joel, the ex-boyfriend of a flirtatious flibbertigibbet. Broken-hearted, Joel seeks help from a doctor who promises to delete all painful memories of the failed relationship from his mind. But during the process, Joel has second thoughts, and ends up fleeing through his own memories in an attempt to salvage what he can of his precious past before the deletion is complete.

Eternal Sunshine has more heart than Kaufman's previous works, and while its characters are reckless, misguided, and lost, they seem to be finding their way toward a healthy understanding of unconditional love by the conclusion. My full review of the film is at Christianity Today Movies.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) finds this film far more satisfying than Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both written by Kaufman. "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."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "one of the most original, cleverly crafted, and emotionally resonant movies to come down the pike in a long time. The screenplay by Charlie Kaufman echoes the self-conscious quirkiness of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich … but is by far the most developed in terms of character and human drama. Despite some unnecessary crassness, the film makes some poignant reflections about the centrality of memories in defining our personalities."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "This may be [Carrey's] finest dramatic performance to date."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) describes it as "a confusing but exhilarating ride. The film's playful and disorienting attitude toward time is both a marvelous commentary on the transitory nature of memory and a spectacular narrative trick. Gondry's use of focus (or lack of) and disjointed sound perfectly captures the disorienting nature of moving between reality and memories. His special effects … provoke tremendous emotion."

"I'd like to nominate this film for the Lost in Translation Award," says Josh Hurst (Rebel Base), "as it gives us a relationship story that is more complex and memorable than any we're likely to see all year. The film's ending … brings up all kinds of interesting questions that should make for highly rewarding post-viewing discussion. … Ironically, this film about erasing your memories is one movie that will prove difficult to forget."

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A few religious press critics, uncomfortable with the characters' reckless behavior, give the film mixed reviews.

Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) says, "The outcome is basically positive, although getting to that point is a grueling yet thought provoking experience for the audience. It is the type of movie one must stay focused on or else something will be missed." (Art that asks us to focus on it? What's the world coming to?) McMurray concludes, "I must admit, I was greatly moved at the ending."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "It could've been the set-up for a great lesson about romantic pitfalls and how to build a healthy, lasting marriage. But no, the existential worldview driving the film is more fatalistic and amoral than that. In the closing moments, Joel and Clem seem resigned to the fact that their union is doomed. They're considered noble for their willingness to pursue whatever fun they can (including sex) before the whole thing goes down the toilet."

Frederica Mathewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) praises Winslet's performance and the "extraordinary effects." But she concludes, "The movie ends … without much having happened. Joel has not changed, and neither has Clementine, and there is still no reason for them to be together."

I must respectfully disagree with both Smithouser and Matthewes-Green. First, to Matthewes-Green: The characters did not go unchanged. By the film's conclusion, they were beginning to learn hard lessons about weathering the trials of relationships, forgiving each other's flaws, and valuing their memories—good and bad.

Smithouser is mistaken to write off Joel and Clementine as mere hedonists indulging while they can. They lack maturity and the patience to build a relationship wisely, yes, but they are learning. They may have lost most of their past, but they seem to be developing a healthier perspective of longsuffering and forgiveness. Thus, while the film reflects that our rash decisions can carry crippling consequences, it also suggests that there is hope for these misguided lovers.

Mainstream critics are generally celebrating the film as a brilliant achievement.

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from Film Forum, 04/01/04

Catching up with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) call the film "enlightening. Love is something deeper than the memories of our times together with someone. The only true path toward 'eternal sunshine' is a path that cherishes the memory of the sorrows and the joys, the loves and the disappointments of life."

Brent McCracken (Relevant) says, "It would take numerous viewings (as with any Kaufman film) to truly appreciate it all. The film seems to decry the supermarket mentality of convenient, self-serving love in favor of a more hands-in-the-dirt/make-it-work philosophy. Though hard times will come and memories made will not always be fondly remembered, true love will find a way to endure."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The book of Revelation mentions that every deed is recorded in 'the books,' and that on the Day of Judgment each person would give an account of all their deeds done in this life. In the film these books are confidential tape recordings that are discovered and played back after the memories were erased. Ultimately the characters have to deal with their own agendas and past relationships with others. This is what true mind-altering repentance is all about. A fresh start, renewal, always begins with dealing with the past. After that, healing and rebirth can take place."

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Faith, like love, depends on remembering. As with Joel and Clementine's love, to lose those memories is to lose something too dear to lose, even if it seems not to be working. Like other relationships, our relationship with God has times in which it may not seem to be working. If our memories of what God has meant to us and of what God has done fade away, we are truly left alone. Sometimes our memories are all that we have to keep us together."

from Film Forum, 04/22/04

Charlie Kaufman's latest script, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed with vigor and cleverness by Michel Gondry, drew mixed reviews from religious press critics when it first opened.

This week, Michael Leary (The Matthew's House Project) joins the ranks of those who find profound insight in this bewildering love story. He says, "Of all of his scripts to date, Eternal Sunshine is Kaufman's most direct. It is difficult to miss the series of moments in the script that point outside of themselves, beyond the screen, and right into the heart of the audience. Joel and Clementine channel the unspeakable mix of hope and regret that few directors have been able to lay their finger on. Don't watch this film if you have a few memories you can only revisit with a heartsick smile, it will only reacquaint you with their potency. But all of this radical sentimentality is put into play to service a vision of love and relationships that we rarely see in film. This is brave stuff for Hollywood."

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language, some drug and sexual content)
Directed By
Michel Gondry
Run Time
1 hour 48 minutes
Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson
Theatre Release
March 19, 2004 by Focus Features
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