Forget Me Lots

Haven't I seen you somewhere before? Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'
Focus Features

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. In some cosmic joke, I can't recall who said that; perhaps my hippocampus has been snoozing on the job. Yet those famous words flicker behind my eyelids every time a filmmaker's dreams suffer another case of temporal lobe damage: cerebral erasure in The Man Without a Past, mental blackout in Paycheck, terminal forgetfulness in 50 First Dates, repressed memories in The Butterfly Effect, faulty recollections in The Fog of War. At a time when Bush can't remember his National Guard service and Rumsfeld can't remember Blair's prewar claims about Iraqi WMDs, there's nothing like a good amnesia flick to help you forget about real life.

Maybe that's why actors like Jim Carrey are working increasingly hard to scoop the seeds out of our proverbial melons. "My focus is to forget the pain of life," Carrey told Playboy in 1994. "Forget the pain, mock the pain, reduce it." Which is exactly what made this anatomy-contorting, eardrum-scorching, all-eyes-on-me star so unforgettable. Admit it: Upon reading Carrey's name, your brain sparked a slew of catch phrases: Ssssssssmokin'! Alllllllrighty then. Let me ass you a question. Want to hear the most annoying sound in the world? Love him or hate him, you can't get Jim Carrey out of your head. And now, in his new film, he can't get you out of his head, either.

From the moment director Michel Gondry's memory-loss epic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind begins, you're trapped inside the skull of a very troubled man--or two very troubled men, if you count screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. (Charlie's brother Donald would make it three--but we won't get into that.) The neurotic author's latest head trip finds a portal into the mind of Joel Barish (Carrey), whose loveable drama queen ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) just paid good money to have him erased from her memory. The nights they spent making snow angels, scarfing down Chinese takeout, commingling to a Tom Waits song--all of it was obliterated by the neurosurgeons at Lacuna, Inc. Eager to have the same procedure done on himself, Joel drags his sad, slumped corpus down to Lacuna's headquarters at 610 11th Ave.--the very same address, careful viewers may recall, where Craig Schwartz first entered John Malkovich's psyche in Kaufman's first film. As the brainwashing begins, Joel's ex begins to disappear from his memory. (For most of us, Winslet's face had already been erased: Quick, name her last three films!) But when his darlin' Clementine is lost and gone forever, he may be dreadful sorry for what he's done.

"Blessed are the forgetful; for they get the better even of their blunders," wrote Nietzsche, and the line is repeated twice by Lacuna's naive secretary (Kirsten Dunst). But as the blunders get the better of the blessed in this film, a different quote comes to mind: "The will cannot will backwards; and that he cannot break time and time's covetousness, that is the will's loneliest melancholy." Eternity rolls time's wheel forward, Nietzsche proposed, but we are destined to watch the same spokes passing by forever. Everything in the universe will happen again and again. Kaufman translates this life cycle thusly: All relationships eventually come to an end, and yet people keep starting new ones--or rekindling old ones--knowing that history will probably repeat itself, that breakups spark their own uncanny sense of eternal return. Shuffling across Boston's snowy Charles River, Joel watches Clementine fall on the ice, laughing as her neon blue hair flames up around her. Now he'll experience that scene every time he sees a snow globe. When Lacuna anesthetizes him, it will repeat endlessly in a recurring dream, skipping like a needle on a scratched record. Welcome to the Groundhog Day of the mind.

Do our experiences define us, or is it just our recollections of those experiences? As Joel dives headlong into his subconscious, the difference between the two is fleshed out in a stunningly vivid series of dreams. Eyes and noses smear like smudged pencil marks erased from once-recognizable faces. Those dream characters who manage to keep their own mouths repeat half-heard conversations that would never make sense to those who've kept their ears. Details get jumbled. A bed appears on the beach. Rain falls inside a house. Clementine morphs into every woman and girl Joel ever loved. You can almost hear Freud challenging him: Does he truly know this changeable woman, or does he just know the version that exists in his head? The fact that Winslet and Carrey seem to be acting out their distorted perceptions of each other in this film--he playing the reserved, thoughtful type, she the flamboyant spaz--seems to suggest the latter. The courtship between Joel and Caroline may be a true romantic epic. But the real love story here is the seduction between Joel and his memory.

That's not as depressing as it sounds. Gondry--who admits that he conceived much of his surreal, childlike imagery either when he was 12 years old or when he was sleeping--has made a career out of losing himself in memories and dreams. In his documentary I've Been 12 Forever (included on Palm Pictures' DVD of Gondry's music videos), he theorizes that biology hardwires humans to get caught up in such things: That's precisely why we breeders fall in love. "As we dream, we release a forgotten emotion, and then you wake up in the morning and need a mate to be close with," Gondry proposes. "[Nightmares] make us want to cuddle in the morning, and this may have kept the structure of the family across the millennium."

Not a bad way to plug his cinematic dreamscape as the date movie of the year. After losing myself in Gondry's visionary phantasmagoria, however, I might be tempted to call Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the movie of the year, period. Now I just have to get someone to erase it from my memory. I want to see it again for the first time.

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