May 08, 2004



If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we?
Could we?

It might be that Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the most Philip K Dick-esque film ever.

Oddly, it achieves this by freeing SF from the template that Ridley Scott established over two decades ago in Blade Runner, his adaptation of Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? For all its merits, Blade Runner was not especially Dickian. The heroic register, the expressionist grandeur, have in fact more to do with Scott than PKD. Reading A Scanner Darkly or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, what is most striking about them is their shabbiness, seediness and scuzz, both moral and physical. Dick rubbed SF’s upturned nose in the quotidian mess of failed relationships, drug dependency and cheap media.

Kaufman is the master of scuzz (just remember what his script for Being John Malkovich had Cameron Diaz look like); or it not quite scuzz so much as an unvarnished, unscrubbed real. We’re so habituated to cinema’s default glamour that it’s shocking to see the opening close-ups of Jim Carrey, all rumples and wrinkles, non-designer stubble, disordered hair. Kaufman’s dialogue, with its longeurs, and its awkward, unwitting revelations is the spoken equivalent of this visual sobriety. Despite what you may have heard, Eternal Sunshine is, in every good way, muted: there’s none of the sleek black gloss of The Matrix trilogy. It refuses to Turn the Contrast Up in the way that is de rigeur in contemporary media.

Eternal Sunshine takes up the legacy which Dick bequeathed to SF: the reductive materialist thought that memory and personality are as physical – and therefore as replicable – as a digital file. Its premise is simple: what if you could have your memories of someone technologically removed? (In one of the many wickedly humorous moments, Carrey’s Joel asks the Doctor, ‘is there any danger of brain damage?’ to which the doctor replies, ‘Well, strictly speaking, the procedure is a form of brain damage.’)

Actually, a closer parallel than Dick might be the forgotten queen of cyberpunk, Pat Cadigan, whose Mindplayers and Fools staked out the territory that Eternal Sunshine explores: memory as a treacherous landscape through which characters can move, identity as an editable program.

Director Michel Gondry brings a visual inventiveness to his realization of Kauffman’s vision that is never obtrusive or indulgent: backgrounds fade into white-out, space curves in Escheresque loops, houses disintegate in nightmare collapse. For once in contemporary SF, the FX are led by concepts rather than the reverse.

But Eternal Sunshine, naturally, must be positioned not only in relation to SF, but also in relation to romantic comedy. It’s like a romantic comedy written by Beckett – a romantic tragicomedy - in which romance dies not in some passionate combustion, but fizzles out into uncomfortable, aseptic banality. One of the most painful scenes in the movie has Carrey and Winslet sitting amongst the ‘dining dead’ at a Chinese restaurant. ‘How’s the chicken?’ ‘Good.’ (From now on, we can refer to the time when you know that a relationship has died as 'the Chicken Moment.')

If Beckett is a reference point, it’s the Beckett Nina has evoked: not the miserabilist Beckett of cliché, but the Beckett of the evanescenent epiphany . The lines Nina quotes from Krapp’s Last Tape perfectly capture the tone of the memories. 'I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side...' Here is Krapp listening to his tapes for the last time; here is Joel through his memories even as they are deleted. Joel and Clementine lying on the frozen lake, the distant traffic lights bobbing like will o’ the wisps, him knowing, even then, that this is a moment of unparalleled joy.

An early scene set within Joel’s memoryscape sees him running down a street after Clementine: space curves and bends back on itself, and Joel finds himself moving away from and towards the same point simultaneously. What was once behind him is now in front of him, and vice versa. Another striking scene – reminiscent of Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills - finds Joel fleeing through his memories with the remembered Clementine, fetching up in the chintzy seventies kitchen of his childhood, Carrey crawling and bawling under the table dressed in toddler’s clothes. In Kauffman’s hands, Freud’s bleak message – that we are condemned to repeat the past forever, that the child is father to the man, that life itself is nothing but a repetition – is given a positive, fatalistic twist. When their act of memory erasure is exposed to Clementine and Joel, they have the opportunity to choose to live through their relationship again. It’s always painful for a lover to overhear their partner detail their faults, but for Clementine and Joel – who, so far as they have concerned, have just met - to hear a tape in which they rip each other to shreds is almost unbearably traumatic. But opting, in spite of this, to live through the relationship again - even knowing how it ends: well, it's a gesture far more romantic than anything Winslet did in Titanic. It's easier to love a dead partner - one who has been sublimated into pure memory - than one who leaves hair on the soap.

So Clem and Joel opt not to change the past, but to affirm it, to live it again. Thus the couple manage to meet the challenge that Nietzsche’s little demon poses. “What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’"

Every story ends unhappily if you follow it long enough. Life is not about endings, but middles (and muddles), the in-between.

Maybe we should try
The same old scene...

To see Kauffman's original script, go here.

Posted by mark at May 8, 2004 04:04 PM | TrackBack

That's odd, only today I had the random thought "I wonder what k-punk thinks of Eternal Sunshine"! Glad you liked it.

Posted by: Angus at May 8, 2004 04:25 PM

Pardon my geekiness but there was a story by Thomas Disch in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1982 called "Understanding Human Behavior" which, as I remember, had some of the same themes. Haven't read it since it came out but it's available here. It starts:

"He would wake up each morning with a consciousness clear as the Boulder sky, a sense of being on the same wave length exactly as the sunlight. Innocence, bland dreams, a healthy appetite -- these were glories that issued directly from his having been erased."


Posted by: amblongus at May 9, 2004 02:49 AM

thanks for that link mark, I was non plussed by the film, but think your thoughts about it are interesting - not sure if Kaufman liked the result judging fm an interview yesterday somewhere, which is why that link is proving so helpful..

Posted by: sean at May 9, 2004 07:58 PM

great analysis of eternal sunshine. the philip dick influence is pretty big if you talk to the guy. i had a chance to interview gondry/kaufman when they were making the rounds in the states - he'd always bring up dick and especially 'a scanner darkly.' needless to say, though, the "cute" frenchman and the brooding writer in one room is a sight to behold.

k-punk hits the mark once again (cue audience applause...)

Posted by: nate at May 11, 2004 03:42 AM