Chilly, Obstinate Memory: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
by Ken Chen
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could be one of those precious, necessarily rare things: like Breathless or 2001, a paradigmatic film for a generation. The film’s conceit is ingenious in its genre-ductility: Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s characters (respectively: boyfriend, memory-of-girlfriend) flee across the landscape of his memory while it’s being forcibly forgotten—thanks to Lacuna, a therapeutic brain surgery service that offers to erase all those unpleasant thought-crumbs of ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, and the recently deceased. What makes screenwriter Charles Kaufman and director Michel Gondry’s film consequently so intimidating is how it is able to think like many different films simultaneously: a romantic comedy by Alain Resnais, a listlessly unbeautiful indie flick, a formalistic trick movie like Memento, a self-consciously aesthetic art film, suffused with strange imagery (the faceless people in Sunshine are straight out of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another), a hedonistic teen flick replete with inebriated, tank-topped girl, a screwball drama, a black comedy satirizing the intrusive efficiency of machines, and a love story whose characters brim with more reality than a reservoir of Mystic Rivers. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s willingness to trot across the borders of genre, its syncretistic way of unifying all these narrative modes—all these things make it at once poetic and spiritual. The film is a metaphysical chase movie—the villain we flee from is forgetting.
But what exactly about Eternal Sunshine is spiritual? This question demands another preliminary question: what becomes of spirituality in a scientific age? And if there can be a secular spirituality, how is it distinct from sociology or psychology? Once we become bereft of God, spirituality becomes privatized, shunts inward, molts off the social, longs for private rather than profound truths. Spirituality forks away from philosophy because (perhaps to philosophy’s credit) philosophy is too comprehensible; spirituality has no moving parts, no planks of argument: it is necessarily ineffable, interpretive and “intuitive” rather than analytical—it is the roadless road that arcs over chasms unbridgeable by syllogism. Instead, in a non-metaphysical age, the subject matter of secular spirituality ceases to be truth; the subject matter of spirituality becomes the self. As Richard Rorty writes in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, “The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language—that is, of thinking up some new metaphors.” Our version of spirituality, therefore, asks us to interpret life—to invent our life’s own story, its unique descriptive language—rather than propose an answer for it. Our preexisting tools of interpretation—the rich cultural density of the novel and the abstracting truth of poems—thus becomes analogous to spiritual searching. Our life becomes a story and the supple, mystic emotions we associate with love and longing, regret and desire, start to seem somehow more profound than the puny omnipotence of God. This is why when D.H. Lawrence writes: “Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as it were slurred over,” to describe the desperate life of a poor coal miner’s wife, he seems “spiritual” (though not theological) in a way that “Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands/ Sing forth the honor of his name/ make his praise glorious” (Psalm 66; King James) does not. What we require of our modern spirituality is intimate content—the wisdom of usefully idiosyncratic thought.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind feels spiritual because of the way it imbues film with this specifically literary content. It is the foremost example of what could be called avant garde realism—which might also describe films such as Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time and Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole, a type of realism that solves, dissolves, and welds together the intellectual resources of surrealism and its opposite, cinema verité. The fault of surrealism is that its mysteriousness arises from its irrelevance—surrealist images have a hard time creeping into meaning, a hard time becoming pertinent to our identity, because they resist paraphrase and explicit meaning; the fault of cinema verité is that, while it is full of life, it is a factless life, a life jailed to the moment: this is the image- oriented psychology of film rather than the thought-dense introspection of novels. Eternal Sunshine solves these genre maladies through its conceit: the first two-thirds of the film occur within the protagonist’s memory, so the otherwise “realist” film can deploy any number of non-realist conventions (a character meta-fictionally aware that she is only a memory; people disappearing as they’re forgotten; Jim Carrey surrounded by giant furniture, stuck in the memory of his baby self) without them actually becoming non-realist: they are real to their context, the way that a dream is a real dream.
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