Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Eternal Sunshine

I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again tonight with a bunch of friends some of whom had read Miroslav Volf's The End of Memory. It really is a fascinating film. This is the review I wrote sometime ago for the Sower, the diocese of Calgary newspaper:

Perhaps it is a sign that I’m getting older but I’m finding myself grow increasingly impatient with movies that don’t capture my imagination quickly. And I’m finding myself increasingly irritated by the number of recent movies that tell their stories out of order so that you have to work especially hard to figure out what the story line is.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of those films that starts near the end, moves to the middle, then to the beginning and then back to the end so that it takes a while before you can figure out what is going on. And I knew something of the story line before I watched it.

Yet despite this I enjoyed the movie and I was glad in the end that I had persisted through my initial frustration. For Eternal Sunshine says some interesting things about the nature of memory and relationships.

The title of the film is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ but unlike these storied lovers the two main characters, Joel and Clementine, have a tumultuous relationship. Jim Carrey plays Joel, a restrained and rather colourless character who meets the very colourful and extravagant Clementine, played by Kate Winslet. For viewers who are used to seeing Carrey play the manic comedic role this role may be something of a surprise but Carrey has shown before in other films that he has a wide range.

Joel and Clementine have met, fallen in love, fought, grown nasty towards each other and separated. Then Joel discovers that Clementine has taken advantage of some new technology to erase all memory of him and their relationship. Lacuna Inc has developed the ability to map the brain and erase portions of memory while leaving the rest of the memory intact. Joel is so angry that she would reject him like this that he decides to undergo the procedure as well. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that getting revenge on someone who doesn’t remember you doesn’t make a lot of sense. While he is undergoing the procedure, however, he begins to realize that even though he has lost Clementine he doesn’t want to lose the memory of her and what she has meant to him.

It is at this point that the film began to engage me as we see Joel and Clementine desperately trying to hide her in some part of his memory so that he won’t lose her. Despite their efforts, however, the procedure is successful and he wakes up with no memory of her. Then it becomes clear that the meeting at the beginning of the film was not their first meeting but their second when some impulse draws them back to the place of their first meeting. And as in their first meeting, they fall for each other at their second. But I won’t say more about what happens with love the second time around.

What intrigued me was the question of whether or not I would want to erase certain memories if the technology was available. Joel is confronted with the realization that he will be losing good memories with the bad and he comes to see that despite the ache of losing her he values what they had together. So I began to wonder why he and Clementine couldn’t have just erased the bad memories of their relationship and left the good.

The film actually gives something of an answer to that question in another relationship between the doctor and his receptionist but I won’t even begin to try to unwrap the complicated plot twists involving the Lacuna staff. Suffice it to say that the film seems to suggest that even painful memories of the hurts we do to each other are part of the process by which we learn and grow into better people.

Is it impossible then to ever forget hurts inflicted and received? The theme of forgetfulness is a rich one in the book of Isaiah and what we read there is that God will forget the sins of His people and they will forget their shame. But this is a forgetfulness that follows the hard process of truth speaking, repentance and forgiveness.

Lacuna Inc offers what many of us would like, a painless, fast and easy means to forget pain. In the end, however, the film seems to suggest that Joel and Clementine will choose a more difficult but also more rewarding path towards forgiving and forgetting the hurts they have done each other.

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