The Gift of Memory: Charlie Kaufman on the Culture of Death

Léonie Caldecott

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004. Written by Charlie Kaufman and Directed by Michel Gondry.

Synecdoche New York, 2008.Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman.

I first became interested in the celebrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman after watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Scripted by Kaufman, who won both an Oscar and a BAFTA for it, the film is a searingly honest portrayal of the dilemma of the mind-body-soul complex which comes into play when people enter into intimate relationships. The title of Eternal Sunshine is taken from a speech in Alexander Pope's Eloisa to Abelard:

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resigned.

Kaufman’s earlier film, Being John Malkovich also carries a reference to the story of Heloise and Abelard. His writing deals not just with existential dilemmas, but also with religious and metaphysical questions, and he grapples with issues that most people prefer not to confront. The bleak Synecdoche New York (2008), which Kaufman directed as well as scripting, is almost unbearable to watch, as it explores the struggle to find meaning in a life that becomes more absurd by the day. Here the protagonist, after years spent constructing a stage-set which revolves around his own self-image, slides inexorably towards a death devoid of any transcendent meaning. Yet what makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind both artistically and emotionally satisfying is that it contains a message of hope. The idea that anamnesis―the re-membering of a life lived in authentic relationality―may prove redemptive.

The central characters in Eternal Sunshine are the diffident and dorky Joel Barish, played by Jim Carey, and his eccentric girlfriend Clementine, played with zany febrility by Kate Winslet. After they break up, Joel is cut to the quick by the discovery that Clementine has undertaken a procedure designed to delete their relationship from her mind. Furious and wounded, Joel decides to do the same thing and signs up with Lacuna Inc. to have her erased from his mind. Half-way through the rebooting procedure, as the better memories from early on in the relationship are 're-run' prior to erasure, he suddenly realises that by eliminating pain, he is also eliminating something infinitely precious. In his early appreciation of Clementine, he was seeing something true, something sub specie aeternitatis: the essence of a person which makes them what they are, or could be. This perception, which kicks in at the start of a relationship, has an ante-deluvian quality: it is later that the falling-off occurs, as we come to the knowledge of a person which equates to the eviction from paradise. This ‘knowledge of good and evil’ produces a cynicism that erodes relationships. At the core of the break-up between Joel and Clementine is Joel’s utterance of this knowledge: his dis-enchantment with Clementine in her chaotic vulnerability.

The irony at the core of the film is that, as the science-fictional apparatus is engaged in its search-and-destroy mission, Joel starts wanting to halt the procedure. Yet he is asleep: a necessary pre-condition for hiring Lacuna Inc. to tamper with his mind. In his drug-induced state of suspension, Joel cannot communicate what he wants: he has put his will into the hands of others. In a series of surreal scenes which explore the role of the semi-conscious/unconscious mind, Kaufman traces Joel's increasingly desperate attempts to 'hide' Clementine in parts of his memory that the Lacuna boffins have no access to. He takes refuge in his childhood, with all its attendant emotions. Meanwhile the technician in charge of the procedure (Mark Ruffalo) is conducting his own relationship with the clinic's secretary (Kirsten Dunst), as they use Joel’s apartment to while away the tedium of the night-long procedure. His nerdy side-kick (Elijah Wood) also engages in unprofessional behaviour, having fallen for the newly brain-washed Clementine. And it doesn’t stop there: the themes of concupiscence, voyeurism and power over ‘the other’ underpin the whole film.

While Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind poses more questions than it answers, those questions are the right questions. To what extent are memories coloured by personal prejudice, subsequent experience, or what psychologists call 'projection'? Can the memory be healed, rather than suppressed or manipulated? Is it possible to have an objective take on another person's soul? What is the role of memory in giving meaning to a person's life, and what kind of fidelity does this entail? And most tellingly, what role does the body play in the retention of memory and identity?

Léonie Caldecott is UK editor of Humanum.