I was never a huge fan of That 70s Show, in fact I doubt I saw more than two or three episodes in its original run, but it’s one of those shows I later got into to a moderate degree in syndication and probably ended up seeing 75% or more of the episodes. I thought it was an above average situation comedy, some interesting characters, some good laughs. Not to mention two certifiably hot chicks in the main cast. (One was conventionally regarded as super hot and one regular hot; I contend that the supposedly regular hot one was super hot and the supposedly super hot one was regular hot.)
It was not one of those situation comedies that routinely tried to be “meaningful,” to incorporate deeper issues into the comedy. It wasn’t as completely silly as F-Troop or something like that, but it was never MASH; it was a comedy show and didn’t purport to be anything more.
Yet there was one episode that I’ve always remembered as having really hit home with me emotionally. It’s my strongest memory from the series. (OK, second strongest after Donna in the Catholic schoolgirl outfit.)
It was the episode where an angel shows a depressed Eric (who has just broken up with Donna) what his future life would be—mostly comically bad—had he never had a relationship with Donna. Eric is unswayed, and insists anything is better than the pain he is in now. So at the end of the episode, the angel (Newman from Seinfeld, of all people) offers Eric the option of having all memories of Donna and his relationship with her erased as if he had never met her. Eric jumps at the opportunity. The angel says OK, but before you commit to that, reflect on what all you’ll be losing, which leads to a brief montage of clips from their relationship in Eric’s mind.
And I still remember the emotion rising in me and my heart speeding up at that scene (something I’m absolutely not prone to while watching some mainstream situation comedy), and I thought—in fact I’m almost sure I involuntarily blurted out—“Eric no!,” or “God no, don’t do it!” or something to that effect, and being so relieved when he made the right decision.
Because to me it’s really not a close call. I only got to be with the love of my life for a frustratingly short time (as a couple), and sure there has always been hurt associated with that, but I cherish her and fiercely cling to every memory of her as the greatest blessing of my life. I never want to “get over” her. For that matter, I also value the memories of the other women I dated at all seriously. Since those relationships didn’t become something permanent I suppose that means I’m dwelling on failures of a sort, and truth be told it may well be that living in the past by continuing to think of them with fondness has modestly decreased my ability to move on and focus fully on some potential new person and new relationship, but to me those moments of connection and intimacy with someone that meant a lot to me are among the peak experiences of my life, and I am repulsed by the very notion of giving those memories up.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a fantasy about an unlikely medical procedure whereby you can have all your memories of a relationship erased from your brain when that relationship goes sour and becomes a source of pain for you, i.e., it’s really, really close to the premise of this That 70s Show episode. (So much so that I assumed that’s where the show got the idea. But I looked it up, and in fact the episode aired in 2001, whereas the movie came out in 2004. The episode was titled It’s a Wonderful Life, so if it lifted its premise from anywhere it was from the classic movie of that name, not from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)
I had a more favorable than unfavorable reaction to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I like that it’s a Charlie Kaufman film (I invariably have mixed reactions to his work, but on the whole find his offbeat style quite intriguing and thought-provoking), but you know one of the things that most stands out to me about it? Here’s a high quality independent film, well-acted, on a subject matter of interest to me, from a filmmaker (screenwriter in this case) I’m fond of, that is highly acclaimed (judging from the reviews I perused), and yet at no point did it hit home with me emotionally in the way that a half hour episode of a cheesy, mainstream situation comedy did.
I’m not saying by any means that it is thereby inferior to the TV show, only that, subjectively, I experienced it as only about 30% as emotionally powerful. Which may be more a reflection of where I was in life when I happened to see them, what mood I was in those particular nights, etc.
Anyway, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are the protagonists of the film. The story is structured unconventionally (it’s a Charlie Kaufman film, after all), certainly non-chronologically, but in the end it’s reasonably clear what happens. They have a romantic relationship, it deteriorates, they break up, Clementine finds out about this service that erases memories and chooses to have her memories of Joel eliminated, and Joel finds out she has done this and retaliates by arranging to have his memories of her removed from his brain.
The majority of the film takes place during this erasure procedure that Joel undergoes. In an interview in the doctor’s office he tells everything he knows about Clementine, everything they experienced together, every memory he has of her, etc. He also turns over everything he owns that has any connection with her (e.g., gifts she gave him, his journal that mentions her, and souvenirs from places they visited together). That evening, in his apartment he takes pills that knock him out. A medical team enters, connects him to a contraption, and commences the overnight process of finding and wiping out all the microscopic areas of his brain that contain anything of Clementine and their relationship.
Though he is unconscious, his mind is still active in a dreamlike manner (though the people doing the procedure seem to assume this is not the case). He has a vague notion of what is going on, and he panics and decides it’s not what he wants after all. He is unable to wake himself up, to alert anyone that he wants them to stop what they’re doing.
This leads to an extended cat-and-mouse game where he is trying to figure out some mental strategy that will frustrate their efforts to erase Clementine from his brain, while they try to finish the job they’ve been hired to do. They don’t know that he’s actively trying to defeat their efforts, only that they’re seeing unanticipated and confusing brain patterns that are making the procedure more difficult than usual.
Joel tries to concentrate on various cherished memories of Clementine, but they disappear each time the medical team comes to the portion of the brain associated with that memory, rendering him increasingly bewildered and frantic. He decides to try associating Clementine in his mind with other memories that in real life were completely independent of her—like from his childhood—and that thus he wouldn’t have shared in the doctor’s office in the interview, and that they wouldn’t know to try to erase.
So why did this film not connect with me as much as I might have expected? Why did it not feel as emotionally compelling to me as even an episode of That 70s Show, of all things? Beyond the aforementioned subjective matter of my possibly being in a less receptive state of mind for this type of material on this particular occasion, I can speculate about multiple factors.
One big one is that I never was won over by Clementine, and never bought that there was any kind of terrific chemistry and love between these two people. I just never found her very appealing. She’s decent looking—though well below Donna (Laura Prepon) level—but she’s one of those emotionally high maintenance, crazy, unpredictable broads. I know that’s supposed to mean she’s appealingly spontaneous, quirky, and intriguing, but I respond 15% favorably and 85% unfavorably to that type. I find it less intriguing and more immature and inconsiderate, if not a manifestation of mental illness.
Clearly Joel is into her, but it’s hard to believe he’s into her all that deeply. Mostly because I see someone like her as so shallow that I’m skeptical about associating anything “deep” with her.
I mean, she’s not a horrible person; I don’t want to overstate it. She’s just flighty and temperamental in a way that gets old really quick.
So whereas I can easily put myself in Eric’s shoes and empathically feel panic at the prospect of his losing all memories of Donna, in this case it’s more like I recognize that Clementine is supposed to be a big deal to Joel and that therefore he’s having an intense reaction against having her scrubbed from his mind, but I don’t feel it.
I think the other major factor as to why I didn’t connect more emotionally with this film is that there’s a lot of material that’s somewhat tangential to that core philosophical, moral, emotional issue of whether it’s better to keep or lose the good and bad memories of a relationship that was important to you but has gone bad and ended. I think if there had been fewer of these distracting side issues and subplots, and more time had been spent really getting to know these two people as individuals and as a couple, and to understand the decisions they made, I would have felt more for them.
The film actually starts promisingly in that respect. I remember thinking ten minutes into it that it was doing a good job in providing a foundation of just who these people are and what might be drawing them to each other.
In particular I was impressed by Carrey as Joel. I thought it was an unusually accurate portrayal of an introverted person, the way he looked more uncomfortable than not when they first met and Clementine was quite aggressive in interacting with him, the way they didn’t write the character as capable of the kind of witty repartee that is standard for a romantic comedy. It’s not like he’s autistic or something, and here and there he does manifest some capacity for wit, for dry humor, but mostly he’s the kind of introverted person more apt to tell himself later “I wish I had said such-and-such” than to be socially comfortable and functional enough to have actually said it at the time.
But then I didn’t feel like much more progress was made in that direction after that. Instead there is all this other stuff going on. For instance, the medical team of folks who come to Joel’s apartment to perform the procedure on him while he’s knocked out in his bed turn out to be kind of the nightmare version of the irresponsible babysitter. You know, like the babysitter who goes through your stuff while you’re out for the evening, invites her boyfriend over to fool around with, gets drunk, etc. That sequence was effective in that it generated anxiety in me contemplating the violations of privacy and the negligence and such—I mean, it was certainly creepy—but did it really do anything to facilitate deeper thought about the pros and cons of holding on to your past relationships versus erasing them from your mind and moving on?
Then there’s the doctor having an affair with one of his workers, and there’s one of the workers using the information gleaned from participating in these procedures to insinuate himself into the life of a woman patient he otherwise wouldn’t have a shot with.
For that matter, there’s the fact that the bulk of the film is about Joel’s frantic efforts to come up with a mental strategy to thwart the procedure. Not that that isn’t interesting to a degree, but again it seems to be sliding away from what I would have thought the main thrust of the storyline would be.
I’m sure with all of these things you can say, “Ah, but it’s not really a tangent. They included that to establish this or highlight that about this mind-erasing procedure.” Yeah, presumably so or it wouldn’t be in there. (Though it’s Charlie Kaufman, so it’s not far-fetched that there would be some weird, unanticipated stuff in there for no reason beyond that it’s weird and unanticipated.) But for me, I still would have preferred to get to know the two main characters better, and to more directly and deeply explore the psychological and moral implications of the decision of whether to erase a former significant other from your consciousness.
By the way, I’m not inclined to deduct many if any points for the story’s implausibility. For instance, the idea that this kind of technology could be implemented successfully, in the sense that you really would lose an important person entirely from your mind, is completely unrealistic. Your memories of someone you shared a major part of your life with are hopelessly entangled with memories of—and for that matter continuing involvement with—numerous other people, places, events, etc. You either wouldn’t be able to rid yourself of the memories of the person, or you would have blatant, inexplicable holes in your memories that you couldn’t help but notice. It’s not like you really would be, mentally, in the same position as if you had never met the person.
That would be a problem if this were science fiction, but I’d classify it instead as fantasy. Of the movies I’ve written about previously, probably the one closest to this is The Final Cut, but that’s the key difference: The Final Cut presents itself as science fiction; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is more fantasy. It’s not a big flaw that this stuff wouldn’t happen this way in real life, any more than it is for It’s a Wonderful Life (the movie or the That ’70s Show episode), or for that matter than it is for Being John Malkovich, to cite another bizarre Charlie Kaufman movie.
Certainly this movie got me thinking about this issue of clinging to past loves versus deleting them from our minds insofar as we are able and moving on. But I don’t know that I can count that as much of a success, because it was the mere fact that it was about that topic that got me thinking about it, not the way it handled that topic. That is, if I had never seen the movie and someone had simply said to me, “What would you think of some crazy new medical procedure where you could erase someone from your mind and your memories entirely after you broke up with them?” I suspect I would have had 95% of the same thoughts and feelings about that idea as I did as a result of seeing this movie.
I’ll give Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a modest thumbs up, but I have the sense this could have been considerably better than it is.