Some of the best speculative fiction does not deal with science, aliens or space travel but uses the fantastic as a way to explore more mundane human conflicts. Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven, for example, wrestles with our desire for a perfect world. Charlie Kaufman's earlier shot in the field, Being John Malkovich, used the prospect of possession and transference to explore desire, celebrity and identity. His latest screenplay, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, uses the process of selectively erasing memory to explore love, fate and learning in relationships.
Having more than a passing familiarity with human psychology and memory, most descriptions of memory in film require the same level of suspension of
disbelief as magic, warp drive and teleportation. In Total Recall, they just throw a person into a
chair and add new memories. Although Sunshine does take
quite a bit of artistic liberty in proposing that long-term memory can be
altered at all, it does come closer than most in rejecting the myth of
the magical memory videotape. This Scientific
American interview with neurobiologist James McCaugh is a nice overview
of what we do know about altering memory using chemical means, and Elizabeth Loftus has done research on the fallibility of memory.
Brief but necessary synopsis
Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are mismatched lovers.
After a nasty breakup, Clementine hires Lacuna Inc. to
erase Joel from her memory. In revenge, Joel undergoes the same
procedure, but he decides midway that he wants to keep his memories.
The mythical memory videotape: Hollywood vs. Science
While Hollywood likes to explore memory as a plot device, the
frustrating thing is that they rarely get it right. Memory is not a
videotape that can be rewound to a specific point in time, erased and
wound forward again. We don't recall memory so much as recreate it anew
each time. The badly-aged "brain as computer" metaphor
has tended to dominate speculative fiction about memory. In this
metaphor, memory is encoded and stored on something analogous to a
computer hard disk1 to be recalled and recovered later, and
the ability to scan, project, copy, download, edit and delete memory
makes perfect sense.
In contrast, more recent research suggests that memory is quite a bit
more slippery. The act of remembering appears to be an act of
re-creating and editing the memory. Key details can be modified or even
fabricated after the fact. Long-term memories seems to be distributed in multiple parts of the brain and linked to similar events,
making the possibility that we could transfer memories to a different
medium improbable. While we can reduce or inhibit the formation of
long-term memory using drugs, modification of long-term memory is
While Kaufman does not quite get it completely right, he does manage to
move things forward a bit. The Lacuna technicians don't know what they
are deleting. To them, they are just zapping a series of nerve cells
displayed on a screen. In contrast, Joel is given a last chance to relive his memories of the relationship and ask "what if". In the act of remembering, his conversations with Clementine become confessionals where he struggles to change the past. Attempting to save his memories of her, he imagines her as bystanders in his childhood traumas.
The mutability of memory raises some interesting questions about Clementine as a character. Most of the relationship is seen through Joel's recreation
of the past. As the Lacuna process works backwards through the
relationship, Clementine changes from an impulsive drunk to a free
spirit with a hidden wisdom. How much of what we see of Clementine is
colored by Joel's sudden desire to restore the relationship?
Details of the setting reflect how memory changes over time. In a
pivotal scene, the lovers have a conversation in a bookstore
filled with blank, anonymous books. Details not central to the memory
are fuzzed out or inconsistent. As his memories of Clementine fade, his
memories of Lacuna employees also blurr, and they become faceless entities in medical coats. Settings become more
surreal and dreamlike as they are juxtaposed on top of each other.
The whole situation is made worse by the incompetence of memory
garbagemen, Lacuna Incorporated. The young late-night technicians Frank
(Thomas Ray Ryan) and Patrick, (Elijah Wood) along with receptionist Mary
(Kirsten Dunst) don't only steal memories, but become the bad unwanted
guests in Joel's apartment. The head doctor, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom
Wilkinson) is revealed to have his own ethical blindspots. Their
solution for dealing with the dozens of other people who know the
unedited history of the couple is to send a printed form letter. Is
memory just in our bodies and our heads, or does it also live out there
in society? The film suggests that we can't dismiss memory as a social
entity in addition to a psychological entity. You might forget that
horrible secret, but someone else might bring it up at an awkward
Those that don't know history ...
Ultimately, the film is a parable on the futility of trying to escape
the past. The survivors of the Lacuna process are shown to be just a
bit crazy due to having chunks of their lives missing. The process has
deleted the story but not the emotions. Clementine bursts into tears
when a new suitor uses one of Joel's lines. Joel's loss of memory does
not bring happiness and he is possibly worse off having lost the focus of
his anger and depression. A key subplot and an ambiguity in the script
suggests that the couple might be doomed to repeat their mistakes again. They certainly start repeating the same lines and speeches.
This is another area where Kaufman got it right. Memory just does not
hold the mysterious secret to the murder mystery à la
Spellbound (the grandsire of repressed memory movies) or
the conspiracy à la Total Recall, but the mundane secret to
building a healthy relationship. Yes, memory is fallible and
frequently wrong; but the mutability and error in memory is how we
learn. We highlight what is important to us, and blur out
the rest. Memory is fallible and frequently painful, but it's all we've
Yes but is it worth watching?
It depends. If you liked Being John Malkovich, you might
like this film. Sunshine is a bit more optimistic. While
Joel and Clementine are flawed as a couple, their conflicts seem more
normal than pathological. Just when you think it is getting too sappy,
the script throws in some realism to point out that there is no happy
ending or fresh start for this couple. Sunshine is not
escapism or fluff. If you are interested in a film to chew on for a few
days, Sunshine is definitely worth watching.
(1) Someone pointed out during editing that dynamic ram is constantly re-written. However the "mind as computer" metaphor tends to associate long-term memory with magnetic media.