Screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann gave us the oh-so-clever gimmick of Being John Malkovich, and the inventive, if embarrassing, meditation on writer’s block, Adaptation—two accomplishments that proved he could be funny and smart outside the mainstream, all the while keeping within the big-fame limelight of box office competition. Pretty impressive stuff these days, when originality and success intersect so seldom in the film industry.
But now I’m compelled to offer more than kudos to Kaufmann, while I sit here and write, still very much moved and almost hurt by the surprising vitality of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At it’s most basic, the story is about a procedure designed to erase all the protagonist’s memories of his latest failed relationship. At times, Kaufmann overplays the options presented by this plot design, but on the whole he uses it to explore the powerful and irrational drives of romance, and the relationship between memory and the self. The story advances like a tour through these memories, piece by piece developing a love-relationship that, while wrinkled with the occasional cliché, is on the whole convincing and expertly rendered by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.
There is perhaps no more daunting task for a writer than to give love a serious literary treatment. It’s been done a million times, and it’s been done frighteningly well. Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom wrote:
[the rest could spoil it for you]
Any lover who has hoped to approximate the “happily ever after” of children’s stories either succeeds by self-manipulation or fails as a realist. Kaufmann knows that love without tragedy is unsettling, or worse, uninteresting. There is hardly an alternative for us, who stand in the overwhelming influence of Chaucer and Shakespeare. But Kaufmann’s ultimate vision of love in Eternal Sunshine strikes a peculiar compromise often urged in advice to disappointed lovers: “Yes, it hurts, but we must.” Kaufmann’s protagonist reaffirms a love he knows will fail. We are left with the ironic optimism of bravery and affirmation--overlaid by a rejection of love’s ideal to satisfy our wiser natures.