Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind & The Final Cut
Memories carry a blessing and a curse: positive memories can inspire us to face new challenges, while the weight of bad memories can be incapacitating. “Memory is what makes our lives,” as the Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel said. “Life without memory is no life at all.”
Two 2004 films address how our memories shape the way we perceive our world and our relationships as well as how we live our lives as a result of those memories. Although both star actors known for their comic genius -- Jim Carrey and Robin Williams -- each film puts its protagonist at the heart of a serious drama about loss and grief.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was released Sept. 28 on DVD after premiering in theatres in March 2004 to critical acclaim. Jim Carrey portrays a man who discovers that his girlfriend (Kate Winslet) has gone through a new surgical procedure to have all memory of him and their relationship erased. “The Final Cut,” which opened Oct. 15 in limited national release, casts an unusually somber Robin Williams as a man whose life has been shaped, even controlled, by a memory he can’t forget.
As “Eternal Sunshine” opens, Joel Barrish (Carrey) awakes on Valentine’s Day to encounter unexplained incidents for which he has no memory. As he spontaneously skips work to walk along the beach, Barrish, seemingly by chance, meets Clementine Kruczynski (Winslet). Her tangerine-colored hair represents the only brightness on a gloomy winter day and in Barrish’s dull life. Over time, we learn that Joel and Clementine had a previous relationship. But they don’t know it. The impulsive young woman turned to a company that promised “a new life” by means of its ability to erase memories associated with a painful past. Barrish accidentally learns about Clementine’s procedure. Then he, too, decides he cannot live with the raw memories of a broken relationship and pursues the same course. Yet, while the procedure is taking place, Barrish discovers he still loves Clementine, repents and fights in his inner mind to prevent her from being lost and gone forever.
While Lacuna, the corporation playing God with people’s memories, is inept and ethically bankrupt in “Eternal Sunshine,” the corporate power in “The Final Cut” is more diabolical. It offers humanity the possibility of a Zoe implant, which records every human memory and observation from birth to death.
Alan Hakman (Robin Williams) is a cutter, a technician who edits this digitized data into a “rememory,” a cinematic story of a person’s life for use at a memorial service. The aptly-named Hakman is highly regarded for his work on “difficult” projects, when he simply deletes extramarital affairs, instances of child abuse and other transgressions that might mar an otherwise touching “rememory” for the surviving loved ones. “You take people’s lives and make lies out of them,” a friend tells him. Indeed, the Zoe implants face protest from people who have scarred themselves rather than have every moment of their lives recorded for posterity.
“I forgive people long after they could be forgiven for things,” says Hakman, describing himself as “a sin eater.” Yet, in reality, Hakman is possessed by his own memory of a childhood incident in which he believes he caused another’s death. He tries to have a relationship with a bookseller (Mira Sorvino), but she tells him, “There’s no place for me with you. You haven’t even made room for yourself.”
Each film makes wonderful use of visual symbols, but “Eternal Sunshine” clearly stands out as the better of the two. Although “Eternal Sunshine” is rated R, the rating results more from its handling of mature themes and occasional profanity than from nudity or violence. The film relies on an innovative screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich”), which leads the viewer non-chronologically through the relationship between Carrey’s and Winslet’s characters. Beginning with the low points in the couple’s relationship, we move toward the start of the relationship and learn that memories involve both the good and the bad. “Erasing” the bad also destroys what was good in life. By contrast, while “The Final Cut” begins with an interesting premise, it degenerates into a clichéd Hollywood thriller.
Memory’s power results from the way it shapes our present thought and future action, something that is illustrated by the many biblical commands to remember. We ponder with awe that God can recall our every word, thought and deed, but promises to blot out all memory of our sins, Our memories cannot destroy us. Or, as Catholic writer J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”
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