Memory’s caverns

Gabriel Shapiro

LOS ANGELES – A group of college journalists file in and slowly fill a conference room in a swank hotel – the kind that, as a public school student, you’ve probably never seen.

In a few minutes, these young people – this reporter included – are to be confronted with having to ask questions of some of the biggest talents in cinema today. Actors Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson, along with writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry, meet the college press to talk about their new film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

The mood is somewhat tense, and understandably so. Carrey and the others are major stars. Kaufman is one of the most sought-after and ingenious writers working today. Gondry has directed videos for Bjork, Radiohead, the Rolling Stones and tons of other bands, and his commercials, particularly for Levi’s, are among the most award-winning in history.

One student journalist pipes up, asking, “Do they all have to come in at once? It’s a bit intimidating.”

The United States’ culture of star worship and celebrity chasing aside, after this film reaches theaters next week, all of these people’s stock will rise significantly. The film is, in a word, remarkable.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a simple love story that gets driven into the realm of bizarre fantasy when one of the lovers decides to have part of her memory erased. This suffices for an outline, but doesn’t even scratch the surface of how wildly imaginative and fascinating the film is.

Beautifully filmed and written with a disarming subtlety, this will easily go down as one of the best films of the year. But with Gondry and Kaufman at the helm, that perhaps is not a surprise.

Carrey’s performance is the biggest shock. Known for his over-the-top antics and physical comedy, including the sometimes annoying mugging and flailing, “Eternal Sunshine” finds Carrey playing an introverted, neurotic everyman with uncharacteristic sensitivity.

When asked about his character Joel, who is utterly average on the surface, Carrey is quick to point out that nobody is “truly average.” He continued, “He doesn’t have guile, he doesn’t go into the world with a mask or a persona that he carries.” It is this quality that Carrey has latched onto, saying, “If you asked Joel a question; if he answered you, it would be honest.”

Hemming in Carrey required another character to assume the outrageous behavior typical to Carrey, and Winslet’s Clementine becomes the outlet for Joel’s crazy side. “Kate was really good at that in this movie, so she was the outward manifestation of Joel’s insanity, I think, and the things he can’t express. For me, the special effect in this movie is the script. You don’t need a whole lot of bells and whistles when the story hits home,” Carrey said.

This may sound like a bit of a bummer for those of us who occasionally delight in the guilty pleasure of watching Carrey talk with his butt or pull silly faces. But the mild thrill of a cheap laugh simply cannot compete with the larger satisfaction of the rare film that straddles bittersweet romance and engaging fantasy without losing itself in either genre.

And the romance is handled so well that it never dips into the sugar-shock Hollywood still largely favors. We are never beaten over the head with an implausibly perfect love story, the kind that makes everything black and white to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

“We felt that Joel and Clementine’s relationship, as Charlie had written it, is very real,” Winslet said. “In no relationship can you possibly live everyday as though it’s the first time you’ve ever met. And I, personally, just love that about this film, that whilst the film is told in this kind of crazy, unorthodox way, it’s actually a very simple love story about two people who are really meant to be together, in spite of this horrendous thing that they do.”

Carrey summed it up by saying, “It’s romantic, and yet, it’s not romanticized. It’s a real love, full of compromise and everything else that love comes with.”

It’s this sense of reality, the sense that Joel and Clementine could be anyone you would actually encounter on the street, that makes them endearing. Both of these characters are very believable.

“It seems real to me. I have experience with that type of character,” Kaufman said. “I draw on personal experience when I’m creating any character, not just my protagonists.”

With Kaufman’s unusual and extremely inventive script in place, the next task was for Gondry to turn Kaufman’s words into images. Gondry felt his background in videos aided him in approaching such a unique project. “We had to find some tricks to transform the environment, so in this regard, I could use some of the skills and techniques I have found in my years doing videos,” he said.

Turning the written description of deteriorating memories into an image involved a good deal of dialogue between the writer and director.

“(Kaufman) wrote in a very beautiful way to express the decay of memory, and I tried to match that with the visuals, only not necessarily by reproducing his work, because technically it might have been too contrived. So it was through going back and forth between he and I, and a lot of times we’d rethink shots, saying ‘Maybe that’s too technical, we should be more organic or visceral,’ ” Gondry said.

The result is the blending of two distinct imaginations to yield the chimerical world Joel and Clementine spiral into as their memories begin to blur.

Tom Wilkinson, a British actor who plays Dr. Mierzwiak, the inventor of the memory erasure procedure, put the film into a broader literary context: “Just as Lewis Carroll says things about perception, (this film) is in that tradition, in my humble opinion, in the honorable surrealist tradition of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ “

This is fair, as Kaufman has a reputation for creatively engaging even the most mundane details of human existence through his own unique brand of absurdism.

The average college student might be compelled by the opportunity to see a film that doesn’t shrink from its own intellectual potential, but embraces its role as a meditation on relationships, commitment, love, loneliness and the difficulties presented by memory – both its persistence and its eventual degradation and gradual loss. We are sometimes slaves to our memories, good and bad. Would we choose to be relieved of them entirely, unable to choose to keep a few here and there, but rather only given the option to delete an entire person from our mind forever? Or is it better to deal with all of our memories, despite how painful some can be, in order to remember the good things?

The panel joked often, but this spoke to a deeper camaraderie among the cast. Carrey said, “In this film, I was really part of a troupe.” But the closeness seemed to have been born of more than just mutual affinity, and at several points during the interview, different cast members referred to the difficulty and strain they endured in making such a challenging film. Winslet apparently fainted during a break on the set, and Carrey and Gondry briefly discussed some friction that had arisen between them during the shooting.

In the end, though, everyone chalked it up to the cost of making what could be the most beautifully complicated, simple love story ever told.