Film: Magic Acts

What we see in art depends in part on what we expect to see in it. Though the metaphor embodied in its nickname is long dead, everyone in the world under-stands that a “movie” consists of “moving pictures,” and it is in the nature of a picture—a photograph— that we take for granted its unfaked reality. A century ago, our great- grandparents were scared out of their wits when one of the villains in The Great Train Robbery pointed his gun at the audience and fired it. Nowadays we’re more sophisticated than that, but most of us still cling to the belief that a film is in some attenuated but still meaningful sense a record of something that actually happened, if only on a soundstage.

Will our children feel this way about film? I doubt it. For one thing, most of the big-ticket movies to which they flock make use of digitally generated special effects, many of which are more or less invisible to the naked eye but a growing number of which are intended to be seen as fake. Indeed, postmodern filmmakers are more inclined to brag about their use of such effects than to cover it up. At the same time, younger photo editors at mass-circulation magazines are increasingly open to using digital technology to “enhance” still photographs, and even though old-fashioned newsmen continue to treat such manipulation as inappropriate, even unethical, I can’t imagine that this informal prohibition will last much longer. Remember the sign in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King? “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” Or, as one of Dostoyevsky’s characters put it, “Man grows used to everything—the scoundrel!”

For the moment, though, filmmakers can still startle audiences by violating the iron presumption of reality that governs the medium, and screen-writer Charlie Kaufman, who specializes in twisting the visible world into knots, has tied himself a lollapalooza with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like all of Kaufman’s films, this one is hard to categorize. On paper it sounds like science fiction, but it plays more like a Twilight Zone–style paranoid fantasy, and in any case the point of Eternal Sunshine is not the complex mechanics of the plot but the all-too-human relationships that are, as always, Kaufman’s main interest.

At first glance, the plot seems simple enough. One fine day, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) discovers that his girl-friend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), no longer seems to know who he is. It turns out that she has made use of the services of Lacuna, Inc., a company that erases unwanted memories from the minds of its clients. Having decided on the spur of the moment that she was unhappy with Joel, Clementine requested Lacuna to wipe him out of her brain forever. Horrified and devastated by her betrayal, Joel decides to reciprocate—but he changes his mind midway through the process, having come to the conclusion that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Alas, the switch has already been thrown, and….

I’ll stop there, not only because I don’t want to spoil the fun but because it is all but impossible to describe on paper what happens in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You have to see it happening, and you have to pay careful attention to what you’re seeing. This is not a movie whose first five minutes you can skip if the line at the concession stand turns out to be longer than expected. Fortunately, Kaufman’s premise is worked out with rigorous consistency, meaning that the movie makes sense on its own labyrinthine terms.

More important, Eternal Sunshine isn’t “about” what it would feel like to have part of your memory erased (though its portrayal of the process is joltingly believable). Instead, it’s an old-fashioned love story, acted with consummate skill by two of the least likely performers imaginable. Jim Carrey, cast against type as a glum introvert, is completely convincing, while Kate Winslet, best known for her vapidly adolescent contribution to Titanic, is both convincing and irresistible as the willfully difficult Clementine, one of those hapless victims of the sexual revolution who longs for romantic commitment but no longer believes in its existence.

Michel Gondry, the director of Eternal Sunshine, has put Kaufman’s wild fantasy on screen with bedazzling skill, investing it with eerie plausibility, just as Carrey and Winslet make their characters seem as real as the face you see in the mirror every morning. The result is a piercingly rueful film that is romantic, even optimistic, in spite of itself. As regular readers of this column know, I’m no postmodernist, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for all the unabashed postmodernity of its narrative techniques, is anything but nihilistic. On the contrary, its characters labor desperately—and touchingly—to find meaning in a seemingly chaotic world in which reality itself can be altered.

Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin!, a German film making the art-house rounds in this country, also takes as its subject the manipulation of reality, albeit in a homelier, less malign manner. Again, the story is simple enough: Christiane (Katrin Sass), an unswervingly loyal East Berlin Communist, falls into a coma shortly before the Berlin Wall comes down. When she awakes, her son, Alex (Daniel Briihl), is warned that the slightest shock could kill her, so he takes her home, puts her to bed, and does his best to make sure she never finds out that the bad guys lost.

The possibilities for farce in Good Bye, Lenin! are endless, but while Becker milks them skillfully, he isn’t so much interested in getting laughs as in painting a miniature portrait of a culture in transition. What’s more, he succeeds in turning the tale of Christiane and her loving son into a sweetly poignant little fable about the myriad shocks produced by the coming of modernity. Without for a moment suggesting that the collapse of Communism was anything other than an incalculable boon to mankind, Good Bye, Lenin! reminds us that it’s hard for mere mortals not to feel nostalgia for that which is familiar—even when it also happens to be evil.

As you may have gathered by now, I was surprised to find Good Bye, Lenin! and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so touching. Most of the movies I see, of course, aren’t even slightly surprising, stamped as they are from one of a tiny number of prefabricated patterns. Don’t get me wrong: I also love films that accomplish pleasing ends by way of predictable means. (Is there anything surprising about Rio Bravo other than how good it is?) Cleverness for its own sake is boring. But to be at once pleased and surprised by a work of art is one of the greatest aesthetic pleasures I know—and when you get a reasonably happy ending thrown in as well, what’s not to like?

  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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