Storytelling – especially the kind overseen by large corporate entities – can get stale and rote quickly. When you boil enough of the fat off of them, most stories are revealed to have pretty similar structures and concepts lurking beneath the surface. Man is wronged and seeks revenge. Man experiences loss, but finds love while overcoming that loss. Farmboy is prophesied to save the world. Making these ideas fresh and interesting is a delicate and subtle art. So it’s not surprising that, every once and a while, writers go a little crazy.
This madness often leads to the High Concept story. Eschewing traditional setups, the High Concept story throws a lot of energy into big, flashy up front ideas. Billy Pilgrim is Unstuck In Time. The World Is Ending Tonight. I Shrunk The Kids. An Android Was Sent Back In Time To Kill Me. Some writers, in fits of temporary insanity, produce one or two of these in their career. Some oscillate between more standard storytelling and High Concept regularly. But most of the High Concept stuff out there is created by a handful of writers who specialize in the stuff.
Of the High Concept writers working today, Charlie Kaufman may be the best. The ideas in his stories are so mind bogglingly odd that it’s hard to believe an actual good story can come out of them. Yet, of his 5 produced screenplays, 2 are outright classics and the others are, at worst, ambitious failures. While most High Concept writers get lost amidst their own monolithic ideas, Kaufman consistently finds the quiet and insightful details his concepts reveal.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, to me, his greatest achievement. Like all of his work, the basic concept can be summed up in a few splashy, marketing-friendly sentences: Distraught and angry over their breakup, Joel and his ex-girlfriend Clementine undergo a procedure to have his memory their memories of each other removed. But as the procedure begins and Joel relives his memories with Clementine, he begins to wonder if this is what he really wants.
It’s a big idea. A character takes an extreme action to remove the painful memories that are plaguing him. Like all High Concept stories, Kaufman’s story takes an understandable human problem and increases the scope so far that it can work through it abstractly, avoiding the quagmire that too much reality can sometimes lead to. The problem with big ideas is that they’re often sufficiently large as to distract the writer from grounding it properly. There is a graveyard somewhere full of stories like this: high, interesting concepts without a shred of real human emotion. The danger of an idea like Spotless Mind’s is that the concept can intoxicate you, making you think the idea itself is the story instead of the framework for the story.
Kaufman, though, understands that the way to make a Big Idea work is to explore it from every angle possible. Spotless Mind could have stuck with just Joel and Clementine, exploring his memories as they were erased and letting the possibility of his truly never remembering her be the only tension in the story. With just Joel and Clementine, he could have made some kind of point about our memories being too precious to erase, made us believe that forgetting our mistakes will just lead us to the same mistakes again.
Instead, Spotless Mind juggles about 5 plots at once, all tied into the theme of erasing the memories of our own pain. These stories introduce us to the employees of Laguna, Inc., who have turned memory loss into a business. People whose lives are literally tangled up in the themes of the film. Like Patrick, one of the technicians who do the actual erasing. Part of the procedure of memory erasure involves learning as much as possible about the memories being erased, so that those memories can be easily located and eliminated. While Clementine was being wiped, Patrick was doing the wiping. And learning all about the things Joel had done to make Clementine fall for him. The thing about memory erasure is that it only really works if you don’t remember that you had the procedure done at all. So, when Patrick comes calling and pushing the exact same buttons Joel did, Clementine can’t help but fall for him.
Or what about Mary, one of Laguna, Inc.’s nurses? She’s fooling around with Stan, another technician, at the same time that she’s harboring a crush on Dr. Mierzwiak, the inventory of the procedure. But what neither Stan nor Mary remember is that Mary’s gone down this road with Dr. Mierzwiak once before…
Every turn the story takes shows us another way of thinking about the theme. Saying that wiping the memories of your pain away is easy. Obviously we’re going to get behind that. But to really make us feel it, not just from one angle but many, is a true accomplishment. Joel is the central figure in the story; our point of view as we experience the slow-building horror of having your past taken from you. Without Joel, the issue is intellectual. Distant. Joel lets us feel it. But the other characters make us believe it.
Beyond Kaufman’s insightful exploration of his own concept, Spotless Mind also supplies us with some truly bizarre and wonderful ideas. High Concept stories often fail here as well, giving us a big idea explored through yawningly mundane moments. Spotless Mind makes our trip through Joel’s memories as strange and off-putting as it should be. Touching scenes of Joel and Clementine’s past are broken up with trips into his deep past as Joel tries to hide his memories of his lover amidst unrelated memories.
An example, you say? Very well. At one point Joel tries to hide Clementine in a memory of himself as a child, hiding under the kitchen table. Adult Joel is dressed in his little-boy pajamas, acting like a little kid, while Clementine finds herself in the roll of Joel’s mother. Clementine’s reaction says it best: “This is a little warped.”
Warped, yes. Also wonderfully rooted in psychology that makes sense and tied to memorable images. Kaufman gives us literally everything we need from a story with a concept this big. He gives us everything from inventive set pieces to painful character moments, and every one of them ties right back into his High Concept. This is how it’s supposed to work. This is the kind of story that makes us want to like High Concept stories when they come out, even when most of them can’t get past their own marketing pitch.
It’s not just Kaufman who makes this story succeed. Spotless Mind is definitely a writer’s film in a lot of important ways, but it would fall flat on its face without the right director actors. Michel Gondry’s direction is somehow minimalist and extravagant at the same time. His lighting and color palette seem almost documentary for much of the movie, yet he mixes in surreal visuals throughout that remind us that this is certainly not reality. And he pulls performances out of his actors that are both subtle and surprising.
Jim Carrey is understated in a way that I’ve never seen. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve known the man can act for a long time. But even in his best roles, Carrey brings an energy that’s his signature. In Spotless Mind, he seems a man who may have never had that energy at all. Even if he had it, though, he’s been broken of it. And Kate Winslet, who plays Clementine, maintains a balance of cruel selfishness and alluring beauty that is so true to the kind of people Clementine is based on that the skill it took to pull off is easy to miss. It’s no secret I’m madly in love with Kate Winslet, but even as a fan I can say I haven’t been this impressed by her in a long time.
Gondry also pulls surprising performances out of his supporting cast. Kirsten Dunst, an actress capable of some really banal performances, has a delicacy here I wish she could bring to all of her rolls. Elijah Wood plays Nice Seeming Creep well enough to make you forget how cuddly he was as Frodo, and if you didn’t notice Mark Ruffalo before seeing this movie, you’ll be seeking him out after. As for Tom Wilkinson…well, the guy is always amazing, so he’s just as great here.
Spotless Mind is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s more terrifying than most horror films. It tells a love story that is so un-Hollywood that you may not even like the idea of Joel and Clementine together. Which is the point, isn’t it? These two were poisonous for each other, but something attracted them enough to let them get hurt. If they don’t remember each other, and don’t remember what went wrong, what’s to stop that from happening all over when they meet again?