Eternal Sunshine and Remember?: The Same Concept Across a Few Generations
So last week I watched this strange film called Remember? from 1939. The synopsis reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—in both films, former lovers utilize mind-erasing technology to forget each other—and I was curious how such a postmodern concept was going to be executed circa 1939. What I found was that Remember? is not exactly the mind-bendingly awesome experience that Eternal Sunshine is, though there were interesting similarities.
Basically, what happens is this. Lew Ayers meets Greer Garson on vacation, gets quickly engaged to her and brings her home to meet his best buddy Robert Taylor. Of course, Taylor and Garson fall in love instead. Ayers has apparently not seen his own movie, Holiday, in which almost the exact same thing happens when Cary Grant meets this woman on vacation, gets quickly engaged, and she brings him home to meet her sister, Katharine Hepburn, prompting Grant and Hepburn to fall in love (but, then, Ayers is the drunk brother in that movie, so that would account for him not remembering it). Anyway, Garson and Taylor fall in love and, with Ayers’ blessing, get married themselves. It doesn’t work out, and they’re soon divorced, but LUCKILY, Ayers and Taylor work for an advertising company that is developing a campaign for a forgetfulness serum. Ayers feeds the serum to his terribly depressed best friend—and Garson gets a hold of it somehow, too, I forget how—and, just like Joel and Clementine in Eternal Sunshine, the pair meet again and fall for each other again.
Eternal Sunshine plays philosophically with this concept. The movie opens after Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have both undergone memory erasure, and they meet each other on commuter train. They chat, they bicker, they make a date for later. We as viewers don’t know what’s happening any more than they do, though the backstory is gradually filled in, prompting us to ask questions like, “Can people be meant for each other? Are we doomed to repeat our romantic mistakes again and again? Could a ‘restart’ ever really work?”
Instead of asking penetrating questions, Remember? just gives the concept classic 30s screwball treatment. Everyone else in these characters’ lives knows that Taylor and Garson are former spouses, but they themselves don’t know. She brings him home to dinner: “Mother, I’d like you to meet Jeff!” Taylor tells Ayers about her: “Buddy, I got a feeling about this girl!” It’s wacky, and you just wait for the other shoe to drop. But, again, it’s the screwball 30s, so the shoe doesn’t need to drop, and it doesn’t. Many of these screwball stories just basically spin out of control until someone calls “The End.” They are not what we might call narratively tight.
Meanwhile, the narrative is one of the features I’ve always particularly admired about Eternal Sunshine. You have to keep up and pay attention, but ultimately the non-linearity is crucial to the effect of the movie. Like I said, it opens with Joel and Clementine meeting for the second time and feeling an attraction to each other. It flashes back to just after their first breakup, and Joel’s decision to erase his memory the way Clementine has already done. The process is begun, and viewers see the memories unfold as they are sought out and destroyed—backwards. Their terminal argument, then their tense final days, and slowly on in to their happier days. I wrote a film paper last semester about narrative desire—the audience’s compulsive need for the story to turn out in a certain way (the couple needs to reunite! the underdog needs to win the game! etc.). The effect of the reverse narrative is extraordinary—it kickstarts the viewers’ narrative desire and makes them root for these characters by getting the worst of Joel and Clementine’s relationship out of the way at the beginning, and then gradually returning them to their earlier, more hopeful days. The movie is bookended by their two first meetings—the second one and the first one—which makes it feel more like a true love story than it really has any right to be.
So, Eternal Sunshine works as both a narrative and a love story, and Remember? doesn’t really work as either. It’s not a fair battle, because Eternal Sunshine is one of the best movies of the 21st century—officially—and Remember? was a flop when it came out. (Couldn’t compete with Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz, apparently.)
But there’s also the fact that ‘screwball comedy’ and ‘high-concept’ are a bad match. The way characters act in screwball comedies is already ridiculous enough—Bringing Up Baby ends with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (again!) literally hanging off the reconstructed skeleton of a dinosaur. To also have to accept brain-erasing serum into the bargain is too much. Seeing how wrong Remember? does it just highlights everything that Eternal Sunshine gets right. The unbelieveable situations (courtesy of the whacked-out script by Charlie Kaufman and the pop-art direction of Michel Gondry) are perfectly balanced by the realism of the characters.
These films, they are delicate recipes! Eternal Sunshine is savory and delicious! Remember? is off, like a microwaved burrito. OK if you're really hungry and it's lunchtime, but (appropriately) easily forgotten.