Know The Mind For the First Time: Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind May Rock the Soul

by phil on Monday Mar 22, 2004 9:14 AM

About a year ago I am ejecting myself out of my seat in the movie theater, having just been moved by the latest Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation. The feeling of being enthralled by such beautiful wit was so engaging that the film, to some degree, even helped eject me out of college for about six months. It struck me that with such passionate, intellectual sensations in world, there was no point in following a life on the supposed "Golden Path." In other words, I felt that there were more important things in life than slaving over homework oriented for a lukewarm career and lifestyle.

I feel a similar potency breathing from Kaufman's latest film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And this has all to do with my particular, spiritual turn-ons when it comes to art. Read more to find out what these are (some spoilers ahead).

My appreciation all comes down to this quote (from The Fog of War):

"We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started...
and know the place for the first time."
-T. S. Eliot (#)

Sunshine simulates an exploration of the mind that leaves you permanently changed in the way you view living. It's basically a head-trip about the peculiar nature of objects in our universe: everything exists in the moment, but retains a fading record of its history. We, for example, have no idea that we existed 1 second ago, 10 minutes ago, or yesterday, except that we have memories that instruct us so. We also live parallel lives in each of the REM cycles of sleep that are just as real as the waking life, but appear blurry or non-existent because of memory loss upon awakening.

While this is a simple concept, that memories fade, it is presented from a rare perspective. The setting is in the future when neuroscientific tinkering of the brain is as common as seeing the dentist. Jim Carrey is a patient at Lacuna and wishes to erase the memory of a lover who has rejected him. The operatives put him to sleep but he is subtly aware and can see each memory being erased, one moment at a time. He panics when he realizes that he regrets the erasure and would rather embrace both the sweet and the sour of life in his tortured relationship.

Attentive viewers recognize mid-way, though, that they are not witnessing science-fiction but what happens in reality. We live with a constant deletion of the past: every relationship, every achievement, and every high is incredibly ephemeral. While we probably accept this on some level, Kaufman scripts this aspect of life from such a novel point-of-view that the "truth becomes stranger than fiction" as they say. Since I really cannot do justice to this effect, just go watch the film.

How Adaptation, Sunshine, and other similar works affect me

What compels some to become philosophers is a need to understand who we are on a deeper level. I identify with this struggle, and so I seek out the most fantastic pieces that excavate into the depths of the imagination for answers. In particular, I love works that mix head-trips, colorful imagery, and scientific insight into cantankerous bombs of enlightenment. The following are some of my favorite examples of this power manifest: Dawkins on Memetics, Kurzweil's Age of Spiritual Machines, and Buckminster Fuller's Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. All three creatively approach life from a glancing blow, splitting open your mind to dispell mystery and replace it with scientific magic.

I've made up a term to describe the sense of inspiration I feel experiencing these works: Eschaton. The dictionary definition of the stolen word is that it's a term to denote "end of the world" banter. A standard example of Eschaton is The Singularity, which is this hypothetical future point when technology accelerates enough that we can engineer a Heaven on Earth. Another familiar example is Rapture, which is Jesus's Second Coming. Humans have a tendency to ponder Eschaton, and it emerges in proclamations of doom and peril, like warnings of World War III. (Why do we do this? Who knows, maybe we have this desire to just "throw it all away" or its an advanced form of escapism).

My repurposing of the term describes moments when I feel like the world could end and I would still be happy. As a result, I frequently speak of a desire to reach Eschaton through art, relationships, or in any experience.

The three aforementioned pieces and the two Kaufman films make me feel Eschaton in the same way that I bet the Bible does to religious types. The Bible blows many readers back away from their normal humdrum, as they suddenly discover their existence profound. They gain such a rare insight that they are forced to clear their minds and meditate on the new implications of this special knowledge.

This may seem like a heady emotion that I'm describing, but I think Eschaton is a primitive, spiritual emotion that I bet early hominids felt. They were on the Serengeti, hunting and gathering all day, and then suddenly one of them stops dead in his or her tracks, looks up at the sky, and becomes aware that he exists, that he will die, and that he should make the most of his life. He transfers this meme to other hominids, "live for the moment!", which turns him into a proto-Messiah of the stone age.

Back to the film...

In a nutshell, this film and Adaptation have inspired me to replicate equally dizzying emotions in myself and in others; the first thought on my mind when the credits started to roll was, "Man, to think like Charlie Kaufman!"

If I found a way to mix scientific insight, artful prose, and enlightenment all in a concise form, then man, that would be Eschaton.

Unfortunately, most viewers will hate this film. Just like I'm not moved by the Bible, I expect that there are others who are not tuned to the same triggers in Sunshine. If you don't get that avalanche of emotion from the movie (David Edelstein called the film "The Best Movie in a Decade"), then you will be irritated by the crazy time-slicing, and you will encounter the romantic story constantly off-phase. I concede it was tough to sit through the whole thing, but the "spiritual" enlightenment was worth it.

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