Wednesday, October 13, 2004

je ne regrette rien

'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' adds another layer of gilt to the shrine that already exists in this house to the complicated Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich; Adaptation), and another layer of guilt to its fellow, attic-banished shrine of painful memories that refuse to submit to the relentless attrition of time - grim granite outcrops in a sandstone landscape.
I know it's fashionable to live a life of no regrets, but really, come on.
so your soulmate dumps you - what are you supposed to do? 'move on', of course! (one of those lumps of sticky jargon that have migrated across the pond via the yoof-kulcha network - see also 'closure', 'get over it', etc). as if this thing you perceived as having been the single most important event in your life were a dodgy paving stone over which you've tripped. so - pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and dum dum diddle dum dum. but what if the memories of the good times - the things you're recommended to concentrate on by the fixed smiley school of positive thinking - are precisely, exquisitely unbearable simply because they define the horrifying scale of the void caused by the absence of the presence that they embodied? time, eventually, is supposed to seal it all away in a muffled morphean cocoon, after all.
and it's just this gaffer-tape-fix take on human complexity that Kaufman challenges in this remarkable and refreshingly equivocal (for Hollywood) movie: what if, he proposes, there was a way of erasing those memories completely, the good and the bad - what if you could fix it so that none of it had ever happened?
it's a doozy, this memory thing.
it's a premise, of course, that doesn't withstand much logical scrutiny - but that's not the point (discovering a trapdoor into John Malkovich's head doesn't, either, and that one worked, too). few people can negotiate a way through being alive without suffering - physically, emotionally, mentally, psychically. an individual's capacity to endure, indeed, is regarded as a measure of their character. none of us freely choose it, but our humanity seems to be defined, in large part, more by the way we negotiate adversity and pain - both our own and others' - than by any other set of circumstances. at its simplest, the experience of pain is a warning that some external threat is compromising the body's physical integrity: that, unless you withdraw your hand from proximity with that flame, there will be damage. under such circumstances, the physical reaction is automatic - the pain-ouch-move hand away sequence is very fast. job done. however, this sequence, unchanged since we were amoeba, is overlayed with a shimmering, fearsomely complex neural net of higher brain functions which, under different circumstances, will assess this thing we call 'pain', and evaluate it.
the calibration of pain, however, is an inexact science. it's difficult enough, confronted with a scale of one to ten on which one is mild discomfort and ten is screamingly intolerable agony, to place accurately the level of a severe case of tennis elbow, for example - pain, like the body's other wave-functions, displays characteristics of frequency and amplitude, so a self-assessed scale 7 might be an average of 5 and 9 at different times of the day and under different physical conditions. and as for emotional pain - well, you might as well construct the scales out of fairy-dust.
who, in their right mind, having suffered the agony of rejection that is failed love, would freely choose to go through all that again? 'Eternal Sunshine...' asks - and, because this is, when all's said and done, a Hollywood feelgood comedy, the answer's never in doubt: just about all of us. how else account for the thousands of millions who do - just - keep on hoping - that they, in the face of the overwhelming statistical evidence to the contrary, will be the ones who will be able to say - we made it, eternal sunshine, nous ne regrettons rien? foolish, stupid even, but essentially human.
our memories, essentially, are indispensible: an accretive entity, a part of our selves as deeply rooted in our sense of self as the image we see in the mirror. we might not like half of them, but tough - we might not like our feet, either, and what would we do without them? fall over, that's what.

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