Amnesia is one of those rare mental conditions like narcissism that it's O.K. to make fun of. Maybe that's why it's such a favorite among screenwriters: since Christmas, we have had no fewer than three movies that revolve around people misplacing their memories. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet pay to have the memory of their lousy relationship erased. Paycheck was a sci-fi thriller about a man (Ben Affleck) whose employers wipe his memory for security purposes. (As an extra precaution, they then erased Paycheck from the memory of the entire moviegoing public.) And in 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore plays a woman with amnesia who is endlessly wooed and rewooed by Adam Sandler. Apparently she forgot they had hooked up before in The Wedding Singer.
And that's not all. There's an amnesia epidemic raging at the box office: Memento, The Bourne Identity, Finding Nemo, Vanilla Sky, The Man Without a Past, the entire Matrix trilogy; and don't forget that Carrey forgot who he was once before in The Majestic. Why the obsession with absentmindedness? This isn't just a handy screenwriting device. There's something going on here, somewhere down in the zeitgeist-haunted basement of popular culture where our national subconscious lives. Why can't the great American movie hero remember who he is?
In Eternal Sunshine, Carrey and Winslet are Joel and Clem, two sad sacks trapped in a dead-end, no-hope, kill-me-now love affair in small-town Long Island, N.Y. They can't stand each other, and they can't break up. Out of desperation Clem undergoes a medical procedure that wipes all traces of Joel from her memory. When Joel finds out about it, he goes to the same doctor to have Clem erased too. It's a love story, but it's also an existential head scratcher, an endless M.C. Escher escalator. Who's to say the doomed lovers haven't fallen in love and broken up before? Maybe they've loved and lost a hundred times before, like the last damn level of a video game they can't beat? The possibility opens up bottomless gulfs of self-doubt. If our minds are as rippable, mixable and burnable as an MP3, how can we ever be sure we know who we are?
There's something profoundly sinister and infectious about the idea, and it's a virus we caught from our computers. We spend all day working in a ghost world of digital data, computerized information that's manipulable, rewritable, copyable, rebootable and erasable. Then we go home to a computer full of MP3s and a TiVo full of reruns. Eternal Sunshine plays on the creeping suspicion that our memories might work the same way that deep down we're not unique immortal souls but swirls of fungible data points on a rewritable hard drive. If all we know of reality, of ourselves, is information, and information is infinitely malleable, how can we be sure it hasn't been corrupted? What if we all have amnesia, and we've just forgotten that we have it? Joel is a new kind of hero: he's not struggling with somebody else or with himself. He's fighting for the idea that there's a "he" to fight in the first place, and in the end it's not at all clear that he wins. Existential certainty? Fuhgeddaboutit.
Joel's trapped in a nightmare, but he got there by following a dream, a dream that's both tenderly hopeful and profoundly American: the second chance, the clean slate, the shot at redemption. There's another reason amnesia movies are everywhere: America is the land of amnesia, a frictionless meritocracy where anybody can start over at any time and work his way to the top, and every baseball team can show up on opening day with an undefeated record. It's not a mental problem; it's a national tradition. Compared with other nations, America itself is an amnesia patient, a country with only a fairly recent history to speak of, fabricated out of whole cloth a mere 200 years and change ago by a bunch of people who figured they'd start afresh on a brand-new, spotless continent. Maybe that's why we think we can go overseas and build brand-new nations from scratch hey, that's how we did it, right? Wipe the slate clean and reprogram the patient? But as Joel discovers in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's not quite that simple: however much you wipe and wipe that slate out, damned spot!--something, some mysterious, unerasable palimpsest, remains behind.
It would be tempting to end here with the historian George Santayana--"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"--but I think the comedian Steven Wright said it better: "Right now I'm having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I've forgotten this before."