2004, dir. Michel Gondry. In a word, Judaism is this: Remember! From the Holocaust to the destruction of the Temple, we spend much of our communal life recalling catastrophes and glories past. For that reason, equally tempting is the possibility of forgetting—of shedding the burden of history, of beginning anew. This is the premise at the heart of so much of 20th-century Jewish American art—all those nice boys turning their backs on their shtetlized roots, eager to assimilate. And it’s the premise, quite literally, of Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
What if, Kaufman asks, you could have your memories erased? What if you could go to sleep and wake up relieved of traumas and heartaches? Jim Carey takes the plunge, in an effort to overcome his breakup with Kate Winslet. And like every young, libidinous Jewish man this side of Portnoy, he learns that it’s not so easy to avoid destiny. Nor, in fact, is it necessarily desirable.
Michel Gondry’s sleek, post-modern touch deracinated this fundamentally Jewish tale quite a bit, but some stark reminders are impossible to avoid. For one thing, almost everyone Carey interacts with—from Winslet’s Clementine Kruczynski to Tom Wilkinson’s Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the doctor who performs the memory erasure procedure—is of Polish descent. Add to that one scene too many on a train, and you’ve got the modern Jewish experience in one weird, beautiful film.