Indistinguishable from Magic

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | Focus Features

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
—Arthur C. Clarke’s third law

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
—The opening line of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude

On the fondly remembered day that opens Gabriel García Márquez’s most famous novel, young Aureliano is taken to the tent of a traveler to witness a miracle. He has spent his small handful of years under a heavy sun, amidst the heat and dust of Macondo; stepping out of the blazing sky into the tent’s shade and finding a solid block of cool, crisp water is a mystical defiance of everything he understands about the world. Ghosts wander melancholy through Macondo’s homes, the blood of a murdered son crawls through its streets towards the victim’s mother, the sky cries yellow flowers down through the air to mourn a great man’s passing, a young boy sees ice for the first time.
One Hundred Years of Solitude makes no distinction between the wonder of these things; it is a novel full of magical things told to us as if they were the most ordinary of occurrences, everyday events elevated to the plane of pure magic.

In a 1969 interview with Spanish journalist Miguel Fernandez-Braso, Márquez described this technique as a way of “destroying the lines of demarcation that separate what seems to be real from what seems fantastic.” Márquez’s lyrical, lackadaisical style ambles between the everyday and the impossible without discrimination, following a dream logic that accepts everything that occurs without question. Sentences run on in hazy streams, one place fades into another, one moment in time melts into the next. His hypnagogic prose draws the eye away from the situation’s facts and immerses the reader instead in the feel of each encounter: The lavender smell that lingers in the air, the timeworn photograph in the corner of the room, the puddle of moonlight splashed across a sleeping body. The boundaries of reality are softened just enough that, when the phantoms and soothsayers appear, their arrival doesn’t come as a violent disruption to a rigid order, but a gentle realignment of reality.

Márquez’s prose opens us to an acceptance of magical things and his characters reaffirm it by refusing to draw a solid line between what can and cannot occur. Macondo sits on the fringes of the modern world and scientific progress arrives alongside soothsayers and fairy tales, brought there by travelers who are at once salesmen, scientists, magicians, and entertainers. The discovery of telescopes, projectors, astrolabes, and ice pushes back against the boundaries of what Macondo’s citizens believe to be real. The sight of an actor dying on-screen in one film only to reappear unharmed in the next is no less astonishing than the vision of a dead man wandering through his family home. Technology and magic are introduced in tandem and given equal weight, wondrous additions to the reality of people who have learned not to be surprised by impossible things.

This blending of the mundane and the mystical is the hallmark of magical realism, a genre in which the story is always filled with fantastical things but seldom driven by them. Fantasy stories are more likely to place magic at the center of their narrative, invoking prophesies of “chosen ones,” worlds to save and battles between light and dark. In magical realist tales, magic plays a subtler role, wandering lightly in and out of the story, moving to the forefront one moment only to disappear from sight the next. In its wanderings, it throws light upon what Cuban author Alejo Carpentier called lo real marvilloso, or “the marvelous real.” It inserts magic into the everyday to show us the magic that was already there.

As One Hundred Years of Solitude’s seven generations of Buendía play out their lives before us, we see great love spring from nowhere and watch the purest adoration sour. We see menace creep out of good intentions and families torn apart, restored and transformed. We see the whole world change in ways that seemed impossible only pages ago. In life and—more than anything—in love, Márquez calls up the magic of the everyday, the moments of perfect madness that lend human life its luster.

The world of Macondo might feel far away and inherently closer to fairy tale to modern readers, but many films have achieved great popularity by applying the same techniques to a world closer to our own. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Ruby Sparks and Harold Ramis’ endlessly re-watched and beloved Groundhog Day all revolve around magical happenings that go entirely unexplained. A character slips back in time, cycles endlessly through the same day, or finds his latest literary creation eating breakfast in his apartment, and that is simply that. The hero makes a futile effort to uncover the mechanism behind the miracle before turning back to the issues that concerned him before: how to live, how to love, what it all means. Feeling like you were born in the wrong time, seeking a perfection that doesn’t exist, becoming complacent to the small joys of life; these are all problems which the characters wrestle with even before their world is interrupted by the inexplicable.

While these films are content to situate themselves in the realm of pure magic, offering no hint of an explanation for their fantastical twists, others bring magic to us as it was often delivered to Macondo: indistinguishable from science. Spike Jonze’s Her presents us with a world almost recognizable as our own, separated from our reality by only a few technological flourishes like holographic videogames and artificially intelligent operating systems. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind inserts a singular element of fantasy—a device able to remove specific memories from a person’s mind—into an otherwise real world. Their magical elements are presented as technological advancements which stem from things that already exists within the real world. However, in their storytelling style and in the role which their unrealistic elements play, both films operate as magical realism, set within the era of iPhones and algorithms.  

Most of us now live surrounded by technology we don’t fully understand, relying upon electronics, interfaces, and internet networks every single day. We have become very used to settling for knowing how to work a machine, rather than knowing how the machine works. Mostly, we are content to live like technological tourists, educated to the point of functionality but largely ignorant to anything occurring below the surface. This allows films like Her or Eternal Sunshine to introduce elements of fantasy and have them appear as “science.” As with Márquez, the ambiguity between the two is designed not only to make technology appear as wondrous as magic, but to draw attention to the wonder that can be found in everyday life.

Spike Jonze’s Her is set in a slightly futuristic version of Los Angeles and tells the story of a writer named Theodore. The whole city in which he lives appears to have taken on the style of an office’s creative hub. Everything is sleek in a way that looks modern, without appearing cold or uncomfortable: bold block colors, plenty of glass to let in the sunlight, furniture made stylishly snug by soft edges and rounded corners. It’s a world almost recognizable as our own, but a little cleaner, softer, better maintained. The personal devices which everyone carries are also familiar, and the way in which commuters and co-workers bury themselves in them even more so. The casual way in which Theodore engages with his tech tells us not to accord any of it any special wonder. When Samantha comes along—an entirely conscious operating system with the capacity to freely learn and grow—he asks a few basic questions about how she works and is given a few basic answers, but her existence is never cause for astonishment. Adverts for OSes like Samantha play in train stations and office lobbies, droning out to passers-by who aren’t paying attention. In Theodore’s world, artificial intelligence is entirely unremarkable.

Eternal Sunshine draws focus even further from its magical machinery by breaking its story into fragments, shattering its chronology and leaving us to piece it all gradually back together. For much of the movie, we don’t know to look for anything more than two people feeling drawn towards each other in a way they don’t fully understand and struggling to love one another well. When Lacuna Inc.’s mind-erasing device enters the story, it is accepted easily with only the briefest explanation offered for its inner workings.

A key way in which these films differ from Midnight in Paris or Ruby Sparks is the manner in which their characters regard the magic they encounter. Midnight’s Gil and Ruby Sparks’ Calvin are mesmerized and baffled by the things they experience, while Theodore and Eternal Sunshine’s Joel take them immediately in stride. By posing their unrealistic elements as science rather than magic, Her and Eternal Sunshine don’t have to devote time to their characters’ questions or confusion. They can walk their highest concepts right into the hero’s living room and go from there.

Namechecking words we recognize as “science” tells us not to worry about the parts of the story we don’t understand, to stay under the spell rather than vexing ourselves with its intricacies. We don’t need to understand the science behind a bumblebee remaining airborne to know that it can fly, and we don’t need to worry about the elements of these stories which look a little unreal. If we place the fantastical and the mundane upon the same plain of reality, we can simply sit back and enjoy them both.   

Her’s fuzzy shallow-focus look and warm colors make it feel like a daydream or the idyllic recollection of earlier days, embellished by nostalgia’s golden glow. Theodore’s relationship with Sam shows the exhilaration of falling for someone and the sense of home found in a relationship that feels right, while its sun-dappled flashbacks to the early days of his failed marriage are a melancholy reminder of how deeply that happiness can hurt when it’s gone. Eternal Sunshine’s fractured style gives every scene the beginningless quality of an actual dream, dropping us in to the middle of each in media res, just disorientated enough to accept whatever we see. Both films take their storytelling cues directly from Márquez’s ambling, magical realist prose and lead us in a happy sleepwalk through their tales, leaving the part of our mind that might question that magic to rest while the rest of us floats on through the story.

Just as the characters pay little notice, the narratives themselves allow the fact that Samantha is an OS, or that Joel and Clementine have wiped each other from their minds, to mostly fade into secondary importance. Both films quickly dispatch with the question of “how” these things occur. Their real interest is in what their magical elements mean in human, personal terms.

Despite the fact that Theodore and Samantha’s decision to become romantically involved is essentially the center of the film’s story, it is only explicitly discussed in two scenes: One with his ex-wife Catherine and one with his best friend Amy. In the first of these scenes, Catherine and Theodore meet for lunch to sign their divorce papers and legally finalize the reality they have been living for over a year. It begins gawkily polite, both making clear and conscious efforts to smile through the last difficult moment they will ever be forced to share. But the tenuous peace is soon shattered when the subject of Samantha arises and Catherine angrily unloads on Theodore for choosing a computer over a “real” relationship.

As is often the case with people whose history runs long and deep, what they’re fighting about is not really what they’re fighting about. The fact that Samantha is an OS is the pretext for their argument but not the reason; we know this because their fight begins before this information is even revealed. Their conversation first becomes strained when Catherine takes Theodore’s enamored description of his new partner as a passive-aggressive attack on herself. Wordless cuts to their shared past show how happy they once were and how it all fell apart. Scenes of lazy mornings in bed and drunken nights out play like home movies inside their heads, flipped on as soon as they see each other. From the moment they sit down, the air is loaded with the residual tension of all their past fights, the leftover energy from their years of highs and lows. The smiling mention of someone new is all the spark it takes to ignite such a high-pressure atmosphere; the discovery that she resides inside a laptop was just the obvious direction to channel the explosion once it had begun.

Theodore’s conversation with Amy is at once the complete opposite and exactly the same. When he confesses to her that he’s fallen for his OS, she excitedly tells him that she has done the same. They giggle around the subject of sex and beam about how happy they are, how lifted and energized the other person makes them feel. Once again, the fact that they’re talking about OSes quickly fades out of focus. They discuss the mechanics of sex with a bodiless partner the way we might talk about the tactics for making a long-distance relationship work, or the best way to indulge a particular kink. They are just two friends delighting in the details of their new relationships.

We don’t care that Samantha is an OS, that this relationship is inherently fantastical and strange, because the film has made it normal for us. We’ve seen Theodore and Samantha get to know each other, talk aimlessly and strive to make each other laugh, fall out and make up again. Despite Catherine’s protests, what we have witnessed is a “real” relationship: magical because of how it captures the feeling of finding someone, not because that someone is made of computer code. The aspects that make it marvelous are the same ones that make it real.

Eternal Sunshine’s most famous sequence takes place after Joel discovers that Clementine has had all memory of him removed. He vengefully seeks to do the same. As the procedure begins, his mind is forced to flick back through their time together, allowing him to finally see through its angry, exhausted ending to the good times they shared. In the process, he changes his mind about the procedure, but it’s too late to stop it and he is forced to flee down through the layers of his memory, seeking a safe place to harbor some reminder of her so that she won’t be lost to him forever. It’s a dazzling sequence that merges magic and mundanity, taking snapshots of a realistic relationship and stringing them together along a magical thread.

Lacuna’s machine does take on a more prominent role at this point in the story, directly impacting the fate of the central characters. But the film doesn’t delve into its workings and the heroes don’t pursue its destruction; it acts only as a catalyst to the relationship they are already having. As the screen flickers through scenes from their relationship like a disordered carousel projector, we see them fall in and out of love, wrapping themselves up in one another so tightly they start to crave the world outside of their relationship. Her’s Amy describes love as “a socially acceptable form of insanity,” and we watch them work through all of its symptoms. Lacuna Inc. offers a cure that raises the question of whether the pain is worth the pleasure, whether couples like Joel and Clementine want to keep leaving claw marks on each other or detach altogether, abandoning the good and the bad. It is the question they were asking anyway, without Lacuna’s intervention. If the only real question of philosophy is suicide, the only real question for two people together is breaking up. By inserting Lacuna’s machine into its story, Eternal Sunshine is able to explore that question through the dizzying imagery of a man running for his life through a labyrinth of memories.

Love was never far from the heart of anything Gabriel García Márquez wrote. Magic dances through the pages of all his most beloved works, enchanting us with their invention and absurdity. But once the show is over, it is the simpler stories of meetings that felt like fate, evenings that felt like lifetimes, and nights that changed lives which echo in our minds. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a young José Arcadio is entranced by a passing “gypsy” girl and they go to bed together. Their passion builds, he gasps a stream of curse words in her ear, and she translates them back to him in her own tongue. Love and language, body and mind coiling briefly and perfectly together as two people vanquish the entire world by vanishing into one another. In the novel’s great span, it is a moment of little significance, and there is nothing supernatural at work. But the scene feels as mystical as anything that befalls the Buendía family.

Falling in love is something that happens entirely inside your head, a force that springs up from nowhere between you and another, quickly becoming as concrete a reality as the bed you share. It drives huge parts of your life, influences many of your biggest decisions and throws the importance of everything around you into a new light. All without anything tangibly changing. Invisible, untraceable, impossible to confirm; any accurate description of it sounds more like magic than science. Just as Márquez did before them, films like Her and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind insert elements of the magical into reality, and draw no line between the two, making the marvelous real, and the real marvelous. A.I. girlfriends and memory-erasing machines, two people building something life-changing out of the thin air between them: if one is not magical, neither is the other.