Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
If you’ve been following my channel for a while now, you might be surprised by something I’ve been keeping a secret: I would not have described Buffy as one of my personal darlings when I first started doing this. Those bits of fiction you treasure so intensely that, despite your better intentions, you find yourself using them as litmus tests for who you spend time with: “Wait…you don’t like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? But Cameron is ME. Actually, I think I’m busy this weekend. “ In fact, that was probably part of the reason why I chose to talk about Buffy first.
I wanted to get a little practice writing and editing again, before tackling one of my babies like Next Generation or The Last Airbender. Things are obviously different now and Buffy has become something I treasure just as much as my Dad that isn’t Giles, Jean Luc. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has been a passionate love of mine since the first viewing. And, honestly, I’m still finding the idea of writing about it intimidating. There is nothing like Eternal Sunshine, except, very oddly, the Buffy episode Restless. The structural and tonal similarities between the two are eerie. Like Restless, the plot of Eternal Sunshine is probably it’s the least interesting feature. Joel and Clementine are not particularly remarkable people, and the movie features an assortment of moments so common to any relationship that to list them feels mundane. Certainly nothing quite so romantic as freezing to death for love. Move OVER Rose. Actually, that scene makes a lot more sense if you imagine Rose is Clementine.
Titanic Montage. But it is the mundane that actually makes Eternal Sunshine so remarkable. The movie casts a spell similar to something we all go through at one time or another. Often, the top 40 on the radio feel like trite repetitions of old sad love songs we’ve heard over and over and over again. But when we’re in the midst of a breakup, those songs feel like they’re singing about us. Our experience elevates art. With this movie, When Joel says the thing he can’t take back, I feel it as I did when I said horrible things to past loves out of my own insecurity. When Joel begs to hold onto their last moment of intimacy, I find myself mourning for specific happy moments of my own lost relationships. And when Joel and Clementine say goodbye, I feel the loss as if it were mine.
That is the magic of Eternal Sunshine. It is art that elevates our experience. My discussion of the film that follows will include a breakdown of its structure, and there is a lot of power to Eternal Sunshine’s surprises so, if you haven’t seen it yet, consider what I’ve just said my plea to go and watch this one. Now is your time to stop the video and come back to us when you’re done. Summary The story opens with Joel waking up in his bed. We can tell by the meandering music and Jim Carrey’s performance that it’s another dull day with fate against him. Joel calls in sick and heads to the beach in the wintertime. “I don’t know why. I’m not an impulsive person.” There are bits of his journal missing.
His first entry in two years. And this is where first we meet. “I’m Clementine.” She takes Joel back to her place and makes him a drink with the same name as her hair. “Two Blue Ruins.” The next evening, Clem takes him to the frozen lake for what is probably the most iconic shot in the movie, and one that, in a movie that frequently looks visually like handheld organic improv, feels very constructed. The shot itself and the lead up to it represent Joel and Clem’s relationship. “What if it breaks?” This is Joel’s hesitance to start a relationship for what might happen. “What if? Do you really care right now?” And Clementine’s philosophy to life immediately after. “I think I heard a crack.” – “It’s not going to crack.” As an image for their relationship, it’s significant then that the ice they’re laying on has many major cracks already.
I love the way that, despite the differences in their height, they are framed as equals. The next morning, Clem asks to sleep at Joel’s house and, while she’s getting her stuff, Frodo knocks on the window and gets all weird on Ace Ventura. At a different time, we see Joel grieving. Something has apparently happened between him and Clementine. At home, Joel is stopped in the hallway by his neighbor Frank who obviously doesn’t know about the breakup yet. “You’re lucky you have Clementine man. She is way cool.” Joel goes to his room, takes a pill. Some men enter, and he wakes up inside his memories now playing in reverse. Starting with his neighbor Frank not reading the room.
Throughout, the director Michel Gondry uses an array of techniques to show the fallibility of Joel’s memory, starting here by using a different take from Frank than the one we heard in the hallway. “McRomance. Time moves backward and Joel is hanging out with his friends Tobias and Mary. For such a high concept piece of science fiction, there are just SO many great little moments in parallel relationships that feel authentic and real. And I love the way the scene lets Tobias and Carrie have their own obvious baggage without feeling the need to explain it. “What’s your fucking solution, Mary?” – “Oh, you’re going to make this about our stuff? This isn’t about us.” Tobias hands Joel a card from a company called Lacuna stating that Clem has had her memory of their relationship erased.
Joel relives his memory of going to lacuna and making the same arrangement as Clem with Dr. Mryzwiak. Lacuna means an unfilled space or interval. And I was struck by how Clem’s erasure forces Joel to skip a few stages of grief. There’s no bargaining. No trying to get her back. The relationship is OVER. Though it was the sight of Buster’s owner on the verge of erasing Buster that the horror of the movie’s premises really struck home. Don’t ERASE BUSTER. YOUR MEMORY IS ALL THAT’S LEFT of him. As Howard explained the process to Joel… “Well, technically speaking, the procedure IS brain damage but it’s on par with a night of heavy drinking.
Nothing you’ll miss.” I keep thinking…Jesus…how many relationships have I lost? And in Joel’s apartment, we meet part of team Lacuna in Bruce Banner and Frodo Baggins. More on that Fellowship in a moment. We step back in time to Joel and Clem’s last moment together, another beat, common to any relationship that I feel in my chest when it happens. The thing you can’t take back. In this case, Joel’s insecurity driving him to cause damage proportional to how he feels. “No see Clem, I assume that you fucked someone tonight. Isn’t that how you get people to like you?” Hoy…Winslett and Carrey play this so beautifully. Clem is just done. Not even interested in sniping anymore. And Carrey plays the panic of, “What have I done?” SO well.
Still angry but clear that he just overstepped a line. “I’m sorry. I was just…angry or nervous or something. The scene is so potent and real. They’re both being terrible to each other disproportionate to the fight itself. Something they’re not talking about is the REAL thing that’s bothering them both. And they’re both needling each other because of it. “What’re you? A wino?” “Did she fuck someone tonight.” But it’s Joel who finds the edge and the moment feels perfectly authentic. The impulse to draw blood in a fight and the instant regret when it works. Time steps back and we hear the last conversation leading to Clem storming out.
“I want to have a baby.” “Clem, do you really think you could take care of a kid?” “What? I’d make a fucking good mother.” The memory starts to fade and we cut back to my least favorite part of the movie. Every cut to the Lacunites after getting completely sucked into Joel and Clem’s relationship is like being dumped into a bathtub of ice water. “Patrick. You stole a girl’s panties.” I hate them. But we’ll get into that. Bruce says Mary Jane Watson is coming over later and Frodo explains that he has been dating Clementine since they erased her memory. Joel overhears and when he does there is a very cool shot of him on his own television. The scene cuts to slightly later with Clem leaving and Joel playing dead. On the television is an episode of the Munster’s playing, in which grandfather is trying to find a recipe for a love potion – the connection to the shot of Joel from before.
Joel’s cute attempt to get Clem to stay using their play dead game, and the way in which it fails completely always leaves me queasy. Mary Jane shows up and the fellowship toasts their work. 44:10 “Blessed are forgetful for they get the better even of their blunders.” That’s Nietsche. We step back in time and have a moment of transition. There are signs of growing tension between Joel and Clem but there is affection as well. Frodo gets a call from Clem and Joel’s ties the voice to a memory he’s already had partially erased. (47:26.) He’s trying to get a frontal view of Frodo is the stuff of nightmares but I love his line right after. “Where’s the self-help section?” Joel is starting to understand what’s happening. And finally, in Joel’s head, enough of their recent baggage has been peeled back, it reveals this moment.
The blanket sequence is probably the most important scene in the whole movie for me. It is a scene that visually portrays the pure simple intimacy between two people in a way I’ve never seen quite as well done in any other film. The warm colors. The soft focus. The aimless but bright music. The two of them beneath the blanket, closing out the rest of the world. And Clem’s simple open vulnerability. “Joelie? Am I ugly?” “Unh unh.” Having peeled away the recent and momentary grout of the relationship, their love is revealed. And it’s significant that the moment Joel wants to keep isn’t about him being vulnerable with Clem, but Clem being vulnerable with him. It is the turning point of the story and the beginning of the chase in which Joel tries desperately to hold onto what remains of Clementine inside of him. “Mierzwiak.
Please let me keep this memory.” Joel returns to an earlier memory to appeal to Mierzwiak to let him out and Mierzwiak makes an important point. “I’m part of your imagination to Joel. How can I help you from there? I’m inside your head there. I’m you.” Clem suggests Joel hide her in memories she wasn’t a part of. 1:03 “It stopped.” The Lacunites call Howard who finds the memory Joel has hidden in. *drowning Joel takes Clem to a moment where other kids peer pressured him into striking a bird with a hammer. He’s rescued by Clem wearing the same outfit from her childhood photos. But he can’t keep his memories of Clem safe from Howard, and we watch them fall one by one. At the moment he asked her out: Clem: Too many guys think I’m a concept or I’m going to complete them or make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours. The spines of the books turning around showing his memory going are just agony.
Michel Gondry blends his disappearing memories together in such a haunting fashion. From the bedroom to the beach, where they first met. “This is it, Joel. It’s all going to be gone after this. What do we do?” – “Enjoy it.” Clem takes Joel to what she calls, “their house together.” “It’s our house. Just for tonight.” Joel’s anxiety drives him from memory. And, as the house that stands for their relationship collapses around them, and water invades Joel and Clem kiss goodbye. Meanwhile, Mary Jane Watson admits she’s in love with Howard. His wife catches them and reveals, Mary Jane had an affair of theirs wiped from before. MJ discovers her original recordings in which she actually had doubts about the whole thing. “Oh, Howie I don’t’ know if I can do this.” And decides to send everyone theirs. And this brings us…to the first scene. And Joel and Clem meeting for the first time…again.
Clem goes to get her toothbrush, finds the recording of her Lacuna interview and plays it in front of Joel. “Are you messing with me?” “I’m not.” “You clearly are.” She comes to his place later and hears him say the worst thing he said to the previous her. “The one way she can get guys to like her is to fuck them.” “I don’t do that.” And finally, for the first time in their story, Joel reaches out. “Wait.” But let’s come back to that in a minute. It’s not a perfect movie. The Lacuna employees are annoying dumb-dumbs. Too much scrutiny raises questions about how Joel’s character has an arc and raises many questions about the science fiction premise.
The cards Lacuna sends telling people never to talk to a friend about a relationship are insane. I can think of a dozen people in my own life who would immediately ignore that rule to chastise me for wiping something out. But to focus on those things would be to miss the point. Some art is only intended to be viewed from a particular perspective. And, whenever Joel and Clem are together, the movie is magic. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, has said that he puts an emphasis on creating something that has a completely different experience the second time you watch it.
Eternal Sunshine lends itself to rewatches but not because there was a twist coming to be worked out with clues we could’ve caught along the way. But because the story means something completely different the second time through. If you put the movie in the order it is a different film completely. But the structure of the story, ending first, relationship played in reverse, back to end, is the fuel that makes Eternal Sunshine work. Watching the layers of grout over Joel’s memory of the relationship be stripped away revealing the shining core underneath forces us to consider memory and the stories we keep about our own relationships. Gondry used as many practical effects as possible, applying digital around the edges to enhance the unreality inside Joel’s mind.
For instance, the street shot of Joel unable to catch up to Clementine and Patrick not having a front to his head because Joel never made that memory, were both accomplished by editing the clip to a flipped version of itself and using a computer to paint out the edges with a light pole or a morph. Once Joel runs past the light pole all of the store names are reversed, and Clem keeps flipping over Patrick’s shoulder. In fact, unbelievably for a science fiction film, the most distracting computer effect in the movie was one that I never noticed until researching this review and that is not the car coming down but Clem losing a leg. But the emphasis on practicality achieves a sort of elegant minimalism to the visuals that help keep the focus on Joel’s journey without losing the science fiction premise. And I love the different visual tricks used to emphasize the state of Joel’s mind. Mary’s name card appearing at the moment Joel would’ve looked for it.
The disappearing book spines. The movie is a miracle of editing, using matched action to cut from memory to memory. Gondry has Jim Carrey fall out of one shot and into another. And then there is his intimate camera, moving in and out of focus along with Joel’s memory. Their last kiss on the beach is gorgeous. And the blanket sequence has been burned on my mind’s eye for 15 years. In fact, that scene has one of the most beautiful examples of the movie’s elegant minimalism in Clem’s “ugly doll.” In order to get this shot they…poked the dolls cheek and let it pop out again.
That’s it. Such a simple thing but, combined with Winslet’s voice over and the soundtrack it’s a moment of beautiful melancholy. (53:00) The story could’ve been incredibly baffling were it not for a few tricks used to orient us in time and space. Spotlights indicate we’re outside the boundaries of one of Joel’s written memories, and the brightness coincides with Joel’s desperation to hold onto Clem. When he has finally accepted his fate, and the light of his memory is fading, their final scene together is at night. Another trick for orienting us in the story timeline is Clem’s hair color. Cool colors when she’s not with Joel (blue/green) and warm colors when they’re together.
Clem happens to list the names of the different hair colors when she and Joel meet for the first time for the second time and they all could function as a description of that period of their relationship. Green Revolution, for the change that was about to happen when they first meant. Agent Orange, for their relationship dying on the vine. And Blue Ruin for their lives post-breakup. Blue Ruin is defined as: “Complete and utter ruin – desolation.” Also – gin. “Drink up young man.” The first reference to the term might be from a poem by Lord Byron, and it explains why Joel and Clem met on the beach: “Roll on, deep and dark blue ocean, roll. Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain. Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore.”
Their opening honeymoon on ice provides such a lovely symbol for the relationship, informing both of their characters as it does. Clem’s insistence on moving forward and Joel’s fear that the ice may break. And throughout, the motif of water repeats several times. When it rains inside their home. When Clem disappears and Joel is drowning without her. And when the ocean impedes and destroys the other symbol for their relationship, their beach home. But I think to really wrap our minds around the story, it’s important to understand that the movie is not about their relationship. Not really. It’s about Joel and his perspective of their relationship. After all, most of the movie is from inside his own head. In the beginning, Joel is a relatively straightforward trope.
The shy nerd looking for a manic pixie dreamgirl to save him. “Why do I fall in love with everyone woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” The manic pixie dream girl trope is the quirky, stunningly attractive love interest in movies who comes along to hoist our broody emotionless hero out of his empty existence. She has a little function to the story other than collecting buttons, listening to The Smiths, and showing the drab hero how exciting life really is. I used to love Garden State until the woman I was dating shouted at the screen, “SHE’S LITERALLY COLLECTING HIS TEARS.” I have been unable to see the trope since then. Thank you, Jen. And Joel, openly declares that he never actually SAW Clem, but rather the potential she represented for HIM and HIS life. 1:40:00 “If there’s something truly seductive about Clementine, it’s that her personality promises to take you out of the mundane.”
Throughout the film, Clem is mostly just a character in HIS story, either villain, or damsel, or hero. But Winslet as Clementine is actually a subversion of the manic pixie dream girl and not a replication of it. And my god does I love her staunch refusal to let him put her in that box, starting on the train. 1:30 – “ J: Your name means clemency. C: Although it hardly fits. I’m a vindictive bitch truth be told. J: I wouldn’t think that about you. C: Why wouldn’t you think that about me? The scene is certainly infused with a certain amount of Clementine sass but she’s not wrong. Why wouldn’t he think that about her unless he was already romanticizing her rather than seeing the real Clem? And then, of course, her most eloquent rebellion against his putting her in a romantic box.
I’m just a fucked-up girl who is looking for her own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours. And their exchange immediately after reflects a certain amount of self-awareness on his part as to what he did to her during the relationship. “I still thought you were going to save my life.” “I had you pegged, didn’t I?” But the net result of romanticizing someone is falling for the story of them, and not them. And as Clem’s own human desires that didn’t fit Joel’s narrative crept in… “I want to have a baby…” …and the exciting newness of the relationship inevitably ran out… “Are we the dining dead?” …and the traits that he initially romanticized about her as exciting and adventurous… “Drink up young man.” …now needled him. “She’s going to be drunk and stupid now.” “What can I say, Joel? You know Clementine.
She’s impulsive. She decided to erase you almost as a lark.” …things inevitably fell apart. In the end, Joel finally ADMITS that he didn’t clearly get to know the real her: 1:42:00 “What a loss to spend, THAT much time with someone. Only to find out she’s a stranger.” The reality is Joel’s falling in love with any woman who pays him attention says way more about Joel’s sense of HIMSELF and whether he believes he deserves to be loved than anything else. If he himself believes he’s worthless than any evidence someone provides contrary to that is cause for attachment. Smile at a diner? Hellooooo future wife. But ultimately, his own self-hatred even poisons his interpretations of Clementine’s intentions. After telling Clem that the only way she can get people to like her is to fuck them, he says in the scene with Tobias and Carrie, “She’s punishing me. For being honest.”
The only evidence the movie provides of that perspective is that Clem had sex with him. Which means, he can’t just believe that she was just attracted and interested in him. It had to be a manifestation of baggage. Because Joel doesn’t believe that he’s worth being loved. And the inability to value yourself is absolutely toxic in any relationship. Since the movie is almost completely focused on Joel, much of Clem’s perspective remains…elusive. Blurry. And I’ve always wondered how different the movie would be that showed her erasure and her side of the relationship. But it’s a testament to Winslet’s incredible performance that Clementine doesn’t feel like a supporting character even, inside of Joel’s head.
The arc of Mary feels a little incomplete to me but offers at the broader theme of the movie. Since the movie is a direct counterpoint to both of her quotes… “Blessed are forgetful for they get the better even of their blunders.” In other words, ignorance is bliss, then the idea may be that bliss isn’t particularly something worth pursuing. 49:34 “If you look at a baby it’s so pure and so free and so clean. And adults are like this mess of sadness and phobias. And Howard just makes it all go away.” No surprise that Joel ends up an actual baby, who gets just as upset that his Mom won’t pick him up as adult Joel does that Clem erased him from her memory.
I’m currently living with a two-year-old right now named Sterling and I have been astonished at how he experiences the same wide range of emotions as I do including joy, anger, and grief. It’s just that, where I experience grief over a death, he has the same reaction to dropping his popsicle on the ground. In fact, Sterling may go through in a day a gamut of emotions that takes me a year. My accumulation of experience and memory has calibrated my emotional responses. And, while there may be something lost in that I don’t get as much joy as Sterling does from how green my shoes are or how far my finger can go up to my nose, I’m also better equipped for the complexities of adulthood. So if the point is not bliss, then what? Well, in the order the story is told, Joel has an arc.
He always describes himself in diametric opposition to Clem throughout the movie. “Took a train out to Montauk today. I don’t know why. I’m not an impulsive person.” “Clem’s persona Promises to take you on a great adventure.” But during his wipe, there are many versions of Clem that exist outside the factual boundaries of memory. The Clem that comes up with where to hide her – that tells him to be brave and try – the Clem that tells him to forgive himself. It seems as though, even in his dreams, Clem is the one saving him. But Joel’s interpretation of Mierzwiak makes an important point: I’m part of your subconscious too. I’m YOU. This is Joel learning to be brave on his own.
Joel learning to forgive himself. And Clem telling Joel that she had him pegged is his own self-awareness for his mishandling of the relationship. It’s Joel’s growth. Such that, in the final scene, when Clem is the one telling him that not only might the ice break, but they have conclusive evidence that it WILL, Joel is the one suggesting that isn’t a reason not to swim. As much as I don’t believe the movie is advocating for masochism, and the urge to not touch a hot stove is a good one, our impulsive binary reptile brain approach to pain is so ill-equipped to decoding the math behind a loving a relationship. Often love comes on strong and feels like this, a delicate vulnerable flame that we try so hard to keep alive. Arguments and fights feel like devastating intrusions. Doors swinging wide threatening to extinguish this…precious thing. But certainly, a part of loving well involves suffering.
If fights are an inevitable aspect of relationships than maybe we can learn to accept those storms without fear or defensiveness – and maybe we can learn how to navigate those waters together. I kept coming back to Buster the dog. The movie isn’t offering profound advice or insight. In our lives, we get to experience only a finite amount of beauty and life is often a series of lessons we have to learn over and over again. So maybe the best we can do is try to understand and forgive ourselves. So that our lives are ours, and not a product of our fear and self-hatred. So that when the moment comes, we have the freedom to make a choice. “But you will, you will think of things and I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens to me.”