Erik Jaccard tackles Michel Gondry’s multi-layered sf masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and ponders forgetting, the meaning of “okay,” and Kate Winslet’s hair.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Dir. Michel Gondry/Original Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
Like many of the films I’ve reviewed for Ten Years Ago, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one that has been a long time coming. Like many, I have long considered it to be one of the better, more creative, and more satisfying cinematic experiences of the last ten years. In what I’d guess is also fairly common practice, I’ve held it dear to me for a number of very personal reasons, some having to do with the circumstances which surrounded my first viewing, others which have accrued in the ensuing years. Finally, although for some reason I am loathe to use this phrase, I find it to be an incredibly thought-provoking film, one that asks more questions than it answers, and one that therefore demands multiple viewings and ongoing consideration. This is probably the best and most readily applicable motive behind my saying that the film holds up extremely well under the test of time. No matter what associations we may have attached to it on our first viewings, the film will not let us reduce them to that experience. The questions arise every time we watch the film and our answers to them grow with our experiences and memories of the moments in between [this all sounds very vague, but I deal with these questions in more detail below, I promise]. In fact, the film demands that we revisit our memories in relation to the questions it asks. It demands that we scroll through the past and discern what it was that made us so receptive to its premise in the first place. It makes us consider the interludes in between its release and our current moment with care and deliberation. It asks us to consider where we would be, even who we would be, if those moments were taken from us.
The re-view below does its best to address some of these questions, but it is fantastically incomplete and far less expressive and affective than I’d intended it to be. This is for all the usual reasons that attend my writing—time constraints, a predilection for mental clutter—but also because, when the time came around for me to revisit my love of the film, I found that the things about that I loved ten years later were not the things I loved about in 2004. That I was still able to gather to myself a new collection of fine qualities this time around says a lot about the film’s ability to remain relevant across time and place.
Some General Thoughts on Script, Character, Direction, and Content
Kaufman’s script, based on an idea introduced to him by director Michel Gondry and French conceptual artist Pierre Bismuth, deftly balances the film’s central conceit—that it could be possible for a person to have their memories of another strategically wiped clean—with the primary meat of the narrative—the relationship which provides the testing ground for that process—and all without overburdening either with too much attention. Had either of these components taken center stage, they would have made the other seem like perfunctory window dressing, much in the same way that genre sci-fi has been faulted for emphasizing idea or technology at the expense of character, plot, and emotional complexity. In fact, one of the film’s greatest achievements is that it manages to transform sf’s characteristic fixation on its fictional novum—the ‘what if?’ element—by applying it to a more specific scenario driven by the very real and complex personalities of its protagonists. By the same token, it is precisely the depth and believability of those two people who lend meaning to the implications of the speculative question. The result of this synergy is perhaps the best (only?) dystopian-romantic comedy-thriller we’ve ever had the chance to enjoy. While this might be lofty praise, I think it’s deserved. If I’m being honest with myself, I’d never seen a film quite like Eternal Sunshine in 2004 and I haven’t seen one since. It’s extremely rare to see a film which proceeds from a clever sci-fi premise that doesn’t also end up glorifying that premise as an end in itself. It’s equally as rare to find a film that fully admits to being a romantic comedy about two people coming together and splitting up, which doesn’t also bend to the formulaic dictates of that genre without abandoning it completely and moving into drama. In one dazzling cinematic gesture it manages to humanize its sf component while simultaneously using that component to demystify much of what makes romance plots so frustrating, and all while operating within an aesthetic context that is at least half the time a nightmarish Kafkaesque funhouse.
In thinking through this, let’s start with the film’s characters, who lend it so much of the human depth that both its component genres so often lack. Ten years later, both Carrey and Winslet still seem somehow all the better and more believable for the fact that they’re playing outside their traditional strengths. For Carrey, who we all know generally as a hyperkinetic, herky-jerky physical comedian, the challenge was to suddenly draw back within himself and play a callow, diffident anti-hero. Anti-hero is the operative phrase here, as his previous dramatic turns in The Truman Show, The Majestic, and Man on the Moon had all been in their own ways both A) comedic and B) ultimately heroic, the drama emerging precisely from the need to heroically face weighty situations (authority/control, amnesia and questions of belonging, and death, respectively). Eternal Sunshine offers us no such contexts for heroism and, as such, what Carrey is called on to produce with Joel is a struggle against the mundane, against the self, and against the frustrating but ultimately redeemable things we do in our day to day lives that round us off as people capable of both nastiness and compassion, bitterness and faith, hate and love. At the same time, because he is not called on here to be one-dimensional—his anti-heroism isn’t entirely tragic or comic—his gestures and facial expressions, so long his comic bread and butter, are here used as supplements that can add dimensions to Joel’s otherwise gloomy character.
For Winslet, one supposes the challenge was to break free of her own past as a primarily dramatic actress, and one often tied (though not exclusively) to period dramas. Her goal, as far as I can tell, is to take the manic, kooky pixie princess character (one might even say ‘the cool girl’) and make her both a real person and one who can emerge as a force in her own right. It would have been easy in a less imaginative script, for example, to create Clementine as a paragon of virtue, waiting for Joel to grow up and make adult decisions (which, in a romantic comedy, he eventually would), or as a flighty, capricious dreamer, thrilling him with her moxie and brash daring, calling out for Joel to become the person he is meant to be. This is, of course, what Joel wants her to be, the ‘concept’ she repeatedly warns him she is not, the model person who will ‘save him’ from himself. To both Kaufman and Winslet’s credit, Clementine stubbornly resists being incorporated into Joel’s fantasy scenario, continuously asserting that she is her own person, with her own needs, and her own faults and virtues. As she says, “I’m just a fucked-up girl looking for my own peace of mind, don’t assign me yours.” Winslet’s most enduring achievement with the character is her ability to lend specific dimension to this pose, to make it real with attitude and tone, to embody it and remind us often enough that Clementine is not merely a function of the narrative or an object of Joel’s clingy need for love and attention. While the relationship’s failure is as much her fault as Joel’s, it is a failure to which she admits. No, it’s more than that. It’s a failure that she lives, as though she were relatively at peace with its immutability.
As I mention above, it is this actual weight of two real people struggling to come together and stay together that makes the sci-fi premise of memory erasing technology more than a clever sleight of hand or simplistic satire. That a company like Lacuna might exist, offering a quick-fix solution to personal unhappiness, is entirely plausible in our hyper-individualistic consumer society which would love nothing else than for everyone to treat happiness as only a purchase away. Thankfully, this satirical element remains merely an interesting side-question for viewers willing to explore the full social implications of the technology. Likewise with the idea itself, which is surely neat and suggestive, but which really only stands as a metaphor for the larger question of whether we would be better off if we could erase unhappiness from our lives. The social dimensions of this question have been in play since at least the 18th century, when classical liberal thought began speculating on how to make the human person—theorized as a perfectible creature—less inclined to do all the bad things that make themselves and others unhappy. As later dystopian writers are fond of telling us, bringing technological innovation or social engineering into the human equation doesn’t solve the problem of unhappiness per se. Or, well, it does, strictly speaking, but only by fundamentally altering what it means to be human. It is all the more important, then, that the film channels this question through the experience of two people whose individual selves are fully formed and realized. It is precisely because we see them interact as people—wonderful, imperfect people—that we can acknowledge the consequences of trimming away the vital memory which makes them what they are.
For my part, ten years later, I still love the way Gondry communicates this loss, both visually and sonically. Gondry—who weaned his visual prowess directing music videos—retains much of that dynamic energy here, investing a number of the memory-deletion scenes in Joel’s mind with the powerful force of destructive inevitability. As the world he has built with Clementine begins to unravel, cars fall from the sky, houses crumble, people’s faces turn blank, and disembodied voices carom off dimly lit, Kafka-esque hallways. While one might criticize Gondry for over-stylizing what is already a fairly hyped-up and stylistic script (and to be fair, there are some very jumpy moments), I think we ought to stand back and appreciate that he not only honestly reflects the disjunctive narrative, but also uses visuals to explore the questions it implies, questions that are not asked openly. For example, one of the implied issues raised in Eternal Sunshine is whether we experience life primarily in terms of perceiving minds, with our bodies being only secondary receptacles in which this essential inner component resides. This is the assumption from which Lacuna’s revolutionary procedure proceeds: change the mind, change the person. It treats the mind as a machine that has been programmed and can thus be deprogrammed. But the question the film asks is whether you can reduce human experience to brain waves and currents. In the scientific abstract, this all seems fine, but when we see Joel, represented as a body experiencing the targeted destruction of a part of his mind, the conditions seem to change, and the body takes on a more important role.
We can generally deal with the way our memories mark linear time because we experience their dissolution so slowly. Rather than having a memory of person, place, or thing ripped unceremoniously from us in one brutal swipe (like the proverbial Band-Aid), we tend to awaken one day simply remembering less about that one time at band camp. To see it all fall away so quickly, and in such dramatic detail, like we do in this film, is devastating because it makes it feel like we are fading along with the landscape. [Caveat: I’m not a neuroscientist (clearly), so I could be spouting a load of shit here.] There is something about how we live the past mentally in the present, physically, as bodies. While most memories fade, the ones that remain are tenacious precisely because we affect a kind of ‘time travel’ in remembering them. We remember being there, not just in an abstract way, but in a very tactile way, such as when a smell or taste or sound can trigger a jaunt ‘backward’ in time to another space. The memory is not just a context that we can step into, like a painting. We’re tied to it across time by our physical being. I think ultimately this is what so disturbs Clementine throughout the narrative’s ‘present’ moment, the idea that she has been removed physically from her embodied reality-as-memory. It’s what makes her exclaim to Elijah Wood’s wormy boyfriend-come-lately, Patrick, that she feels like her skin is falling off. The implication is that, while her mind has changed, her body has not, and therefore that her physicality has retained in its senses a kid of cognition that resists the invasive scientific procedure to which she has subjected herself. While we might shrug off this suggestion with the defensive rejoinder that what we’re talking about is ‘intuition’ or ‘fate,’ an inexplicable way of knowing something to be true, I think I’m more talking about knowledge as freed from the mind, and as expressed in the capacities marginalized by the assumption that we are primarily thinking creatures.
A brief personal interlude
Ten years later, I find that I am a lot less like Joel than I originally thought. I don’t mean to compare myself to him in overt characteristics—those who know me would hardly describe me as introverted or diffident—but rather in terms of his pose vis á vis Clementine and women in general. These days I’m a lot less concerned with the notion that a woman is going to ‘save me’ from myself or make me whole or better or take away all my worries and concerns. In 2004, however, I don’t think I could have said this. In fact, right about the time I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on a dark, stormy, tropical night in Cairns, Australia, I was lost in the throes of what I guess I’d call bitter resentment over the fact that the woman I’d chosen to be my savior had not, actually, turned out to be my lady in shining armor. And this is not to say that she didn’t try to do the things I asked of her, or that she withheld desired love or affection. Rather, she did about as much as any honest-to-gosh individual person can be asked to do without turning their own life into one lived entirely for someone else. As much as I hate to say it, I think this latter process is what I irrationally asked of her—to make me the center of her existence and shoulder—as Clementine puts it—my own weighty and elusive ‘peace of mind.’ This is more heavy lifting than one person can be fairly tasked with performing while also maintaining their own life.
Having this personal failure (and as common as it may be, it is still a failure) in mind this time around dramatically altered my affiliations such that I often wondered what the story would have been like had we been treated not only to the narration of Joel’s procedure, but also to Clementine’s. What might we have learned about the truths Joel takes for granted? Would we have seen that her daring impulsiveness and bizarre antics are as much an armored cover-up for her own insecurities (as one of Joel’s memories would lead us to believe)? Would we have been granted a fuller picture of what it meant to be ‘Joel’s Clementine,’ or even an extended look at what it was like to be Clementine’s Joel? One day I hope to be rewarded for this curiosity with a paranarrative prized from a vault somewhere, Clementine’s hidden process. I hope to learn more about her than can be expressed in third-person narration or in the strange solipsistic dreamspace that is Joel’s head. Knowing and synthesizing both sides of that equation is where the post-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind film pops into being, even if just for a moment, as a space of potential and possibility we may never actually experience as long as we remain stuck in our own heads.
“Tussling with ‘Okay,’ or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept that My Life is Going to be Ugly Sometimes”
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
The film’s final scene, a confrontation between Joel and Clementine in the hallway outside Joel’s apartment, has had me puzzling over the contextual meaning of the word ‘okay’ for the last ten years. Forced with the inevitable conclusion that they may only end up repeating the same uneven pattern of success and failure which characterized their first romantic go-round, the pair—and the film—bid us farewell with a simple assent seemingly intended to have us believe that the two are prepared to do it all again. Which is to say that they are willing to try, and fail again. The quote I provide above from Nietzsche’s Gay Science gives a name to this seemingly irrational decision to endure failure: amor fati, a love of fate.
In order to understand what he means by this ‘love of fate,’ it is essential to first de-link fate from any ideas we may have about it being necessarily tragic or redemptive. We have to remove the idea of that which is fated from its associations with higher planes of existence or being or control, as though fate could only be the product of divine intervention or cosmic processes, of ‘star cross’d lovers,’ tragic kings, or heroic warriors. For Nietzsche, loving fate means instead “that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.” In other words, it doesn’t mean simply loving the outcome because it squares with what you want from fate, but rather loving everything fate has to offer, the good and the bad, the whole truthful process as well as its denouement. The problem with this idea for most people is that our ‘whole truthful processes’ are rarely even or pretty or without failure. We do not like to talk about our failures, whether individual or collective, partly because we don’t want them to define us and partly because we find them embarrassing and shameful. Because it remains so important for us to produce an image that is successful (because only successful things can be true), we often conceal our failures, clean them up, talk around them. We make of them skeletons to be hidden in dark places. As Nietzsche—one of the best and most entertaining of the ‘tell it like it is’ thinkers—would have it, this only produces the truth of our lives as falsity, morals as immorality, knowledge as ignorance, and so on. This is why we have to read Mary’s quoting of Nietzsche as ironic in the context of the film’s drama: “Blessed are the forgetful: for they ‘get the better’ even of their blunders.” Because she is enamored of what Dr. Mierzwiak ‘gives to the world,’ a chance to be spotless and clean and innocent, Mary reads the line literally, concluding that to be made child-like in innocence is to be blessed and essentially sin-less. In this way, the Lacuna procedure is akin to Christian baptism: You get to start over with your nasty past cleansed. However, entirely unaware of how the process has robbed her of her own past, and thus the meaning of her present, Mary does not see until much later that ‘blessed’ is intended by Nietzsche as satire, that to be blessed in this instance to be cursed. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a Nietzschean film in this respect because it dares us to remember that which we so often will ourselves to forget, and to bring the fuck-ups and failures of our lives into full view, to re-include them in the full picture of what makes us ourselves.
I bring this up here because I think it provides useful context for investigating that troublesome ‘ok,’ which can be read either fatalistically or affirmatively, depending on how one looks at it. Beginning with the proposition in general, it might look like this: Ok, we’re going to do this all over again and probably lose each other, again, because that’s how it’s supposed to go. This alone doesn’t really get at the fissures contained therein, so let’s break it into two postures one might derive from this statement:
1. We’re going to do this all over again and probably lose each other again because this is the best we can possibly hope to achieve (aka ‘The Fatalistic “OK”’). The problem with this one is that it places all the emphasis on the outcome, which is to say on the glum, inevitable failure. It makes fate and failure synonymous by condemning the ending at the expense of how one got there and turning necessity into a one-dimensional affair that must be suffered through. It asks the question of whether you would willingly fail again, failure here operating as the most important part of the question. This ‘ok’ demands an idealism—in this case about love—to which it can contrast itself, a more perfect version of the events or the players involved that will redeem the process once and for all. To my mind, and given my experience of humans and relationships between them, this ‘ok’ clouds the discussion of what we can do and be by insisting that we hold ourselves to an impeccable, impossible standard that, because it can never happen, ultimately leads us to wonder why we ever bothered in the first place. Borrowing from Nietzsche, I would offer that this stance denies the fundamental truth that we are often at our most beautiful when admitting to and accepting the necessity of our own ugliness. Indeed, following the Nietzschean thread outward into the world beyond Eternal Sunshine, we might link this question to the central metaphysical dilemma of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wherein another permanently vexed couple— Tomáš and Tereza, are faced with the choice of whether to endure the weight of their mortal, imperfect being together—to say yes to fate—or, like Tomas’s lover, Sabina, flee from any connection at all into a relation-less, weightless state of insubstantiality. In certain ways the latter is certainly safer in practical and emotional terms, but it also seems less human, closer to living-as-death than to living and dying. This will be, for some, an unpalatable idea and I recognize that it has its weaknesses. Why settle for ugly when you can have something better, something that, if not perfect, is at least less grievous? The thing is, I’m not advocating for ugliness or failure as means in themselves, but rather as the opposite of that insufferable idealism which would make them unbearable necessities (i.e. ‘if not this perfect outcome, then failure’). Were one to conclude that the lesson here is to reduce all experience to a pattern of failure, one would necessarily go out into the world looking for failure, unable to see the future condition implied by Nietzsche’s desire to be someone who one day will have learned to say yes. Learning to say yes to failure is not the same as learning how to say no to life.
2. We’re going to do this all over again and probably lose each other again because this is part of the process, which is, in itself, worthwhile (aka ‘The Affirmative “OK”’) There is a terrible beauty in this ‘ok,’ a tenacity and forthrightness which damns the inevitable torpedoes and doesn’t simply admit to, but actively claims, the uneven process to which the ambiguous ‘ok’ gives assent. As I would argue the film makes clear, it is this connotation which underpins the literal utterance between Joel and Clementine. Faced with the weight of their collective failure, a failure in many ways derived from the incommensurability of their individual selves, they choose it again. I see this most clearly in what I think is the film’s most poignant image of Joel trapped in the back of his friends’ station wagon, covered under an entire beach of sand, crushed by the weight of regret and longing. While Joel dourly remarks that he wishes he’d done a lot of things differently, the ability to go back and make different, better choices is not the point. The point, I would argue, is whether he can live with the choices he has made, whether he can recognize the necessity of those choices and see them as part of the whole beautiful process, rather than as stains on a tragic outcome. Because the film seems to suggest this progression, from an ironic ‘I’m fine without you!’ to ‘my life is fuller with you in it, good and bad,’ I think we have to move from an overt fear of the failure implied by ‘ok’ to an acceptance that failure is sometimes what we get when we try. As Beckett put it succinctly: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This conclusion is only pessimistic if you reduce its meaning to an impossibly perfect outcome that will redeem all failures, making them clean again. The only such outcome available to us is death, a condition of non-being that Lacuna’s memory-erasure attempts to simulate in miniature. Rather than this, I choose—and I think Joel and Clementine elect—to affirm a process of becoming which just may help them see and create the beauty in necessity that Nietzsche so wistfully hopes to achieve.
Ok, I’ve run out of steam, so I’ll end it here. Sorry for not ‘trying’ things up more concretely. Sometimes there just isn’t time.
A few thoughts:
- It didn’t seem very apropos of my main thoughts above, but I thought I’d mention here that I’ve been crushing hard on Kate Winslet for pretty much my entire adult life. As such, Eternal Sunshine is an extraspecialloveysexywonderful experience for me, particularly when she’s in that 1970s dress with the bright red hair. No matter the 35-year-old man exterior, there’s still an 18-year-old in me with his heart all gooey at the sight of that woman asleep against a car seat with the morning sun shining on her face.
- It wonder what kind of movie this would have been if more of it had been sound tracked by Beck’s Sea Change album, a gorgeous collection of break-up songs.
- I have to admit that my intense attraction to the film’s ‘main plot’ in Joel’s head sometimes leads me to be very frustrated with the exploits of the characters inhabiting the ‘real world’ storyline. As necessary as it is to the plot as a whole, I often find myself counting the minutes until I’m rescued from the Dunst-Ruffalo-Wood-Wilkinson narrative.
- I think I’ve developed a Pavlovian response-mechanism in relation to the Focus Features intro credit/score. So often have I loved the films distributed by Focus that just a glimpse of that water-refracted title shot and brief orchestral score gives me goose bumps.
- Um, Joel and Clementine go to drive-in movie theaters and sit outside drinking wine from the bottle while they do MST3K-style comedic dubbing. Not only does that look like a lot of fun, it’s also clearly the kind of activity that two people fated to be together would enjoy. Fate-infused nerdathon on the cheap!
- I didn’t have much to say in my main thoughts about the supporting cast, but while most of them underwhelm me, I would want to point out here that I am generally in favor of Tom Wilkinson in all roles. As before, so now.
- There are a lot of ways to mark the quirkiness of a person, and never have I thought to do it by having that person collect potato dolls. But hey, she also listens to sitar music and has old movie seats in her living room! She is not of the ‘normal’ culture, folks.
- The costume designer must have had fun with that retro-‘70s dress Kate Winslet gets to wear in the ‘Baby Joel’ kitchen scene, and again with the his and hers kid costumes they wear in both child and adult sizes.
- I don’t point this out as a flaw, because I don’t think logical consistency is the goal here, but why wouldn’t Joel remember Huckleberry Hound or ‘Oh my Darlin’ Clementine’ after having his memory erased? These two things were facets of a much deeper knowledge we know he possessed prior to meeting Clementine. For example, when we finally see the first day they met, he notes that his Huckleberry Hound doll was among his favorites as a child.
- Speaking of logic, I wonder whether mister smartypants science man at Lacuna, Inc. ever stopped to consider that erasing his patients’ memories in reverse chronological order might actually be extremely traumatic. Especially considering that, by the look of the grief-stricken creatures in his waiting-room, most are there to have memories of dead loved ones erased. One wonders why more patients didn’t suddenly develop curious resistances to the procedure.
- I, too, was a Barnes & Noble ‘book slave’ for years. Which means Clemenkate and I have something in common. Zing!
- Where does Kaufman come up with his names?!? I mean, Stan Fink? Mary Svervo?!? And not one, but two Polish-Americans, Clementine Kruczynski and Howard Mierzwiak. Does he, like, draw them out of a hat? Or are they names to long-dead ghosts he found while perusing Tobin’s Spirit Guide (R.I.P. Harold Ramis).
- Is there a person out there who didn’t like being bathed in the sink? Even now that sounds safe and cozy.
- Am I alone in thinking that Clementine’s admission that she’s ‘high maintenance’ is salutary? Whenever I watch that scene, I always think to myself, well that is some very useful, honest information sharing. From the guy’s side, we would all do well to let people know that we’re high maintenance in our own ways, too.
- I both love and am annoyed by Stan’s wormy attempt to say something about The Clash while simultaneously saying very little at all: I mean, like, The Clash! Social Justice! The only band that mattered!
- There’s a certain satisfaction in watching Jim Carrey, so long an insane clown, play a bumbling, bashful nerdy type. Just as there is, I suppose, a certain satisfaction one gets from watching Kate Winslet dye her hair crazy colors and play what is probably her most idiosyncratic role ever.