The beginning of the movie is the end. Joel Barish wakes up disoriented. An orange bong is perched next to his couch, uncharacteristically. Joel gets out of bed, drives to the train station. On a whim, he takes an Amtrak out to Montauk. February has left the beach surly and inhospitable. It’s fitting that Joel would visit the beach alone, on Valentine’s day. Like accidentally clapping before the symphony is finished playing, it’s something only Joel would do.
Joel pokes around in the sand with a stick, as a child would, and mutters: “Sand is overrated. It’s just tiny, little rocks.” He’s feeling lonely. And unbeknownst to him, an incompetent team of paladins has just finished zapping a swath of his memories. The memories are associated with his former lover, Clementine.
“Sand is overrated. It’s just tiny, little rocks.” Things are not as they seem. His utterance lingers like a nursery-rhyme. It is an artifact of cynicism, nurtured by his failed relationship. For Joel, the world is losing its luster because he’s lost all hope. He just doesn’t know it; his memory has been erased. And so it’s to recall in his mind what his body already knows that he wanders around Montauk like a ghost, scrutinizing all the things in his world that used to mean something else.
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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is a mystery. Not a whodunit, but a chronological jumble. Seconds after they introduce themselves on the train early in the movie, Joel and Clementine are bickering like they’ve done it before. It seems strange, but only until we learn that Joel and Clementine used to be lovers. They met in Montauk in 2002. Sometime in 2004, their relationship took a turn for the worse after Clementine came home drunk in the middle of the night, having wrecked Joel’s car. They argue about infidelity. A short time later, with the relationship still in limbo, Clementine impulsively decides to erase Joel from her memory at the wonderfully-named Lacuna Inc. (Lacuna has refined a special procedure that gets rid of unwanted memories.) When Joel finds out that Clementine wants nothing to do with him, he signs up for the procedure as well.
An ambiguity about the meaning of the film’s chronology, as well as the health of the couple’s relationship, settles in. Have Joel and Clementine reconnected in the past without knowing so, and will they inevitably do so in the future? If eternal recurrence is the lover’s lot, there is an element of Sisyphusean tragedy about the characters. And if the film suggests that Joel and Clementine’s breakups and resumptions are cyclical—Montauk is where they originally meet, and where they meet again after the Lacuna procedure—how do we assess their relationship? Like most relationships, there’s evidence for the both the good and the bad here, and while the good doesn’t exactly promise to be self-sustaining, the bad isn’t overwhelming. That may sound like an indictment when you compare it to the treacly concoctions dreamt up by Hollywood cretins, but it’s really not. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that the hardships and triumphs of love don’t exist in isolation, that people need to work to sustain one without producing the other.
While some content in the film is reflexive, it isn’t peskily so, as it can be in Adaptation (2003). One meta-question that Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, likes to pose in his screenplays is this: does the characters’ knowledge of what they know matter any in their current mediation? For Joel and Clementine, the question boils down to this: knowing that they’ve broken up before and could conceivably break up again, what are the reasons for giving it another try? This refrain, like the promise of Montauk, hums alternately hopeful and plangent along the way. Battling the logic of defeat, the lovers try to let go of the spasms of the past and the uncertainties of the future. Their task is to accept the possibility of failure like a soldier accepts the possibility of death.
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“Sometimes I think people don’t understand how lonely it is to be a kid,” Clementine says. What it means to be a kid is especially important to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: the director’s vision is that love turns us into children, with whatever baggage or grace this relapse implies. Much of the film follows the journeys that memory takes backward as it handles the aspects that make childhood sad or scary and reveals how they are put together again in the present. Gondry and Kaufman seem to agree that love bares all of our early insecurities for our partners to see. The promise of partnership, then, is really the erasure of that early pain, contained in memories. (Unremarkably, the impulse to destroy one’s memories is just the impulse to control the pain.) Clementine continues:
I’m eight, and I have these toys, these dolls. My favorite is this ugly girl doll, who I call Clementine. And I keep yelling at her: “You can’t be ugly! Be pretty!” It’s weird—like if I can transform her, I would magically change, too.
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Meanwhile, Jon Brion’s haunting score is one of the film’s quiet capstones. Brion has fashioned accompaniment that is playful and profound, somber without being mawkish. “Theme” is arguably the film’s most recognizable track, channeling a spare Vince Guaraldi with hypnotic piano. “A Dream Upon Waking” does a fine job of conjuring in pizzicato the dizzying dreamscape Joel and Clementine wander through as they tread down the rabbit hole. Brion evokes Eden in “Phone Call,” and a darker, if similar, place in “Spotless Mind.” “Peer Pressure” is tinged with nostalgia and yearning, while “Row” summons so much emotion in one minute it’s heartbreaking—in the grandest sense of the word. Although The Willowz and The Polyphonic Spree haven’t weathered the decade since the soundtrack’s release without blemishes, their inclusion is by no means an embarrassment. The only real knock I can give the soundtrack is that some of the songs are so damn beautiful that their brevity seems an injustice.
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It’s a curious idea: the profane in relationships doesn’t exist without the holy. As fate or chance brings two ex-lovers together again, they figure out that trying to engineer the bad out of past relationships also means killing some of the good. Modern man is presented with so many opportunities to cure his complications. We often subscribe to the fiction that lasting cures will come from without, and that this means we won’t have to work hard or cry our hearts out onto flimsy squares of paper. When a snake oil peddler promises an easy fix, we turn into gullible children, ready to believe what we want, not what we should. The lure of starting over with a clean slate is intoxicating, but for Joel and Clementine, a dance with the devil is costly.
In the end, the echos of their past relationships are all Joel and Clementine have. The option to curate their own past comes with a responsibility to acknowledge the pasts of others. Our lives are not simply our own when they are tethered to other people. In a sense, we become custodians to one another. When Joel attempts to escape the memory assassins—he’s skimming through his memories while asleep for the Lacuna procedure—he travels back to childhood and imagines Clementine as his nanny. “This is kind of warped,” Clementine says as she assesses the situation. It is warped. Selfishly, terrified, Joel dreams. In love, all we demand is that our partner protect us. And, occasionally, lift their skirts.