Double Take Takes on ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

Double Take wraps its mind around Charlie Kaufman’s fractured tale of love, loss, memory, and hair dye, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The knowledge that at least one of the partners in a relationship will be guaranteed to lose the other eventually, by death or otherwise, makes love such a potent force. Kaufman’s brilliance is in finding such an entertaining way to make such a powerful point in his sci-fi romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Steve Pick: Here we are with our first entry for a film from this century, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I remember seeing this in the theater back in 2004, excited because it was a new work from the crazy-quilt brain of Charlie Kaufman, who had already given us the brilliant Being John Malkovich and the very good Adaptation and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I remember leaving the theater all warm and fuzzy, with the sense that true love triumphed and those crazy kids played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet would be just fine together at last. But, upon watching it for the first time in over ten years, I realize that some of my memories had been wiped out, since this is a much darker and more complex investigation into the nature of love than I had thought.

It’s funny that Kaufman is thought of as the auteur here, when he is only credited for the screenplay and part of the story. The director is Michel Gondry, who prior to Eternal Sunshine was famous exclusively for his magically effective music videos. Gondry does bring some of the special effects common to video production; here I’m thinking of the way people can disappear, scenes can shift at random, faces are suddenly blurred, and buildings can crumble all in the memory of Carrey’s character, where much of the film takes place. But as effective as all these visual pieces can be, this is a film of ideas, and the direction takes a back seat to the script in ways rarely seen in movies.

So, Steve, how did this recent viewing relate to your memory of it? What do you think about the way it reveals our mixture of idealization, memory, and reality in regards to our relationships?

Steve Leftridge: Whew. You’re getting right down to brass tacks with this question, probing deep into my most intimate feelings on memory, self-conception, and love. I want to call it off! But before I do, I’ll declare that I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the shrewdest screenplays of the century so far, not only in the intelligence with which it executes its central concept — the ability to pinpoint specific memories in the brain and zap them — but also in the soulful way the film examines the ramifications of doing so. And, yes, the film is a brilliantly honest look at relationships and the unquenchable drive we humans have to couple up, even though we know that these romantic entanglements will most likely lead to despair and pain. After all, half of all marriages end in divorce. The other half end in death.

Indeed, all of the characters in this film have been badly damaged by relationships: Joel (Carrey), Clementine (Winslet), Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, Patrick (Elijah Wood), and Joel’s friends Rob and Carrie. As Mary says, “Adults are this mess of phobias and sadness.” Clementine seems to speak for everyone when she says, “I’m just a fucked-up [person] trying to find my own peace of mind”. Of course, this film entertains the possibility that one can achieve that peace of mind by undergoing a procedure to permanently forget the person responsible for breaking one’s heart, which is fascinating to watch play out, especially under Gondry’s wildly inventive direction. So the film poses great questions: (1) Are the memories of miserable relationship declines and shitty breakups worth preserving? (2) Is the thrill of falling in love worth the agony of falling out of it? Age-old questions, to be sure, but this film finds a brand new way of exploring them. I think that’s one of the movie’s greatest achievements: it presents a fantastical sci-fi conceit but manages to feel incredibly real when it comes to matters of the heart.

Pick: I read somewhere recently that the old saw is no longer true about half of all marriages ending in divorce. But, more germane to this film, statistics might not be available on how many relationships of more than a couple weeks wind up in a break-up, but it’s safe to assume that number is extremely high. The specific circumstances of Joel and Clementine — being together for less than a year, already falling into routines which have led to frustrations with each other — reminded me of a long-term relationship I once had. I was bored, I was ready to move on, but she ditched me first. And, yeah, that was painful, but more to the point, for a few days I think I was more inclined to idealize our relationship than I’d been for months prior. That’s what rings true in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: the way that after the end of a relationship and the immediate thoughts of misery, we go back over all the good times in our heads accompanied by a memory phantom of the partner who is way more willing to match our desires than the one who just dumped us. In this state, we think everything really could be magically perfect if we just started over.

We are only allowed into Joel’s memories, where Clementine eggs him on to find a way to remember her so they can get back together, and the film expects us to believe she goes through something similar in her own memory wiping experience. Patrick, the employee of the Lacuna company that does the memory erasing, has memorized the details of Joel’s charms, and he duplicates Joel’s and Clementine’s early relationship, immediately winning Clementine as his own “girlfriend”. Aside from this being especially creepy, it’s interesting because it implies that Clementine has managed to hold on to specific things she loved about Joel, even though those things are not so much Joel-centric as they are attuned to her own desires: for instance, a willingness to step out on and lay down on an iced-over lake, or a particular gift which fits her taste. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course; love is about finding ways to please each other. But Joel’s memories are all about pleasing Clementine, winning her over, and, yes, opening himself up to possibilities he otherwise would never know. In many ways, his character is a cipher, despite the fact that we are shown so much of the story inside his head.

Meanwhile, outside his body but inside his apartment, we have the fascinating interplay between Patrick, Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Mary, and Dr. Mierzwiak. Stan is performing the computer wipe of Joel’s brain, but a lot of that work is on automatic pilot, so he can get high with Mary, dance on the bed around Joel’s body, and have sex — until things go wrong as Joel tries to hold on to Clementine’s memory inside of childhood embarrassments. Mierzwiak is called in as the man who invented the process, and while he basically enables it to work, we learn that he and Mary have a history, which shows an especially dark side to the whole thing. They’d had an affair, he’d wiped her memory, and then he allowed her to continue working for him as his secretary/nurse. What do you make of that whole aspect of the story, the ways in which things turn from whimsical to horrific in parallel to Joel’s trip down memory lane?

Leftridge: The subplot with Dr. Mierzwiak underscores the foolish and sinister nature of the memory-wiping process in the first place. By revealing the dubious character of Mierzwiak — his affair, his abuse of power, his retention of Mary as an employee — the film is better able to establish Mierzwiak and therefore his practice as antagonists. From here the movie evolves into a great chase story: we have good guys and bad guys to root for. As you mention, one of the more clever plot turns is the fact that as Joel becomes somewhat conscious of the fact that the procedure is happening and develops buyer’s remorse, he tries to preserve Clementine’s memory by “hiding” her in places where she never existed — subbing her in as a childhood babysitter, for instance — so that the Lacuna team has to find her “off the map”. When those memories still aren’t concealed enough, he rushes Clementine into deeper-buried, repressed memories of humiliation — getting caught masturbating, being bullied into hitting a dead bird with a hammer — to evade Mierzwiak’s crew.

Yet what the Mierzwiak-Mary affair also reinforces is that even if we delete the memories of an ex-lover (or lost child or dead dog), we are not left with a spotless mind, exactly. Mary still has the hots for Dr. Mierzwiak, even though she doesn’t have a conscious memory of their affair. Things between Mary and Mierzwiak are once again heating up in Joel’s apartment when Mierzwiak’s wife arrives in the nick of time. Likewise, Clementine may have planted the “Meet me in Montauk” suggestions in Joel’s sub-psyche, but the fact that they hit it off all over again suggests an unalterable deterministic power that forces our attraction to certain people. The heart wants what it wants, so to speak, regardless of what we do to try to trick our brains. And speaking of intuition, which hair color do you most prefer on Clementine?

Pick: Trick question, Steve, as I’ve never understood the need to prefer any color of anything, most especially hair. Actually, to be honest, I don’t really like Clementine. I think if she had approached me the way she approached Joel, I probably would have resisted her “charms”. I know, I know, she’s acting the way she does because she has her own problems. She puts up a wall of micro-aggression alternating with friendliness, but I just am not interested.

That said, I do buy that Joel is interested, and it’s obvious that she has a way of drawing him over his own walls, such as the extreme shyness and difficulty in connecting that he displays when he’s on his own. They manage to bring out the best in each other, at least for a while, and that’s the feeling they want to hold on to so much that they fight off the complete eradication of the other’s memory, which they each thought they wanted at first. Of course, as we view their relationship in reverse during Joel’s brain wiping experience, we learn that eventually he reverts to his comfort zone of complacency, and she becomes desperate to find a new experience or a new challenge.

Then comes the big question: will they be able to avoid falling into the same traps again, especially now that they have so clearly seen the ways in which they have each so desperately hurt the other? We want to believe they will, and that’s the feeling I had over ten years ago when I first saw the film. I’m thinking now, though, that it could go either way, and that the knowledge of that pain is still not enough to negate the power of the passionate connection they achieve. You mentioned that those marriages which don’t end in divorce end in death, and I think it’s that knowledge, the absolute sense that at least one of the partners in love will be guaranteed to lose the other eventually, which makes love itself such a potent force. Kaufman’s brilliance is in finding such an entertaining way to make such a powerful point.

Leftridge: I’m not talking about needing to prefer anything; I’m talking about intuition — which, as this film works to explore, is perhaps the same thing. So not only do Clementine’s hair-color alterations help us keep track of the fractured timeline — a nice touch by Kaufman — but they also allow (or force) us to react on a gut level to these different sides of Clementine. Her hair moves from Green Revolution (the first time she meets Joel at the beach party) to Red Menace (good times with Joel, which, of course, are the memories he wants to hold on to, which is why her hair is red during the chase scenes through his brain) to Agent Orange (the fighting and deterioration of the relationship) to Blue Ruin (after the breakup and during the second meeting at Montauk). I like Red Menace best. Maybe that’s because I just happen to find that Kate Winslet looks coolest or prettiest with bright red hair. Or perhaps it’s that I’m psychosomatically reacting to the fact that she has red hair in the scenes in which her relationship with Joel is working.

All of this, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the film’s proposal: we have limited control over the forces that propel us to each other, and the wells from which our attractions spring are deeper and more permanent than we understand. Even if we could somehow manipulate our intuitive drives in an effort to avoid suffering, it’s a mistake to do so. Joel’s scenario is like the characters who swallow Dylar to purge “fear of death” from their brains in Don DeLillo’s White Noise: It’s unwise to remove our awareness of a final limit because it’s that mindfulness of the end that compels us to invest more fully in each moment and to intensify our love for each other.

Yes, these two troubled lovers are wading back into treacherous waters, this time with the knowledge that their natural propensities will ultimately put them in direct, incompatible conflict. The difference the second time around is that they’ve now learned the lesson that it’s all worth it. In the final scene, Clementine explains that in the future Joel will discover irritating faults in her and she will feel bored and trapped. To this claim he, and then she, offers an accepting “Okay”. So the weeping dog owner in the Lacuna lobby waiting to have her pooch erased is a reminder that the anguish of losing a pet, when weighed against the years of blessings that come from pet ownership, is a tough trade-off that most of us are willing to make.

Pain and loss are inevitable. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind seems to conclude that this is reason to embrace the messiness of love and life, not to bail on it. “This is it, Joel,” Clementine says. She’s referring to the memory of their first meeting on the beach, soon to be erased, but she may as well be talking about the bigger picture. “It’s going to be gone soon,” she says. “What do we do?” Joel’s response: “Enjoy it.”