Revisiting “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

Revisiting “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Eternal Sunshine, you’d better go watch it before reading this post.

After I mentioned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in my post about memory earlier today, I went back and watched the movie again tonight. It’s said that fiction is about what it’s not about—and sure enough, though memory is the stuff of Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant screenplay, it’s not really what the movie is about.

What I remembered was Jim Carrey’s character Joel clinging to his memories of Clementine, but in the end, the film argues that it doesn’t really matter whether Joel and Clementine have those memories. As the film begins—and then ends—the characters are set to begin again, and create new memories that will differ in their specifics but not in their broader meaning. In a subplot mirroring of which I didn’t fully appreciate the significance until now, two other characters seem fated to inevitably reprise a disastrous liaison that they had and forgot. Their memories are gone (at least, the memories of one of the characters are), but their natures haven’t changed.

When Jim Carrey woke from his procedure near the film’s conclusion, I remembered the uncomfortable scenes to follow and wished the movie would just end—but I stuck with it and realized that a key to Kaufman’s meaning comes at the film’s very end, when the end of Joel and Clementine’s relationship arrives to haunt the relationship’s (new) beginning and the characters have to decide whether they want to start again, knowing how things will develop between them.

The characters aren’t naive enough to argue that things will be different. They know that Joel will get annoyed with Clementine’s impetuousness, and that Clementine will feel bored and trapped with Joel. Having that memory delivered to them, they decide to continue—even as Mary (Kirsten Dunst) makes a different decision about renewing her once-forgotten relationship. Or will she? What the characters know—what they remember, and don’t remember—affects them. It can make them sad, or happy. But their memories don’t trap them.

Sometimes you know a lot more than you want to know, and sometimes you know a lot less. What’s most important, though, Eternal Sunshine seems to argue, is knowing what you want to do.

Jay Gabler