Eat Your Vegetables: "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.

Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Vegetable Equivalent: Bok choy, a vegetable that helps sharpen your memory
Nutritional Value: The film helps you remember to forget
Recommended Serving: All at once, preferably on an overcast afternoon

Joel (Jim Carrey) has broken up with Clementine (Kate Winslet). He discovers that she’s had a procedure performed to erase Joel from her memory — because, you know, you can do that. Impulsively, Joel demands the same procedure. The film documents the erasure and its aftermath.

Here are the film’s three intriguing paradoxes:

1. Scientists have discovered a way to erase memories, but only by means of alarmingly outdated technology. The doctors in the film use cassette tapes, the best Dell Laptops 1995 had to offer, and a jumble of wires and analog-looking voltage monitors. In every other respect, the film looks like it is set in 2004, yet the brain-scan headpiece looks like it came out of an 80s Five Boroughs hair salon. The procedure’s medical advancement jars against the equipment used to accomplish it.

2. Joel has to have already forgotten what he loves most about Clementine to choose to have the procedure done in the first place. That is, Joel experiences the erasure process not simply as loss but as recovery then loss. He paradoxically remembers what he loves most about Clementine even as he’s having his memories of her erased. This means his motivation to forget is that he has already forgotten.

3. From what we can tell, people are doomed to repeat the same mistakes even after they’ve had their memories erased. Clem and Joel are drawn to one another, destined to replay the emotional mixtape of fascination, happiness, boredom, frustration, and disgust they made together before they underwent the procedure.

The film’s title is an oxymoron too, a reference to the Alexander Pope poem “Eloisa to Abelard,” where the convented Eloisa writes:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d…

The paradox Eloise articulates is that by forgetting the world, the vestal is able to have every prayer answered because the things she would want most are no longer in her memory. Her desires have been forgotten.

The film’s central problem is change. How do you change? You have a medical procedure performed on your brain, and yet you can’t shake free of your impulses. Apparently, the erasing process doesn’t go deep enough.

Lacuna Corp.’s philosophy, voiced by the young and impressionable Mary (Kirsten Dunst), is that babies are innocent while adults are just piles of neuroses and sadness. Lacuna’s fatal presupposition is that humanity isn’t already ideologically corrupted at birth. I use this film to talk to my students about ideology, the unknown knowns that orient our behavior in ways we’re never entirely cognizant of. Love operates that way in the film. Joel knows that Clem won’t complete him; she tells him as much. But he believes she will anyway. These characters are smart and appropriately cynical 21st century adults, yet they act like fools when emotions get involved. The film implies that there is something that the scanner can’t erase.

The delightfully contraption-esque quality of Lacuna’s equipment speaks to the gap between the reach of science and human nature.  The procedure puts a band-aid on a bullet wound.

As the movie ends, Joel and Clem stand in the hallway of Joel’s apartment. They’ve forgotten each other, met each other for the first time all over again, and have just heard their taped confessionals about why they broke up with each other in the first place. Once again, they’ll have to run the paradoxical gauntlet: they’ll have to forget the way the story ended the first time in order to give it a go, but if they completely forget what they’ve heard they’ll necessarily repeat the same mistakes. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.

One last note: I absolutely adore Jon Brion’s theme for this film, which you can listen to here. It condenses all of the film’s bittersweet qualities into a three-minute bar-room waltz.

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  • Steven Sukkau

    Such a great movie, painful at times to watch, especially near the end, the scene in the hall way where Joel and Clem decide to give it another go. I forget their exact words, but it always wrecks me. No human relationship will ever be perfect here on earth, but despite everything they found each other, and then found each again. It’s not a perfect love, but it is most assuredly authentic; it takes the good with the bad.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Thank you for the excellent breakdown, Jonathan. I have a some disagreements, but I appreciate your thoughts and they’ve given me some things to think about.

    I do want to talk about one disagreement I have. I don’t think the movie is designed to suggest that people are doomed to repeat their mistakes. Whether Joel and Clementine do is up for debate (personally, I think there are a few bits and pieces that show how the changes they have made in each other have better prepared them for the second go-around). But even if they are, it would be tough for us to replicate that scenario without a local Lacuna office. More importantly, I think the movie clearly is calling on us to appreciate our own memories… to go through the very process Joel goes through, without the erasure at the end.

    Too often I find myself at odds with my wife, fuming that my life should have been different if only for this OTHER person. THEY are the problem, not me. And yet, when I watch Eternal Sunshine, I am forced to consider the thousands of wonderful little moments in our own story… moments that are cute, profound, emotionally compelling, silly, frustrating, awkward, or tearful. And as I do so, I fall in love with her all over again, realizing the many ways she has changed me for the better and seeing more clearly how much richer life with her is than it could ever be alone… and how many of my struggles are of my own making.

    When Joel gets to his last memory of Clementine, she reminds him that this is the last one and asks what they should do. In a moment of defeat and wisdom, he says, “enjoy it.”

    Memory is deep and powerful, especially in the context of relationships, which have such capacity for hurt and joy. Too often, like Joel or Clementine, we try to forget our memories or push them aside, focusing on the here and now. But in a world that does NOT have memory-erasure technology, perhaps what we need is take time to re-explore our memories, to reflect on the relationships God has placed us in, and to simply enjoy his past work in our lives with all its richness and beauty. I know for me, this sort of enjoyment of God’s past work has made me better able to appreciate his present work and have faith in his future work, as well.

  • Possibly one of my favorite movies of all time!

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Some more thoughts:
    1. We see how people abuse Lacuna. Mary goes back to Dr. M. There’s the throwaway gag about the guy getting the operation done for the third time in a month.
    2. There isn’t another solid relationship in the film. Dr. M and his wife are on the outs. Stan has an unrequited thing for Mary. Patrick has a creepy unrequited thing for Clem. Mary has a troubling thing for Dr. M. Rob and Carrie Eakin (David Cross and his onscreen wife) don’t seem happy either. Everyone is miserable.
    3. Charlie Kaufmann is Hollywood’s most intellectual areligious screenwriter. Every film he makes is deeply philosophical, but he never engages with, or even mentions, God. Sin, Charlie! Sin! That’s what Lacuna can’t erase!
    4. Questions: does Stan know about Mary and Dr. M’s prior fling? He says he doesn’t, but do we believe him? Does it matter?

  • Wonderful! I have my blog and a few days back i wrote about the story behind the movie title in a section i have called “Spoonful of Sugar” glad someone decided to write about this movie as a “must watch” definitely is!