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 Scientists have discovered a way to erase memories, but only by means of alarmingly outdated technology.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.