Yesterday I remarked that I wish I was able to submit myself to the procedure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) in order to erase Zardoz (1974) from my memory. What a world that would be, would it not, if such a thing were possible? The idea in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is that there is a way for people delete painful recollections from their brains. On the surface, one might think that this is not such a bad notion. After all, who wants to remember that films like Zardoz exist? Yet Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s suggestion is that our past, painful or not, is what makes us human and something with which it is worth coming to terms. It also does so with some of the most clever bits of movie-making I have seen.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starts off rather innocuously. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), a comic strip artist, wakes up in his bed and starts his day. It is full of the typical cares of a day: finding a dent in his car; wondering what to write in an inexplicably blank journal for the past two years; and waiting for the train to get to work. It is at the train station that his day begins to take a turn when, on a whim, he boards a different line that will take him to Montauk. Once there, he meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), a (as it turns out) multi-colored haired Barnes & Noble employee. They strike up a quick relationship, with Clementine’s forwardness breaking down Joel’s latent shyness. But the ease of their coupling is actually the result of a previous two-year long intimacy of which they have no memory. You guessed it, they had expunged each other from their individual hippocampus. What follows is a recounting of their interactions through the perspective of Joel’s procedure, going from most recent remembrance to earliest. In this way, the process starts off painful with the reasons that led him to seek out this service, but then moves into happier times that Joel began wanting to keep in his thoughts. In fact, he begins fighting back and attempts to hide her in parts of his memory that were not associated with her. It all comes to naught, though, as the technicians begin to catch on to what he is doing and delete those memories as well. When he awakes, Clementine is gone from Joel’s consciousness and we are back at the beginning of the movie. Yet the story does not end on this sour note. They find out that they had each sought their mind adjustments of each other when the office mails them their files. In the end, they decide that the spark they felt in their most recent meeting is worth giving it another go, despite the potential pitfalls revealed in their dossiers on each other.
Memories can be a tricky thing, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind handles the presentation of them in their dreamlike state in a really creative manner. As you see each memory deleted, there is a different way it is destroyed. There are scenes in the Barnes & Noble where, if you are paying attention, you can see the covers of books go blank one-by-one. That is kind of fun to notice. There are examples that are horrifying, where the faces of other people are replaced by a scary mass of featureless flesh, and voices coming through as though originating in a staticky radio signal. There are bittersweet moments, such as at the end, in the house near where Joel and Clementine originally met, with the building slowly dissolving as they say one last farewell before the procedure is completed. The variety with which this subject is approached in the film makes it worth a view, if nothing else does.
Throughout the deletion mechanism in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you begin rooting for Joel as he attempts to salvage some recollection of his relationship with Clementine, and it is sad when it does not work out as he hopes. But there is a wonderful lesson here from a Christian perspective when they decide to give it another try, and that is forgiveness. I can think of few more awful ways of acting out against somebody who has hurt you than to want to obliterate that person from your thoughts. And yet, it seems like Joel and Clementine are perfect for each other, balancing one another’s more extreme personality traits. Those who are too outgoing could learn a thing or two from one who is more withdrawn, as Clementine did from Joel. And somebody who is more bashful can benefit from somebody who is acts with boldness, as Clementine does with Joel. Yet we are called to forgive all sleights, and that is what they do, and because their relationship makes sense they opt for a redo, so to speak.
I suppose the lesson of forgiveness in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could extend to the effrontery that is Zardoz. That is a tall order, especially when there are such eminently better films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the world. Our experiences make us who were are, and I guess I will have to live with the knowledge that Zardoz is out there and shall be avoided at all costs. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not for everyone, however. As clever as it is, there is foul language, drug use, and sexual suggestiveness, though nothing too out of control despite its R rating. It is a lovely little love story, and makes for a good after dinner watch. In order to entice you further, I will leave you the words of the English Catholic poet Alexander Pope whose “Eloisa to Abelard” inspired the title, and as quoted in the film, “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.”