10th Anniversary Retrospective: Forgetting Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

On the eve of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s 10th anniversary, I revisited an old cinematic flame, confirming my suspicion that movies, like lovers, improve with forgetting.

March 18, 2014. 9 p.m.

There is a feeling I’ve had my whole life, but have never been able to put into words very well: that if there’s anything I’ve learned from my experiences with art (movies, books, songs), it’s that you can abuse it. I mean “abuse” like in the “substance” sense. Movies, especially–because they absorb you so completely–require handling with care. Tread extra gently around the ones you love the most—don’t watch them too much and too carelessly, or you’ll sap away any power they might have once had over you. Appreciation depreciates. Once you’ve killed a good movie, like a joke told too many times, it’s all over. Good luck trying to get back that rush of first love you had in the beginning.

Already this has begun to happen to me with Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the short 10 years of its lifespan, one of my (and countless others’) quote-unquote favorite movies of all time. I’ve instinctively avoided watching it for at least three years now—I shied away even from the chance of seeing it at L.A.’s Silent Movie Theater this Valentine’s Day—because I’m worried that after 10 or so viewings, I’ll discover its magic irrevocably eroded. A long-term boyfriend you stop bothering to put real pants on for–comfortable, and too familiar.

I can tell this is happening because certain images from the film—especially the more ubiquitous ones, like the bed on the snowy beach—are gradually losing their effect. When I saw that image tonight (feeling dully obligated to pen something for the occasion, lazy and uninspired, daunted already by the barrage of ESOTSM love that will spring up tomorrow on the Internet) I actually had to think about why and what it meant to me; I had to work to feel back into the way it first felt. Like my autopilot drive to and from work every day, brain numbed out on boredom and the boozy colors of aVenice Blvd sunset–nearly knocking over cyclists before I force myself to really see. Or like Dr. Mierzwiak’s assuring, unctuous exposition murmuring over the procedure room of Lacuna Inc., his words a blurry accompaniment to Joel’s parade of Clementine-triggers (watercolor sketches, a mug with Clementine’s face on it, matching Potato-Head versions of themselves).

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Joel is told by Mierzwiak and assistant Stan to concentrate hard on each item and what it meant to him in relation to Clementine. “Just please try to focus on the memories.”

Watching the film now, tonight, after work, after dinner, after catching up on last Sunday’s Girls, is taking that windy path down my own 10 years with this movie. Sitting in that room, pulling Potato Heads out from a trash bag to turn over in my hands. Here’s a brief catalog of my items: All the lines that have become so embedded into my mental phrasebook that they take any opportunity to float to the surface, until sometimes I rack my brains to remember where I even picked that up. “Sand is overrated. It’s just tiny little rocks.” “You know me, I’m impulsive.” “Happy with a secret.” Resonances I see everywhere, synapses that fire off by annoying habit. The way I have to trace almost all subsequent onscreen romances, from 500 Days of Summer to even Enough Said—back to their (real or imagined) genesis in Eternal Sunshine. As if Charlie Kaufman, in Shakespearean fashion, precluded all possibility of new romantic tropes. The Eternal Sunshine poster I bought my college roommate as a birthday present, but “really,” (I said) it was “for both of us.” The Beck cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” which I listened to just two nights ago out of sheer habit. The fantastic, airy longing that the word “Montauk” evokes in me. The high school philosophy paper I attempted, with touching ambition, to write on the epistemology of memory. This painting, Saving Clementine, by “filmscape” artist Dawn Dudek I came across years ago –

dawn dudek

That’s what this exercise feels like (what every anniversary feels like, I suppose): taking a satellite view of the cartography that someone or something has etched into your lifetime, running your fingers where the new eroded into the familiar. Chasing memories down the winding tunnels of the mind, to the points where they fall off the map. “OK! We got that one!” Those are the interesting moments of watching Eternal Sunshine again tonight—measuring the remembered movie in my head against the one on screen. For some reason I recalled Clementine’s apartment as a fetid, damp jungle, teeming with flora and furniture, so it was disappointing to find that she really only has a lone spider fern dangling from a lamp. And there are the details that just refuse stick with me, like the fact that Mary is ultimately the catalyst for the truth coming out at the end, so that little knot of narrative neatness is always a pleasant surprise. (Another perennial, always-better-than-I-remember delight: the performances. So utterly removed from the “real-life personalities” we know as Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, that I think of Joel and Clementine as separate individuals entirely, real people I’ve known and loved.)

The bulkiest object in the bag of Eternal Sunshine mementos I’m examining tonight: all the relationships I’ve ever had, hopelessly doomed to bear Joel and Clementine’s imprint, for better or worse. Those insufferable “dining dead” episodes (if you’re reading this, blame this movie for all the fits I threw over texting at the table—you know who you are). I always take special care to avoid Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at the end of a relationship (another reason I shied away from the chance of seeing it at the Silent Movie Theater this Valentine’s Day). This time it’s not because I’m afraid of emotional jadedness, but the opposite: the fear that the movie’s spectacular ending would make too convincing an argument for trying again, and compel me to call up someone I’d sworn I was over.

Eternal Sunshine plays its last cards so absolutely right; it lets hope steal into its bleakest moments with such uncanny slyness. That grand symbolic set-piece of a climax: Joel ruefully pacing the floor of the empty beach house in Montauk, the sea rushing in around his feet as the walls crumble around him and Clementine, and he reaches with all his might for his last fading memory of her. “I wish I’d stayed.”

In my vulnerable moments, that would get to me. I don’t want it to, because as Joel and Clementine learn, there are things that you would do well to forget—to start anew with, to rediscover. As the stinging barbs of their break-up echo in the hallway from Joel’s cassette player, the film’s last word is a miracle, repeated between the pair like a spell: “OK.” No other word could better sum up the tentative, irrepressible hope of new love: its tempered expectations, its mundane extraordinariness. That grown-up, weary hope that moved me for the first time 10 years ago, as a teenager who didn’t quite really get it, and grows truer and truer with every year. MM

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