Jim’s Ninth Favorite Film

4 Dec


9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

“Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”
Mark 10:9

The ninth verse of the tenth chapter or Mark’s gospel is the go-to citation for anyone trying to Biblically justify the forbidding of divorce.  At its heart the verse makes a lot of sense.  As Christians we believe, to one extent or the other, that many of the significant turning points in our lives – choice of college, career path, marriage, etc. – are willed by God, individual breaks deliberately constructed into a path that is meant to lead to the fruition of His will for us.  But removed from context, this verse has also been cited to induce shame, to bully weak minds and weaker hearts into submission and to ultimately justify greater evils, such as the acceptance of emotional and/or physical abuse, over lesser.

So, what happens when the words in that verse are flipped – “Therefore what God has put asunder, let no man put together”?

This is the question I ask myself when watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; a question that would have never occurred to me when I first saw the film as a sophomore in college 9 years ago.  At that time, I saw the tale of Joel Barish desperately trying to undo the decision to literally erase his failed relationship with Clementine Kruczynski from his mind as the final act of romantic grandiosity from a man who, through the benefit of reliving a manifestation of literal hindsight, recognizes that his life with Clementine, though troubled, was worth saving.  Indeed, as we witness Joel and Clementine’s (seemingly) first awkward meeting and how a mutual romance is able to develop despite – or perhaps, because of – an almost complete dichotomy between the two, we’re caught up in the fairy tale told of how opposites can attract.  Tracing Joel’s regression through his memories to recall the beauty and tenderness that at one point existed in their past together also seems to confirm the idea that yes, if there were ever two people in this world who should be giving each other a second chance, it’s these two lovers.

But Eternal Sunshine, like all great art, evolves over time, speaking not One Truth, but truth to one.  As we grow older, our ears change from gradual wear and tear, and the songs we love sound different the further we get from their initial discovery.  So it is for me with Eternal Sunshine.

Since I first saw the film in 2004, I’ve relationships, both my own and those of others, fail despite such initial promise, I’ve seen the best of intentions go unrewarded, I’ve seen people resign themselves to what they saw as the best that they could get and I’ve seen, and partaken in, relationships that should’ve never even begun. I’ve seen enough to know that not everything ends happily, that nothing everything is supposed to end happily. It’s easy to mourn for Joel and Clementine’s mutual but separate decision of erasure as the film progresses and we see the intimacy and connection that they once genuinely shared come to life, but it’s also worth noting that the emotion builds and the narrative moves forward only as we travel backwards through Joel’s memory closer to the genesis of love.

Am I saying that I like Eternal Sunshine because it echoes a cynicism I feel towards love?  Not exactly.  But by progressing through regression, writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry accomplish two things perfectly: they emulate the emotional elevation that nostalgia and hindsight can provide by acknowledging that the failed relationships, even those that should’ve never begun, can contain moments of true beauty.

Too many films want to feed us completely manufactured depictions of the perpetual honeymoon, never acknowledging that love involves compromise, that it will be tested beyond Act II, that it sometimes doesn’t last or cannot overcome.  There’s too much black and white in on-screen romance, but Eternal Sunshine almost revels in the grey, mixing the good up with the bad into a concoction called honesty and let’s us take from it what we will.

Personally, it seems clear that Joel and Clementine won’t ever work, that their determination to at least try at the conclusion of the film (“And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens to me.” “Okay.”) is perhaps one of the most equally admirable and foolish decisions two people can make together.  And while I’m older now and don’t necessarily agree with 20-year old me that “it’s okay because at least they’re trying,” I also can’t say that I don’t think Joel and Clementine should never be together.  Were their story to continue after the film fades to white, I’m sure the relationship would gradually collapse and there would be a lot of pain, bitterness and regrets along the way.  But there would be beauty, tenderness and caring along the way as well.  Would it be worth forgoing the good so as to never encounter the bad?  We would not be the people we are today if we were not built up, but for most of us, that also entails first being broken.

2 Responses to “Jim’s Ninth Favorite Film”

  1. Tyler Smith December 4, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    It is fascinating how differently we interpret this film.

    • Jim Rohner December 5, 2013 at 9:34 am #

      I’d be curious to hear your interpretation. I wanted to include something in the blog about how Charlie Kaufman himself mentioned that the ending is cynical, but I couldn’t find any reference to it. At this point, I’m not 100% certain I did ever read that.

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