Memory’s Elusive Power is Clear in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

July 25, 2014

With its thoughtful and quirky exploration of memory, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has the power to inspire and alter perceptions.

Movie poster of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind on AudNewsOver breakfast the other morning, my husband mentioned wanting to see Edge of Tomorrow. I told him, “Nope, not me.”  Five or so years ago, Tom Cruise started getting on my nerves so much as a person that I can no longer see past “Tom Cruise” on the big screen. The conversation then shifted to actors who changed our opinions after a powerful role.  Jim Carrey, for example. Goofy faces and over-the-topness just don’t do it for me. Movies like Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber? Not a chance. Then there was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Carrey plays Joel Barish, a quiet and unassuming guy having a really bad day. Surrounded by Valentine’s Day mementos to make him feel worse, he ditches work for a trip to Montauk. There he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), a beacon with her Blue Ruin-colored hair. Because the beginning of the movie is not the beginning of the movie, Clementine’s hair color is key for figuring out where in time different parts of the movie fall.

Joel and the free-spirited Clementine had already met, fallen in love, and were on their way to falling out of it, when Clementine decided to erase Joel from her memory. He found out thanks to a warning sent to his friends. A notice from Lacuna, the company that performed the procedure. To retaliate, Joel makes an appointment to clear his brain of her.

What follows is a backwards journey through Joel and Clem’s relationship, as Lacuna erases the most recent memories first. We hear words yelled in anger, see mostly silent dinners in restaurants.  But as we move deeper into Joel’s mind, we witness looks of love, moments of contentment. Joel is in an unshakeable sleep while Lacuna techies (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) zap all thoughts of Clementine.

The really beautiful part of the movie is when Joel begins to make an effort to save his memories. He grabs Clem’s hand, trying to protect her from being deleted. But as they run down the road, street signs go blank and fence posts disappear. Books lose their titles and fly off the shelves.

In further attempts to shield themselves, Joel and Clementine try to create new memories off the map of their relationship. He takes her into scary and humiliating moments from his childhood, desperate to remember her when he wakes. They fight so hard and work so well together, it makes me ache to see the house where they met fill with water and sand, until it falls apart.

And yet, they meet again and fall for each other once more.

When I first watched the movie, I was so struck with the concept that I wrote a poem called “Melancholy, We Sing Along.” It was one of my favorites in my thesis, in part due to its inspiration. Thanks to my deep love for Eternal Sunshine, I have no problem watching Jim Carrey in other movies. After all, taste, like memory, is constantly evolving.

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