By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 18, 2014 at 3:33PM
“I can’t see anything I don’t like about you” - Joel
“You will, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.” - Clementine
Back to 2008. She manned the box office at Manchester’s glorious independent cinema, the Cornerhouse, and I’d been nursing a crush on her for a while. We had friends in common, contrived our way to the same New Year’s party, and a little while after midnight, were making out like we’d invented it. We had a ridiculous amount in common (not least a love of film), and though I hadn’t gone in expecting it, I was soon deeply, absolutely in love. And she loved me back, and things were golden for a while. Then she moved to London for work, and I knew it would only be a matter of time. We managed the gap for a while, but eventually it, and other factors (like Joel, I can be quiet and sulky; like Stan, I don’t necessarily fight when I should) meant it was over. I did the things you do in that situation: I got unkempt even by my standards, I drank too much, I let my weight fluctuate like Chandler Bing. I clung, maybe too much, to the happier memories. At no point did I feel like watching “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
But maybe I should have. At the end, Joel’s attempts to cling on to his memories fail, and everything comes crumbling down. He and his projection of Clementine reminisce warmly about their meeting as the house that they met in is torn away, before she whispers to him “Meet me in Montauk,” which inspires Joel’s impulsive train journey from the beginning of the film (that she’s there implies that she too clung on to some shred). They meet again, and they reconnect again. But an angry Mary has mailed them the evidence of their wiping, and they’re both forced to listen to tapes of their past pre-wiping selves diss their former/new partner. Which initially makes them want to flee, but Clementine goes to Joel, and they resolve, tentatively, to try again. To some, it’s a happy, romantic ending, a sign that for all their differences, there’s something still there. Gondry seems to think so, telling Christianity Today at the time of release “People see fate in things—they go together because they are meant to be together.”
Kaufman sees it differently: in the same interview, he adds “I’m not sure that, if you are infatuated with someone, and you’re given this piece of information, you may not incorporate it the way you would after two years of that kind of fighting... If you’re imagining yourself in this future with someone that you just met, the fact that it’s stormy can’t possibly resonate in the way that it would if you’d actually lived it.” And an early draft of the screenplay bears up that view: it ends with a very Kaufman-esque coda as an elderly Clementine returns to Lacuna to erase her memories of Joel for a fifteenth time, the pair stuck in an endless loop of infatuation and recrimination.
“Adults are like this mess of sadness and phobias” - Mary
When I originally thought about writing this piece, I thought it was going to be about how the film helped to teach me the virtue of staying friends with your exes—I remain close to everyone I talk to above. They’re foremost among my best friends in the world, have helped me through subsequent troubles and heartbreaks, and I can’t imagine my life without them. Those who break ties with their exes—erase their memories, essentially—arguably take the easier route, and that’s understandable. But they’re missing out not just on the best of the old memories, but the chance to make new ones in a different context.
All of that remains true. But rewatching the film in preparation to write this, I found something new in it, or new to me, at least. That ending isn’t literally to suggest that Joel and Clementine are fated to be together. It’s about the hope that, when you meet the next one, history won’t repeat itself. Clementine predicts when they’re reunited that “I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped, because that’s what happens with me.” But they give it a go anyway. And that’s the process you have to go through when you come out of a relationship and start to thinking about a new one. You know your own problems, you know what gets on your nerves, and you have to work at doing better.
Since Manchester, I’ve probably had my shields up, as it were. There have been things, but I’ve generally kept them at a distance—infatuations with people who were unattainable, or not opening myself up enough to the people who were. Rewatching Gondry and Kaufman’s film again this week was a reminder that that’s no way to live a life. The film’s title comes from an Alexander Pope poem, quoted by Dunst in the movie: “How happy is the blameless vessel's lot/The world forgetting by the world forgot/Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind/Each prayer accepted and each wish resigned." And who in the hell wants that?