Updated: Feb 15, 2018
What if you received an email saying you had been erased from someone’s memory, and that you should no longer attempt to contact them? Would you erase him/her back? Clem and Joel did just that – right before Valentine…
Our second film review goes after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
To understand Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we must first talk about the medieval love story between Héloïse and Abélard, which inspires the film’s title:
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.
Alexander Pope’s poem “Eloisa to Abelard” reveals a clandestine love and marriage between a pupil, Héloïse, and her teacher, Abélard. Aware of the problematic nature of their relationship, Abélard constrained Héloïse to keep their marriage a secret. In doing so, Héloïse took the vow of silence, and locked herself up in a convent – an act perceived by Héloïse’s family as an attempt of Abélard to get rid of her. In an act of revenge, they castrated him, and reduced him to become a monk in an abbey. Away from each other, and both embracing a life full of regrets, they famously discussed the nature of their love in letters.
Héloïse and Abélard, by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1919)
What do you prefer: a life fully lived, including pain and regrets or the quietude of a life kept precisely safe from pain and regrets? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind presents memory erasure as a possible answering, releasing us of a past tarnished by bad feelings and presences. In doing so, the movie presents a reality, echoing Pope’s poem, in which happiness is due to forgetting about the world, and being forgotten by the world. In such reality, a blank mind, an ignorant one, is a bliss, and eternal brightness, a supposedly gift even expressed in Nietzschean terms: “Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.” The movie seems yet to take one step further from Pope’s lines, reflecting a world where one’s memories can be successfully erased, but still remaining, existing in others’ mind.
That’s what the story of Joel and Clementine, a couple who once loved each other but struggle with the memories of their love, is about. Tormented by the memory of their painful relationship and breakup, Joel and Clementine can neither forgive each other, nor ask for forgiveness from each other. They cannot mend fences with one another, nor with themselves. Joel discovers he has been erased from Clem’s memory, and hurting, he chooses to forget her too, undergoing the same procedure. Paradoxically, he hopes to make himself whole again through an amputation – of his memory.
I think it is interesting to notice that while Clem, who initiated the procedure, wants to forget because she suffers too much from not being forgotten by Joel – always feeling she is the only thing Joel cares about, Joel goes through the procedure because he suffers too much from being forgotten. And so, I couldn’t help but wonder: What is more painful? To be or not to be – forgotten? Is the erasure of painful memories real happiness, or rather escapism? Is it better not to know pain, or to know it? Is ignorance a bliss, as Pope suggested?
Your concluding questions, Shirley, harken back to this wonderful film’s birthplace – in a London restaurant, a couple of years before the movie was made. Its director, Michel Gondry, had dinner with a friend, who put him on a spot: “what if you received a card in the mail that stated you had been erased from someone’s memory, and that you should no longer attempt to contact them?” This “what-if” sparked Gondry imagination, and he turned to screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman for help. We know how Kaufman, through Joel, answered: being wittingly forgotten is just too painful – and you’ll respond in kind, try to forget.
Curiously, the film was out just a couple of weeks after Facebook was launched (February 4, 2004), and with it came swelling reruns of Gondry’s quandary and Joel’s response on a mass, social (media) scale. Have you ever tried to erase the painful memory of someone else by blocking her on Facebook, erasing his messages on WhatsApp, or, resorting to more old-fashioned ways, deleting her emails? Whether it worked or not, the film’s fiction is now a virtual fact of our daily lives, hooked as we are to these pleasure-pain machines. We now upload and download our memories, so we can, with a few swipes, delete them too, and with them, presumably, the scars such memories sometimes leave. Which scars cut deeper, you ask – others remembering, or forgetting, us? To each his own is the obvious answer, but I’d say for most of us, most of the time, when it comes to the people we love/d, forgetfulness cuts deeper. This may explain why Clem, as she herself admits, opted for erasure on a whim, whereas Joel tormented himself before, and throughout, the procedure.
But to this quasi-moral dilemma – to delete or not to delete? – you add another one, presenting an alternative. To forget or forgive? This dilemma, Shirley, is what I think you suggest lovers in troubles must learn to face. When crisis comes – and, with true love, it’s bound to arrive – we can deal with our pain in two ways: heal it or kill it. We may try to heal by forgiving, others and ourselves, or kill the pain, or rather its presumed source, by trying to eradicate the memory triggering it. Of course, we often walk both paths, which too often end in an impasse.
Forgiveness – reiterative, and a bit irritating – is how the movie actually starts: on Valentine’s Day 2003, we meet Joel meeting Clementine, both behaving awkwardly, and keep on saying “I’m sorry.” It takes us some time to discover that – as with Carol – we’ve just witnessed the near conclusion of their filmed affair, after both have had their memories of each other erased. A couple of days earlier, Joel made his desperate attempt at forgiveness, bringing Clementine an early Valentine gift, with a simple note, “Clem -- I’m sorry. I love you. Joel.”
Too late, Clem already opted for forgetfulness, turning to Lacuna Ltd. to erase Joel from her memory. Unlike what will soon ensue with Joel, her Lacuna procedure was rather swift – Clem is already in a relationship with Patrick, although, unbeknownst to her, he’s a Lacuna employee, (ab)using fragments of her deleted past to make a pass at her – indicating, that with Clem too, the memory is dying, not dead yet.
Our mythical memory of Héloïse and Abélard certainly hasn’t died either. Pope attributes the lines you quoted to Héloïse, who supposedly envied the lot of the “blameless vestal” for forgetting and being forgotten. But Héloïse, I believe, would have had none of that.
Abélard and Héloïse Surprised by Abbot Fulbert, by Jean Vignaud, (1819) (right)
Héloïse found in Abélard a beloved fusion of mind, heart and body. “Already nourished at the hearth of philosophy,” she wrote to him, “you have drunk from the fountain of poetry.” But things have started to change with their forced separation, Abélard increasingly turning his back on poetry. Then, his castration – Abélard’s own physical Lacuna – fostered the forgetfulness of the flesh as well. The result was his purely philosophical treatise Historia calamitatum (1132), written some fifteen years after their aborted affair.
Reading Abélard’s aloof words, however, awoken Héloïse, igniting her fire – a rebellion, reborn. Abélard bemoaned his past, sinful, poetry and pleasures, seeking to abolish both. But unlike Joel, who responded to the attempt of being forgotten by trying to forget, Héloïse refused to forget, and did her best – appealing to Abélard’s mind – to remind him. In her first letter to him, after fifteen years of silence, she wrote: “God knows, I sought nothing in you except you yourself: simply you, not lusting for what was yours… name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore… I call God to witness that I would rather be called your whore than be crowned empress.” Héloïse saw (monogamous) marriage as chains, love as freedom to choose – “I prefer love to marriage, freedom to chains.” And her choice was clear: “I would have had no hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding to the flames of hell.” (This reminds me of how, centuries later, Mark Twain would tell us about Huck Finn’s dilemma between his loyalty to the Church and his friendship with Jim; about to send a letter telling on the runaway slave, Huck pauses, holding the letter, then concludes: “‘All right, then, I'll go to hell’ – and tore it up.”)
For Héloïse then, memory, not forgetfulness, is the bedrock of free love and friendship. Still, I think we often see the past as a prison, certain memories as chaining us, preventing us from pursuing the future we’d like to have. If so, it makes a perfect sense to willingly castrate our mind, heart, and body, just to let go of pain, dismissing Héloïse’s passion as naïve and doomed. Perhaps it is. Is memory freedom or chains?
And maybe, instead (or in addition) of asking if memory is freedom or chains, one should ask: “is the lack of it freedom or chains?” For Mary, the personal assistant of Lacuna’s owner, Howard, it seems that the erasure of her love affair with him has been experienced as a memory mutilation. The very memory of her love to Howard was taken away from her, and deeply missing it(,) became her chains. Mary might have tasted the “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind,” but she also underwent the flip side of such intervention. Even if the “damaged” section of her mind (which is, the memory of her affair) has been taken away, Mary could still feel the longing, the ache of that loss, her natural and intuitive attraction and feelings towards Howard still being present and intact.
And so are the results of the procedure: while it might have taken away the memory of her love for Howard, it hasn’t taken away her love for Howard. Also, although the decision of erasing Mary’s memory has been mutually agreed, Howard hasn’t gone through the same procedure himself, keeping a living memory of their love story.
Taking away the past may remove the pain but it also drains the fountain from which we learn, and make better choices. Thus, even if Mary doesn’t own her memory anymore, she is inclined to make the same “mistakes” all over again, as Joel and Clem were as well: while memories might come and go, their erasure doesn’t mean that they did not occur. It simply gives the illusion of it. But then, if this is what’s all about, what’s the difference (if there is such) between freedom and chains?
I think memory can be both, and often is. The past chains us; life circumstances always do. Birth binds us, death liberates us. We don’t choose to be born, but we can opt out of this world. Still, by choosing to remain, we can charge our existence with freedom, and make this choice yet more meaningful if we find purpose for living. That, I think, is the existentialist point of the past: not merely in offering us a “menu of memory” from which to choose, but a way to make our present, and future, more meaningful.
But here we’re talking about films, and this discussion got me thinking: what if a movie were a person, what would its memory look like? What would erasing parts of a movie’s memory be like? My mind turned to editing. Surely Gondry’s and Kaufman’s creative process didn’t end where it started; there must have been some parts they added, others they’d left out. I decided to do a bit of excavation.
First order of the day: clues. Kaufman, in an interview following the film, gave the obvious one: “What I find interesting is trying to create a script that makes you need to go back and look at it again; and that the second time you look at it, you’ll see things that you didn’t see, that you couldn’t have seen the first time because you didn’t have the information that you have by the end of the first viewing. So, the second viewing becomes the viewing of a different movie, even though it’s exactly the same movie.”
I tried to pay attention, and sure enough – here’s one detail I hardly noticed at first watch. At the very beginning of the film, Joel sits in a train, looking at his journal. The last page. It’s a brief glimpse, the words are hardly legible. So I looked for the script, and sure enough, mystery resolved. The enigmatic entry says: “January 6, 2001. Nothing much. Naomi and I coexisting. Roommates. Nothing. Will it go on like this forever? My best guess? Yes.”
The script also reveals what the film conceals. In the shooting script, but not in the film, Joel notices torn pages in his journal, following that last entry (it’s now, you may recall, already Valentine’s Day 2003), and writes: “…I saw Naomi last night. First time since the breakup. We had sex. It was odd to fall into our old familiar sex life so easily. Like no time has passed. Suddenly we’re talking about getting together again. I guess that’s good… Guess I’d better get back with Naomi. Ought to buy her a Valentine.”
Naomi, Joel’s ex – where is she coming from? In the film, Joel mentions her briskly once and we don’t see her at all. But in the script, Naomi is very much present in Joel’s mind. “What we were was safe,” Joel thinks-talks to her, “It was unfair to you and to me to stay in a relationship for that reason. I thought about Clementine and the spark when I was with her, but then I thought what you and I had was real and adult and therefore significant.”
Where did Naomi go, and why? Kaufman later explained, with regret: “I was against cutting her out, and I fought for her and she was cut out completely… I really like the story element of having her there so we understand a little bit about where Joel came from, who he was with and how she contrasted with Clementine. Also, the fact that he had to make a decision that was monumental, which is not clear now because there’s an allusion to her but you don’t see her. The idea was that he actually left his long-term relationship, which was a very risky thing for him to do.”
Is Naomi Kaufman’s Clementine? Amidst the Lacuna procedure, Joel realizes he doesn’t want to lose his memories of Clem – but it’s too late. Kaufman too fought to keep the memory of Naomi, and like Joel, failed. Still, like Joel, he had his “Mary” to keep it somewhat alive. Erased from the final film, Naomi still lives in script, and deleted scenes. This one’s for you, Naomi:
But are deleted scenes all that a film’s lost memory made of? I decided to dig further, deeper, beyond the shooting screen play, into Kaufman’s original script. It was not what I was expecting. True, much – most – of the film is basically the same, but some parts, crucial parts, are so hauntingly different.
First scene: An old woman is trying to get a manuscript published. A moment later, on a futuristic train, we see it in her lap, its title reads, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “This serves as the movie’s opening title,” Kaufman instructs, “The other credits follow, as the old woman studies commuters in passing tubes. Their faces are variously harsh and sad and lonely and blank.” Cut to fifty years earlier, we meet Clementine, asking her memory of Joel to be erased, reasoning: “The thing that I keep coming back to is, I'm not getting any younger, I want to have a baby... at some point... maybe... right? So then I think I should settle -- which is not necessarily the best word…”
Is Clementine the old woman, writing the story of giving up her memory, then reclaiming her love? Reading your observation, Shirley, I think you know the answer. You write: “Mary might have tasted the ‘eternal sunshine of the spotless mind,’ but she also underwent the flip side of such intervention.” It was Mary all along, perhaps the real hero(ine) of the story. We get an echo of that in the film – Mary is the one reciting (from her “Quote book”) Pope’s poem – but we get much more in the original script. There, Stan, her coworker-would-be lover confront her about sending the memory tapes to Lacuna’s oblivious clients. Mary responds: “I won't allow it. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What do you think of that? That’s from my quote book.” Still Mary is torn: “I don’t want to hurt people. (breaking down) But these things happened! All these little sadnesses, the big ones. What if no one remembers? What does that do to the world? (beat, quietly) Someone has to remember, Stan.”
Then, again according to the original script, we see memories people are trying to erase:
“The young girl being raped by the man in the car.
A soldier on a battlefield looking at his slaughtered friends. A couple fighting, from the woman’s point of view. MAN: I...I... I... find you physically repulsive! I can't even look at you! They look at each other in silence. A little boy being called ‘faggot’ by an endless succession of boys. The aftermath of a car accident from the driver’s POV. Mary having an abortion.”
Mary, we learn, adjusts – realizing, perhaps, that Lacuna is needed, she resumes her work there. Fifty years later, still at the reception desk, “Old Mary looks up, seems a bit startled, conceals it,” as another old woman enters the office. Mary announces: “Dr. Mierzwiak, this is Clementine Kruczynski. She'd like to talk to you.” And as old Clementine sits in front of Dr. Mierzwiak, “A tape recorder starts up and his computer screen lights up so only he can see it. On it we see a whole file on Clementine Kruczynski: a list of fifteen dates of previous erasures stretching back fifty years, all of them involving Joel Barish.” Old Clementine tells the Doctor: “Well, I met this man, Joel, three years ago at a senior dance... We’d both been alone for so long and...” She explains: “I said something like we should go upstate and see the leaves change... He just stared at me as if I didn't exist. As if I had never existed...”
We now see Old Mary in the train, the manuscript in her hands, but in the original script that’s how it ends: “the old woman with the earphones is dead, her eyes glassy and unseeing.” Back to old Clementine: “his eyes used to be so filled with love. But it was gone. How can I go back to being alone after seeing love? I was alone for so long. What had I done with my life? I was alone so long.” Now Clementine undergoes, for the sixteenth time, the procedure, and on her answering machine we hear a voice: “Hi, it’s Joel. What’s going on, Clem? Why won't you call me back? Please call me. We need to speak.” The original script ends: “The machine clicks off. One of the technicians reaches over and presses the ‘erase’ button on the machine. BLACK.”
Black and bleak, a disheartening conclusion, especially for us, the viewers, comparing this end to the memorable one of the film we watched. Why is it so? Partly for the possibility you alluded to, Shirley, that with true love – no matter how much we try to forget it – there’s something that brings us together again, and again, and again, and again, and again… There is a sense of a Nietzschean “eternal return,” Joel and Clementine condemned to repeat their love-loss-love-loss until the very end.
Nietzsche, a divine-devilish philosopher if there ever was one, saw “eternal return” as both “the heaviest burden” and the ultimate affirmation of life:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' [The Gay Science, §341]
What would you do – blight or bless this demon? I think Nietzsche saw our task as trying to live so that when the demon comes, we will opt for the latter.
Watching the film, then reading the original script, I think the film stands a better chance to bless the demon. The Joel and Clem that reached the silver screen had one thing that set them apart from their original predecessors: they truly looked their own demons in the eyes.
René Magritte. The Lovers. Le Perreux-sur-Marne, 1928 Blindfolded thus/yet Bounded?
The Joel and Clem of the original script listened to their past tapes, and shrugged. “Joel, we’ve fucked,” Clem tells him, “We’ve made love. Like a million times. And we were so sweet and shy and inept with each other last night. Isn't that lovely?... We should have sex. It's old hat for us.” But when the cinematic Joel and Clem listened to their past tapes – the horrible, honest, things they thought and told about one another – their hearts were truly broken, they have, at those moments, lost their love. But they were also, at the very last moment, at the edge of the precipice, patient and brave enough to try and reclaim their love, and it made all the difference in the world. I would like to think – I believe – that they would not have erased their memories, and perhaps, with a bit of luck, also stayed together.
What explains this tremendous shift from the sorrowful script to the hopeful silver screen? Many things, we can imagine, but I would like to think that at the movie’s ending, Kaufman hints at least at one.
Change your heart, Kaufman might have told himself, it will astound you – Wait, give them, your dear protagonists, and yourself, another chance, to learn – after all, Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime.
All along, we are immersed in the universe of Joel and Clem’s minds: the movie starts with their most recent memories and ends with their oldest ones - those Joel hopes keeping while going through the erasure procedure. Looking back into Joel’s past, we can see how great his relationship with Clem was, contrasting with looking into the almost present, full of boredom, pain and anger. As we go further into the movie, into Joel’s intentions and mind, we can understand that the more he deepens into the past, the better (and brighter) his memories with Clem are.
It seems that while Clementine valorizes the present, at the expense of the past (preferring to erase the past to better live her present), Joel valorizes the past, possibly at the expense of the present: recalling, understanding, realizing the value of his relationship and love only during the procedure itself, experienced as a self-discovery process. It is because of the past, their past, that Joel can appreciate his present, trying to stop the erasure procedure. But it took an amputation, a loss, to fully understand it - memory necessarily not belonging to the past.
But if the good belongs to the past, and the memory of the past is better than the present, what is left for Joel? How can one bring the good from the past into the present, and future? Although in the movie scenario, one can tell that Clem & Joel chose to “go for it”, taking the chance of being together again, it seems in the original script scenario, that two distinct choices were made: Clem became addicted to memory erasure, trapped in the present, while Joel seems to often visit the past and explore it to create his present (as the scene you attached, Uriel, showing Joel and Naomi).
Joel and Clem are Time prisoners. Joel is nostalgic to a past he might be idealizing. Clementine is addicted to temporal escapism: turning present into past (making Joel, a person right here before her, into a thing of the past). Can they cohabit? Apparently not: Clementine is not interested in having Joel, as he is, unchanged, in her present, and Joel doesn’t seem too confident in the present, his present, repeatedly referring to the past to vindicate his relationship with Clem. And yet, there might still be a temporal frame which is still possible for both and their love: the future.
A question remains - what would have happened, if the recent memories were to be great instead of bad, and the older ones were to be bad instead of great? Would both still have chosen the erasure procedure? What role does Time really play in choice, and choice in Time?
Why did Joel want to erase his memory of Clem? It’s plain: because Clem did it first; Joel says so himself, to Clem – in that first memory he’s losing. The forgotten wants to forget.
But what about the flipside, why does Joel ask to cancel the procedure while at it? He feels rather uncomfortable pretty much from the start, but still goes along with it. His doubts first begin to mount not because of the sweet past with Clem, but because of the bitter present, and male rivalry – it’s jealousy, plain and simple: Joel hears Patrick, and starts to connect the dots. And yet, he’s still not asking (in his fading mind) to revoke the process, likely because the more recent memories of Clem don’t encourage him to. He goes to a restaurant with Clem, and both seem half-comfortably numb. “Are we the dining dead?” he wonders.
You’re right: It’s when Joel moves further, deeper, into the past, that things change, upend. He recalls their magic moment: holding hands, stargazing on ice, the perfect past. “I could just die right now, Clem,” Joel tells her, “I’m just...happy. I’ve never felt that before. I’m just exactly where I want to be.” Losing that was just too much to bare, and Joel cries out, rebelling against the procedure, effectively against himself – in the name of that moment.
But does Joel want to hold on to Clem or to the memory of that moment? I think it’s the latter. Overall, I believe, there’s another lesson here: You can never lose someone else’s love. You’ve never had it in the first place. True love cannot be owned, and once it’s gone (not taken away), what you have – and can indeed lose – is its memory. “Losing” here isn’t just failing to maintain (or wanting to discard); it’s giving up – on our humanity.
Let’s not give up, let’s hold on to dear memories – past perfect and past painful alike – to create, with courage and curiosity, better future, full of love.