The first time I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I had just been dumped. Like the day before. I probably should have seen it coming – it was a long distance relationship, and those never, ever work. She was in California, I was still in New York City. And the last time I had been out to see her, visiting her in her tiny home town, we had gotten really drunk and I had sort of caused a serious ruckus in our hotel room, doing a couple of hundred dollars worth of damage (who knew mirrors cost so much and could take so little abuse from softballs?) and narrowly avoiding a night in jail. We were kicked out of the room and had to find another. Where I promptly puked all over the floor. Like I said, I should have seen it coming. And I kind of deserved it.
So my first viewing was in the immediate shadow of that event. For reasons I can no longer recall, I went to the movie by myself – an early daytime screening – and was emotionally pummeled by it for almost two hours. Walking out of Eternal Sunshine I took one, depressing lesson: we will continue making the same mistakes again and again. Joel will end up back with Clementine no matter how awful and bad their relationship was, and he’ll get hurt the same way. Life, and more specifically relationships, is a cycle of abuse.
It’s funny how wrong you can be. Seeing the movie again – way after it hit DVD, because I so closely associated it with this specific girl – I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of my misinterpretation. And over the years since then it has become my favorite romantic movie, a film that has come to mean so much to me and that has played a special role in other special relationships, all of which I understand better because I have come to understand the movie.
The basic meaning of the film is simple: it was all worth it. Sure Joel and Clementine are battered and bruised by the problems and fights and heartaches at the end of their relationship, and it’s all so fresh that you understand why they want to forget everything, but forgetting is the real tragedy. See, it was all worth it. Every tear, every scream, every sleepless night was worth it because of all the good stuff that preceded it. And there’s pain at the end, but that pain is proportional to the love at the beginning. You can’t let the fear of that pain keep you from the pleasure of that love. In a lot of ways screenwriter Charlie Kaufman comes back to this in Synechdoche, New York, but in a more cynical way – maybe Caden’s life isn’t what he wanted it to be because he always kept one eye on the end, and how much he feared it.
All of this is in response to a post on our message board today, where someone singled out Eternal Sunshine as a film where the central love story is hard to buy; the poster believes that any relationship with that much drama isn’t worth having. I feel bad for the guy who said that, because I’ve always appreciated the drama between Joel and Clementine. Their relationship is passionate, and passionate people tend to be passionate in all things. A relationship free of strife seems boring to me; I look at people who never fight and I see people who settled, people who punch a clock in their relationship, who chose a partner based on ease rather than real love. Maybe it’s just my fiery Mediterranean heritage, but I think if you can’t have a good fight you can’t have a good fuck. Like a good life, romance has its ups and downs, and the worst thing it can be is too secure and boring.
But it’s the drama at the heart of Joel and Clementine’s relationship that makes the movie so wonderful. Kaufman and director Michel Gondry never sugarcoat this relationship; they bring us the good and the bad equally, and they know that we will understand why the good was worth all the bad. We could argue all day whether or not Joel and Clementine belong together forever, but the point is that they belonged together when they were together. The movie becomes a rorschach test because of the warts and all presentation – a negative viewer will walk out of the movie focusing on the ugliness, while an optimistic, romantic viewer will see the beauty.
I think what makes Eternal Sunshine a real classic is the way that it interacts with you as you watch it again and again. My first viewing was negative, while later viewings found me hung up on the idea of Clementine as an overly idealized woman (this was at a time when I was between relationships, and feeling pretty bitter about the prospects of ever meeting anyone who truly moved me again). Now I see the film through different eyes, and the idea of it all being worth it – of being thankful that you got to experience that at all – is profound to me. Like I said, it’s a message I can easily apply to not just my romantic life, and it’s not a sappy one. Eternal Sunshine doesn’t deny the hurt, but it allows for the happiness. The film isn’t some ironic, cynical look at relationships but it also isn’t the kind of happy go lucky bittersweet story that plays so well to the mall crowd. Like all reality, like all truth, it’s somewhere right in the middle.