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How has ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ changed over the years? - stream it on Peacock
Meet me in Montauk… again, and again, and again.
Some movies grow with the times, and other movies grow with you. The 2004 all-time gem Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has done both. Directed by Michel Gondry from an Academy Award winning script from Charlie Kaufman, the movie poses the question of what would happen if a company was able to erase select memories from your mind.
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey star as Clementine and Joel. Clementine decides to erase her relationship with Joel after they grow exasperated with each other. Joel finds out, and he proceeds to do the same. During the process, Joel realizes that he doesn’t want to forget her, so he rebels. Mark Ruffalo (Stan), Elijah Wood (Patrick), Kirsten Dunst (Mary), and Tom Wilkinson (Howard) do what they can to keep the procedure on track, all the while going through storylines of their own.
I had not watched this movie in a long while, so I returned to it once more to see how it has changed after 19 years. What effect might the movie have in the slowly unraveling world of 2023? It is currently streaming on Peacock, so if it’s been a while for you too (or if you’ve never seen it at all), then you should absolutely spool it up.
Remembering 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'
In brief? It was brilliant in 2004, and it’s brilliant now. The way that Gondry brought the script to life is still something close to an artistic miracle. We loved the performances before, and we still do. It is an incredibly well-crafted movie and that will never change.
The procedures of Lacuna Inc. involve removing physical items tied to the erasure from your life, but it doesn’t include social media. In 2004, it had barely become the insufferable pit of despair that it is now. We expected this to be on our spot-filled minds while rewatching the movie, but it wasn’t. If it was being made now, there might be a line or two about how Lacuna scrubs your social media… but the movie is better without that. Lacuna’s methods are imperfect.
They send physical letters to everyone in your orbit and let them know that you’ve gotten the procedure. Are they going to catch every single person? Of course not. Joel only knows what Clementine did because his friend Rob (David Cross) breaks with protocol and tells him, much to the disapproval of his partner Carrie (Jane Adams). If some kind of digital message has to be sent to all of someone’s “friends” and followers online? Good luck. Lacuna is a pen and paper outfit.
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The company isn’t only there to erase memories of relationships, and we know this thanks to a grief-stricken woman holding a dog bowl (and other mementos of her dog, no longer with her we assume) sitting in the Lacuna waiting room. They’ll do what they can to erase grief, trauma, anything. It is an unnatural shortcut. Grief doesn’t work that way— Buster will metaphorically meet that woman in Montauk.
In these troubling times (we hope this email finds you well, by the way), this company would be booming. Lines out the door, thousands of locations, the digital age fully embraced. Everyone wants a shortcut. Why live through painful memories when you can just skip over all of it? Forget grief and forget pain. The physical cost doesn’t matter. Dr. Mierzwiak admits the following to Joel at one point: “Technically speaking the procedure is brain damage, but it’s on par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss."
Messing with memories
Why do the work when you can make it quick? The movie intentionally makes it look like a normal process. Everything about Lacuna makes it look as pedestrian as any doctor’s office, right down to the pharmacy bag from which Joel takes his required procedure pill. It's all a futile endeavor. The bookstores of your mind may vanish, but a quote from someone who took advantage of you could become history in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. "Howard is pure Bartlett's!" A collective mind can never be made spotless.
With all of that in consideration, I realized that the experience wasn’t about what has changed in the world since I last watched. That is part of it, yes, but the bigger revelation had to do with how I had changed. I am not who I was in 2004, and the movie threw both the positives and negatives of this into stark relief. I had not undergone any procedure, I remembered everything. It felt like Kevin McCallister had just thrown a brick at my face.
Clementine is impulsive, and Joel is not. It’s one of the many ways that they push each other to change, even when it’s painful. Clementine is the first one to impulsively go to Lacuna, possibly not fully realizing that this is something that you cannot take back. Joel realizes this mid-procedure, as noted. The good and the bad of any experience is mingled, and he doesn’t want Clementine to be lost and gone forever. Relationships aren't the magical fantasy of kissing in the middle of a troubled Christmas tree farm, but they change you. The Clementine/Joel dynamic hits hard, and it quite possibly hits harder now because I’ve had 19 years of time.
The procedure is an invasion, and though the movie makes us initially feel like it’s not a bad idea, this changes. Clementine and Joel are violated, but they signed up for that, didn’t they? What Clementine did not sign up for was to be violated outside of the procedure. Patrick’s abuse of both her and the system remains one of the creepiest things in the movie, and it's not just because Frodo Baggins is soul-raping Rose Dawson.
If Lacuna can remove obsession from their customers, might that be a positive thing? That’s an open question, though this is where the confluence of connection, caring, and codependence enter in. Mary and Mierzwiak are caught in a cycle of obsession and abuse, one that puts Mierzwiak above Patrick as the creepiest piece of s*** on display. We don’t see much of Rob and Carrie, but their relationship isn’t a sonnet. We spend most of the movie with Clem and Joel (or Joel’s memories of Clem at least), so we get to see how messy/wonderful things were and are with them. It rings true in ways that no Valentine’s Day romcom can. We laugh with them, we hurt with them.
Breaking the cycle
The only person to break a cycle is Mary, who gets herself out and takes down Lacuna in the process. Clem and Joel choose to repeat their cycle. They have reconnected after the procedure, and they are made aware of what has happened. They know what they will grow to be. All Joel says is, “Okay.” Clementine says the line back to him. They choose the joy, and they choose the pain.
Some things cannot be erased. You can toy with the mind all you want, but a true connection (true, not necessarily happy) cannot be severed by a couple of idiots in a lab. Life will find a way. Human science may try to invade, but “meet me in Montauk” will prevail. It cannot be explained. Is it love, or is it codependence? It could be both, it could be neither. Charlie Kaufman isn't going to give you a shortcut to the answer. You’ve done what you’ve done, and no regret or impulse decision can change it. You can apologize, which both Joel and Clem constantly do. “Sorry” is the first thing that we hear Joel say to Clem.
A soul cannot be made spotless. A soul is enlarged by experience and it is ineffable. That means that it is a mingled web of good and bad. This is no simple love story, this is a paean to life itself.
It is human nature to be a mess. It is also human nature to want a quick fix. It is human nature to try and exploit it all for personal gain. When I was younger and dumber, when I made this movie my personality after seeing it for the first time, much of this was lost on me. Revisiting now, my mind has become a bookstore that is hopelessly overstocked. My soul has lived. It is both broken and bountiful.
The attempt to live a spotless existence is futile. You can choose to amend your behavior going forward, as Stan does. You can apologize, as both Clem and Joel do. After that, sometimes all that can be done is accept it, face, it, and say, “Okay.”
Stream Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on Peacock right now. "Meet me in Montauk."