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SYFY WIRE fangrrls on film

Orange hoodies, colorful hair and memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

By Emma Fraser
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The first time Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, her hair is a striking shade of “Blue Ruin.” It doesn’t matter that the Montauk beach is empty — it is February, after all — Clementine would be the focus even if she was among a sea of people; her hair and orange hoodie cut through the gray skyline.

Joel is shy, but he is taken by Clementine and her bold fashion choices. It's a Valentine’s Day meet-cute, which somehow avoids sappiness and Hallmark card sentiments (in an earlier voiceover Joel throws scorn on this particular holiday). What follows is the kind of introduction that feels like fate — except this isn’t the first time Joel and Clementine have met, nor is it the first time Clementine has told Joel not to make any jokes about her name. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
15 years ago, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was released in theaters, revealing a new way to get over an ex; instead of simply trying to forget about a person, you can wipe them clean from your mind. This world looks a lot like 2004, with the exception of a service that uses technology to target and erase specific memories. Cleaning your apartment of the tokens, clothing, and photographs that either belonged to or remind you of this person is only the first part of the Lacuna, Inc. process.

This is before social media became the photo sharing beast it is now, so Joel and Clementine don’t have to worry about erasing the digital version of their ex. It is probably far easier to delete all the photographs and messages of someone online; mute, block or even erasing an account is a far less invasive method than the one Lacuna, Inc. delivers.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Memories attach themselves to an object or item of clothing for any number of reasons; a shirt can act as a memorial, as a way to feel closer to someone who is no longer there. This is an act of remembrance, the opposite of what Dr. Mierzwiak's (Tom Watson) revolutionary work is trying to achieve. But even when you remove a memory, clothing still finds a way to draw links between the past and present.

Clementine’s bright orange hoodie is significant because it was what she was wearing when they first met — on both occasions. Joel has not been able to banish this item as it wasn’t at his apartment and because we are only experiencing Joel’s erasure procedure, it remains unclear as to why Clementine held onto this garment. Maybe she didn’t feel a significant attachment toward Joel and this sweatshirt? Perhaps it reminds her of something else entirely, or she wanted a keepsake that wasn't obviously about Joel. Nevertheless, it likely holds a deeper meaning as she chose to wear it for a meeting arranged through whispers within his memories. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This particular garment and its fluorescent color is the only clothing item specifically described in Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine script with costume designer Melissa Toth bringing it to life in all its tangerine glory — Joel affectionately calls her by this other citrus fruit nickname. Orange is the beacon threading through the relics of this relationship that Joel takes to Lacuna, which includes potato head dolls and a mug bearing her face, as well as the discarded drawing he finds in his apartment after Clem has been scientifically removed from his mind.

Color is an important part of Clementine’s overall look; when Joel actually meets her for the first time her hair is green, for the duration of their relationship it is red, then orange, which later fades a to shade nearer to pink in the last days of their time together. A death knell for this relationship is signaled by the weakened vibrancy of her locks.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Her hair is the topic of conversation during their train conversation at the start of the film — the second time they meet for the first time — Clementine ponders aloud about the career path one has to take to get a job naming hair dye shades; she has already come up with “Agent Orange.” Or is this the name of the color she sports when Joel is her boyfriend, but it has since been erased from her mind? As they chat on the train, Clementine wonders if they have previously met, before determining their paths likely crossed at Barnes & Noble, where she works. She puts Joel’s uncertainty down to the ever-changing hair color, noting “I apply my personality in a paste.”

From a story continuity point-of-view, Clementine’s hair clearly delineates which timeline we are watching; the past is red and orange, the present is blue. A haircut or a dye job to mark a new period of your life is pretty standard; Joel is her passion color period, post-Joel is blue to match her mood. It's a way of washing that man out of her hair, but with literal color instead of figurative shampoo. Her current hair is a little slapdash. Not much attention has been paid to quality or coverage, it has simply been done to cover up what was once there. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Because of the non-linear structure, the course of this relationship is portrayed in an unusual and at first disorientating fashion. The meet-cute is instantly followed by the bitter breakup, which is jarring no matter how many times I have seen it. Aspects that have originally been considered as an adorable personality quirk become ammunition to use against each other during fights laced with hurtful barbs. After Mary (Kirsten Dunst) has mailed the cassette tapes containing the Lacuna, Inc. sessions to those who had their memories erased, Joel and Clementine hear each other say the most awful things about each other — words that make no sense because these memories no longer exist, but underscore just how intimate they have been.  

“I mean, the whole thing with her hair? It’s all bullshit. And it’s sort of pathetic when you’re 30 and you’re still doing that shit,” Joel’s voice echoes through his apartment as Clementine walks in, hearing what her ex had to say about the style that defines her. Present-day Joel repeats how much he likes her hair rebuking the words he knows are his. Watching this movie 15 years after I first saw it at the theater, I was particularly struck by how it holds up as a searing portrayal of relationship highs and lows. Those aspects you once found endearing have evolved, underscoring bitterness and resentment. His criticisms aren't really about her hair; at this moment, it is simply a target for his anger after she erased him.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
It isn't just Clementine's hair that gets reassessed deep into their relationship. When describing the first time he saw her on that Montauk beach, Joel points out his feelings about her signature top have changed over time: "That orange sweatshirt, I would come to know so well and even hate eventually. At the time I thought, how cool, an orange sweatshirt." In a movie full of deep cuts, this observation perfectly sums up the trajectory of Joel and Clementine during the two years they spent together. Intrigue then intimacy, with a conclusion steeped in misery and self-loathing by both parties. 

Joel can't think of anything he doesn't like about Clementine at this moment, the here and now is all that matters. At the end of it all, when they are no longer in possession of those memories but are presented with the facts of their doomed love via cassette tape, hope and love still win out. He might grow to hate the orange hoodie again, but it is a fashion risk he is willing to take.