lacunae and the memory of memory
Revisiting Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind after perhaps a decade means confronting the film’s central premise: what remains of memory? What does it mean to think of the memories of memory, the memories of what has been forgotten? What does it mean to watch what comes next, to be granted a privilege over the protagonists, given that much of that ‘next’ has already happened to them, unalterable and yet erased from their recollection?
To retrace memories is to seek out the significance of small details: the unconscious foreshadowings, the collisions of coincidence, the warning signs, the choices that were understood as choices at the time and those that were carried through by momentum. All of this is easier in fiction, but all memories are fictional in their own way.
Take the beginning of Jon Brion’s theme: as Joel awakens, are we meant to hear echoes of the Mellotron in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, a song in which isolation (‘living is easy with eyes closed’) gives way to trippy dissociation (‘I think I know, I mean, er, yes, but it’s all wrong’)? Is it worth knowing that those proto-synthesisers played loops on tape or disc that wear and distort with time?
Or what of Beck’s version of ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’, an oddity of a song that plays its own tricks on memory? (Quick: try to recall the second verse. There must be one, surely?*) Its first word is ‘change’, the refrain is about learning — no, about having to learn — and yet its musical space resists change, preferring reiteration: another loop.
These cues are for us, not for the characters. They tap our own memories as far as we can reach, as far as we let them.
As those opening titles roll, what do I remember — in specifics, not just the deeply-felt love I have for this film? Joel’s woolly hat and its Blair Witch vibes, Clementine’s hair; the fact that everybody drives shitty yet charming cars; that Lacuna Inc. is all about Courier Bold; the collision of fantasy tech and near-retrotech. (No mobile phones: only land lines and answering machines.† Joel’s car has a tape deck; his apartment has a double-deck hi-fi. Howard’s laptop is the most modern computer we see.) ‘Pope Alexander.’ Kirsten Dunst dancing on the bed in knickers and vest; that the beach house is torn away, plank by plank.
While watching, what had I forgotten? That Elijah Wood’s character is both identity thief and identity plagiarist. (And panty-thief.) The extent to which the quotation-loving Mary is a victim of male power over and over and over before finally taking it back. (Memory is power.) That even if Stan isn’t certain about Mary’s affections, he tries to protect her from repeating their consequences. The deepest-buried memories are those of humiliation.
I remember after the fact, but before it’s made clear, that these are all Joel’s memories being isolated and erased overnight from worst to first.‡
‘My name is Clementine Kruczynski and I’m here to erase Joel Barish.’
‘My name is Joel Barish and I’m here to erase Clementine Kruczynski.’
Lacuna’s product is a lie sold on a sleight of hand that Joel only realises when it’s too late. It does not erase the other person: it erases the parts of yourself that are intertwined with them. It does so crudely, a removal that extends to a second and third remove, drowning everything in the sink.
H: …I loved you once.
O: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
H: You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not.
O: I was the more deceived.
The first memories to be taken are raw and messy, the ones that capture the flailing impulse to erase, but the process then follows the narrative laid out in the Lacuna office: a confession, a denunciation, in which every memory must be soured, no matter how sweet; every emotion recast as delusion, every belief proven false by time.
‘This is it, Joel, it’s gonna be gone soon.’
‘What do we do?’
What’s left is a different narrative: no less synthetic, but overlaid with the memory of memory, compressed, composed, given commentary. In the end is a set of beginnings, rewritten to be self-completing and then gone.
Tenses contort themselves as the Lacuna tapes play.
‘I would never say that.’
To record a narrative is to grant it authority over any future recollection, to say ‘this is chosen’, to make it hard to disavow, to require a concrete refutation.
‘I’m not like that.’
‘I wouldn’t think that about you.’
‘Because I don’t.’
Except you did. You will have done. You did would. You would have already did. The past snaps into the present like a sprung mousetrap.
‘Come back and make up a good-bye at least. Let’s pretend we had one.’
The unstated truth, the one I only realised with time: that the process Clem went through in giving up her memories was no smoother, no less fought against than Joel’s. ‘You wanna go out to Montauk with me?’
What I forgot, most of all: Eternal Sunshine is not a love story, nor even a story of lost love. It tells of the loss of loss itself, an elective burglary of grief.§
It is a story of memory and acceptance. Joel and Clem are fuckups, in the normal way that normal people are fucked up. They fucked each other up once; odds are they’ll do it again. But this time, they get to hear the story of a breakup first: not their breakup, but the breakup of two people who resemble them, two unreliable narrators whose stories are built on recognisable first things that have been stretched and mangled in retrospect like an overplayed tape. For the Joel and Clem listening to those tapes, the prologue of their two days together is not a lie, not yet a retelling.
[the wet-eyed laughter of a situation neither fully understands]
[running on the snow-covered beach. another loop. fade to white.]