Identity, Memory, and Social Engagement in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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(Warning: In order to talk about ideas present within a work in a meaningful way, you more or less have to dig in to the overall plot of the work. So….Spoiler and such)

Communication is, and always will be, hard.

When it comes to social engagement with another human being, it’s fair to say we have certain expectation to a relationship. Say that you’re on a relationship with a friend. The word “friend” can mean different things to a people and with it, a certain social baggage and expectation what a friend should behave in our mind. In general, people want anybody they consider as a “friend” to behave like a perfect companion: always stays by your side, always be there for you, and never ever hurt you.

This however runs contrary to the fact all of us are not a perfect human being and sometimes we do bad things to the people we love.

The horrible things that we do doesn’t have to be out of malice intent, it can happen because we can’t always keep our emotion in check, can’t always keeping our worst impulses at bay. We also can’t always know what might offend the other person. All of us grew up in a differing circumstance and background which inevitably means all of us have their own insights about how the world “works”.  Sometimes, those different insights can clash in the worst ways possible.  Because of that, compromises of our basic desire and ego is pretty much an always necessary thing to do in a relationship.

An honest communication require us to be in a state of vulnerability. In order to truly connect with someone, you can’t help but let the other person you’re communicating  to get “inside” you, letting them know what do you feel, what are your thoughts, wants, and desires.

So when what we expect our friend or lover or parents or whathaveyou should behave inevitably clash with the fact that we’re not perfect, this leads to an inevitable hurt.

However, Eternal Sunshine with a Spotless Mind propose a question. What if we can just erase it?

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Eternal Sunshine begins with our protagonist, Joel, waking up in a seemingly ordinary day. From his general behavior, Joel seems like there was something…off within his life. Several two years worth of pages from his memo was ripped out and he decided to skip work and go to a beach in winter….just because.

From few line of his dialogue, it’s clear that Joel is a socially anxious and reserve to some degree (“Why do I fall in love with every women I see who shows me the least bit of affection”). His cynic remark regarding how Valentine is a made up holiday by greedy corporation suggest that he has been disappointed by and have failed relationship before. His recollection regarding how his ex-girlfriend is “nice” imply how he wants a “safe” relationship. One where he isn’t challenged and just enjoy being “loved” (which I would get into later on).

As he ride a train back home, he come across a women, Clementine. Despite the fact they have only met that day, and seemingly differing personalities, the two feel instantly connected to one another. There’s a sense of familiarity in their interaction, like they have known each other for quite sometime despite only meeting that day.

As it turns out, the first few minutes of the movie are actually a flash forward to the future. Joel and Clementine have been dating for over two years, but due to their relationship seemingly failing, both of them decide to erase the memory of their relationship with the help of Lacuna inc (Lacuna literally means “Gap”). Over the course of the memory erasure, we get a glimpse of the nature of Joel and Clementine relationship. How do they started, what breaks them, and ultimately, what really doomed their relationship from the start.

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Despite the loving attitude Joel and Clementine shows in several memory sequences, we see how there’s just a fundamental difference in between the two of them. Aside from their differing personalities, they just don’t have the same priority. From the recording confession and his earlier dialogue, it’s clear that Joel doesn’t really want a “partner” but an angel who descend upon him to make his life more exciting. He doesn’t want a lover with whom he can be with or a relationship that he wants to work for, all he wants is someone who can just continually appease him without anything to return for. Something which Clementine made already clear that she’s not the kind of person who Joel looking for when they met the second time despite how that’s Joel perceive her to be. Clementine is just another person who has her own baggages and problems, which effectively making their relationship doomed from the very beginning.

The worst of all however, is the fact that neither Joel or Clem are willing to compromise for the sake of the others.  Clementine often impose on her own view to Joel, while Joel is too passive, too closed and insecure to engage Clementine openly and honestly.

So after all that, the two decides to, effectively, “erase” one another. Unfortunately, memory doesn’t work quite that way. As revealed in the film, after their respective memory erasure, Joel and Clementine act as if a part of themselves missing with Clementine straight up hysterical about it. For many of us, we often think memory is some kind of mental storage of all past event we’ve been through that somehow is detached from ourselves, but memory is tied deeply to our psychosis. Our behavior and individuality is largely composed through the interaction and the bonds we made with other people. Essentially, that makes memory an important part of ourselves regarding the question of who we are and what we thought about the world at large. Our very personality is the result of the internalization and actualization of all of our life experience. Simply “removing” them would only cause a gap within ourselves.

Which is why, due to the fickle nature of memory, it’s also why it’s hard for any of us to just simply “change”. Identity is something that can be discarded and adopt whenever we want, but for some, it can also be a betrayal of their self-imposed image and their lived experience. Aside from that, changes can be a very scary thing. It means threading down a road you’ve never been to in all your life before. This is the reason why both Joel and Clementine refuse to compromise each other identity to work for their relationship.This also what ultimately scared Joel of his relationship with Clementine and, as we listen to Clementine worst thought about Joel later on, what also scares Clementine about their relationship, as she remark that she become “whiny and pissy” because of their relationship.

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Despite all that, despite all of the hurt that Joel and Clem have done to one another, the two couldn’t help but try to reconnect with one another once more. Even after their memory erasure, they went back to the place where they first met, hoping to find their missing piece. Even after hearing their worst thought about one another and Clementine warning regarding how they are going to keep repeating their mistake, they tried to be in a relationship once more anyway, even though that, as it was implied by the last same shot of Joel and Clementine having fun in the beach repeated over and over until the credit, they ultimately are repeating the cycle of breaking up and rekindling over and over gain.

Because ultimately, that’s just what it means to be a human living with one another. For as much as we do bad against one another, interaction with our fellow man makes up our very humanity and individuality. Despite we keep hurting one another and extend our hand only to have our expectation betrayed again and again,

The simple truth is, we need one another.

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