By Steven Moore
In the spring of 2004 I was a college student having an existential crisis. I know it’s hard to find sympathy for a college student with first world problems, but the world had not turned out to be what I thought it was. I had been raised in a Southern Baptist home, not strict but strong in their beliefs. Every ethical and epistemological question I had was answered by this upbringing. Four years of questioning, and reading philosophy texts, literary texts, critical texts, and any other text I could find, had brought me to a point where I wasn’t sure what or why I was. I’m sure Jim Carrey felt the same.
He had been having a good run. The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, The Majestic, and even Bruce Almighty were great films that tapped more into his sense of drama and the human condition than his comedy. He had to be questioning who he was as an actor and entertainer. Did he want to be important or just funny? That spring, amid all of the chaos of being a college student with a growing family, the questions about my future, and my questions about life, came this little movie about memories. When Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in theaters, I only went to see it because the title was taken from an Alexander Pope poem. I didn’t even know Jim Carrey was in it.
I saw it three times in the theater. The only other movie I’ve seen more than twice in the theater is Titanic, and that’s because I was trying to get on the good side of my then-girlfriend, now wife. It turned out to be the exact kind of movie I love: small and quirky with a touch of magical realism. The message of the film is summed up in a simple exchange toward the end of the movie. The two main characters, Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (played by the most beautiful and talented actress alive, Kate Winslet), have been losing their memories through a procedure that erases bad memories from their brains. When Joel changes his mind about it mid-procedure and makes various attempts to stop it, he can’t. Eventually, the realization comes that he is slowing losing an entire part of his life, the woman that he loves, and that it’s inevitable. He can’t change it, can’t question it; it will simply be gone, and he’ll never know it was there. In defeat, Joel asks, “What do I do?” Clementine’s response: “Just enjoy it.”
What’s so incredible about this scene is that Joel is not asking what he should do to stop the inevitable process of loss; he is asking what he should do now that he has accepted its inevitability. How can he find purpose in something he has no control over, something that will vanish entirely without a thought. What do you do when nothingness is inevitable? The only thing Joel and Clementine can do is enjoy each other in the time they have. The subsequent scene of Joel and Clementine playing like children in an old beach house and reminiscing about things they should and shouldn’t have done is the most romantic scene in film history. It is pure longing and connection on an emotional level. They acknowledge the mistakes they made and love one another for those mistakes. Joel realizes that without Clementine he has to face the void alone, and his terror at the prospect eventually drives him back to her.
Throughout the film, Clementine helps Joel face the unfaceable. He is able to face loss, shame, and helplessness as long as she is with him. By the end of the movie you realize that she gives him purpose, and that should be enough. His crisis in the film is that he doesn’t realize that she holds him up, that his crisis is only a crisis without Clementine. She helps him make sense of the world just enough that he can enjoy it instead of critiquing it.
With my wife the world makes as much sense as it needs to, and that’s enough. I am able to just enjoy it.