Author: Edward Haynes (@teddyhaynes)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Edward Haynes is a writer, critic, and editor living in Liverpool. As well as editing this site, they write about comics, local culture, and art. Their twitter is @teddyhaynes
Starting a relationship during a pandemic isn’t ideal. But that is what I did. In March I matched with someone incredible on Tinder, their make-up looks were really cool and we spoke about Talking Heads. I was excited and anxious.
And then everything stopped. The country was locked down, my work shut, everything was overwhelmingly still. It was scary, going anywhere was scary, strangers were scary. I moved in with my friends, got a little less anxious, and started talking to this cool person off Tinder again. We didn’t stop talking. We had long, dumb, deep, and hot conversations on the phone most nights. When we finally met, through the government’s support bubble thing, it was like stepping into this dream world. I stayed at theirs for nearly a week before returning to reality.
The 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman, is one of both of our favourite movies. It’s a romance in reverse as Joel (Jim Carrey) has his memories of his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased. In his subconscious, after the procedure begins, he realises he wants to keep his memories. It becomes this race against a crushing, external force to hold onto the experiences that formed him. Tumbling through Joel’s tangle of memories, we build a picture of his relationship with Clementine out of order, in these surreal snippets falling into each other.
The way my relationship began felt like a similarly strange dream. Their flat was this separate reality, away from anything else in the world. We had these intense bursts of intimacy but our togetherness meant being apart from what was going on in our lives, and in the broader world. It was kind of a respite with the horrors of this year, but the weight of what was going on lingered. Like the threat of Joel's memories being erased, the pandemic loomed heavy, pulling us apart every so often as infection rates changed and lockdown rules were edited.
A pretty common experience of lockdown has been dreamlike as days and weeks merge together. Patrick H Willems made a video about how time loop movies have brought a kind of comfort during his quarantined months. I think Eternal Sunshine has worked similarly for me but in a couple, vitally important ways. The time loop movie is appropriate for the COVID era in its monotony, we go through the motions of a repeated day with the characters, establishing the normal day first and entering the weirdness with them.
Inside Joel's head though, the events are familiar to him but not to us. There's a dissonance to the level of familiarity within the dream sequences as we swim through Joel's memories, he knows what everything is, for him it's like the time loop where it's all known and he can learn to manipulate it. But for us, it's all new. This dissonance between the experience of the character and of the audience is a bit like what dating in lockdown is like. The state of the world makes everything into this anxious, small and insular monotony, everything is inside and known. But then you introduce a partner and they're new to you and you're new to them, audiences for each other to make a break in the sameness of our isolations.
It kept me afloat in the last few months. Lockdown's a situation perfect for building up anxiety as you're stuck inside with nothing to do but worry and think. I've never had a romantic relationship before, I've had hook-ups and flings and flirtations, but never the actual thing. It was a bit scary to begin with, isolation giving room for anxieties to grow. But once we were together, it was all right, an escape from that anxiety. A relationship exists between two people but much of what we see in Eternal Sunshine is inside Joel, it’s a one sided picture, during the dream sequences it isn’t the real Clementine. We don’t get to see their actual relationship, she’s erased the memories by the time of the film, and what we see in Joel’s head is getting ripped apart as we watch.
The real relationship, outside of Joel’s sleeping imagination, that we see in the movie is glimpses at the beginning and the end. It’s them re-meeting, after their memories are gone, they’re fresh and interacting as they did in their earliest meetings from Joel’s memories. Nervous flirtation on the train to Montauk. Joel may have failed in retaining his memories in the second act, but they found each other again, able to form a new bond. When they get given the files full of their reasons for erasing the other, it could give them context of their past, while they have distance from the emotion of it. Maybe they can do better the second time.
That's a maybe, but uncertainty is what makes new relationships exciting and scary. When we were in Joel’s head, the question of whether Joel could fight back and hold onto his memories drove the plot, it was tense and tragic. He would lose a part of himself if he lost his relationship with Clementine. He gets to find that part again, to rebuild. The uncertainty is different in the real world, it’s less tense and immediate. Rather than being directed inward, and imposed by pressure from an external force, it’s about figuring out the other person.
I said at the top of this piece that starting a relationship during a pandemic isn’t ideal, but I’m not sure that there is an ideal. I definitely wouldn’t change how my relationship began. The reality of my relationship marries different parts of the two versions of Joel and Clementine’s (dream and reality) because of the context in which it started. On the one hand, it has this surreal, all encompassing sense of Joel’s dreamt memories, it’s a little chaotic but also beautiful and specific and something to hold on to desperately. But unlike the dream in the movie, starting this relationship relieved the tension and external pressure of the world. In his dream, Joel is always running from the big threat of memory erasure, but when I started seeing my partner, I got to stop worrying about pandemics and instead had the floaty nerves of new romance. It might not have been the circumstances we would have chosen but I think it’s given us something special.