Mark Overanalyses Film

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

May 08, 2023 Season 3 Episode 5
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Mark Overanalyses Film
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Mark Overanalyses Film
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
May 08, 2023 Season 3 Episode 5

Mark finds memory erasing disturbingly antithetical to overanalysing as he tries to figure out what makes Eternal Sunshine so special, why it's so much better than the original script, and if Patrick is the creepiest character in film.

Show Notes Transcript

Mark finds memory erasing disturbingly antithetical to overanalysing as he tries to figure out what makes Eternal Sunshine so special, why it's so much better than the original script, and if Patrick is the creepiest character in film.

Hi everybody, and welcome to Mark Overanalyses Film! Today, I’ll be looking at one of the all time greats in my view: 2004’s sci-fi romcom: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Before I begin, allow me to remind you that I am available for story coaching and reading at

I always like to start off by saying who wrote and directed a film, but I think this is especially interesting for Eternal Sunshine as I’ll talk about later. But for now I’ll just say that it was directed by Michel Gondry, who is credited with having written the story with Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth. Charlie Kaufman then has sole screenplay credit. Also, how the hell did Michel Gondry not get nominated for best director for this?! Nobody else could have made this movie this way! 

Now, there’s a lot to say right at the outset with Eternal Sunshine. And it feels like the first thing I should say, as a story structure podcast, is that Charlie Kaufman hates people like me. He is very much on record as hating the whole story structure thing. So, he really might dislike what I’m doing here and what I’m suggesting. So, it’s worth keeping that in mind. It’s also worth saying that the structure to Eternal Sunshine is a little slippery, but it is certainly there. Because it overlaps and undulates so much, I’m going to try and keep things pretty basic and focus on the main plot points. The other thing I want to say here is that overanalysing Eternal Sunshine, it really struck me just how sci-fi it really is. It explores the concept at its heart in a way that I would regard as far richer and more thoroughly than, say, the average Black Mirror episode. Finally, one of the most fascinating things about Eternal Sunshine to my mind is how it is so Charlie Kaufman whilst also being so not Charlie Kaufman, and that idea of how this story came to be what it is and came to feel the way it does is something I really want to dig into. 

So, with all that in mind, and to figure out what makes this film so special, first, I’ll look at the fundamental features of the protagonist, and then I’ll go through the main story beats by looking at the sequences of the film. Then, I’ll talk about the main things I learned along the way.

The 5 Questions

Question 1: Whose story is it?

Or, who is the protagonist? This is the story of Joel Barish, a painfully shy, awkward man in his 30s who is by turns smitten, in love with, worn down, or heartbroken by his on again, off again partner Clementine.

Question 2: What is his life dream? 

Life dream here refers to what it is that the protagonist wants or is aiming to do when the film begins and the story has yet to properly start. Now, you could argue that when we first meet Joel in sequence I, his dream is to meet a girl and fall in love, and he very soon meets Clementine and seems to do just that. Or you could argue that we meet Joel earlier than that in sequence II, at which point his life dream is to recover from the heartbreak of getting dumped by Clementine. Either way though, when you boil it down: a life with Clementine is really his dream.

Question 3: What is his Want?

Want here is what the character is trying to achieve in Act II of the film, from the moment they really begin their journey until the moment they are at their most defeated. The whole point of this is really to give the character something to do and to give shape to the story. As such, the Want is a SMART goal, in that it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound. Now, not to get too stuck in the weeds here, but this is an interesting one. Most of the time, the protagonist sets out on a mission or journey or adventure about 25 minutes in, and they pursue that mission until 20 or 25 minutes before the end of the film. Luke sets out to save the Princess. Harry tries to be just friends with Sally. Whatever. But Eternal Sunshine is a bit different: not unique, but unusual. Because Joel certainly sets out on an adventure 25 minutes in to forget Clementine. But at the midpoint of the film, his objective changes completely, and he tries his damnedest to remember her. The reason this still works though is simple: the decision he makes 25 minutes in locks him into this smart goal, and he can’t escape it. So: even though the character’s objective does change halfway, I think it’s safe to say by our understanding here: Joel’s Want is to forget Clementine. 

Question 4: What is his Need? 

Need is the human quality or piece of wisdom that the character lacks at the beginning of the story. Upon rewatching Eternal Sunshine this time, one of the things that stood out to me is how often Joel is running away in this film. But Joel’s final action is not to run away. Despite pretty much knowing that pain is to come from it, Joel’s final action is to chase Clementine and ask her to stay. And this is his Need in action: to face the pain and hurt and baggage of a relationship and to embrace it anyways. Something that I should have picked up on much much sooner than I did is that Joel’s Need is embodied by Clementine, and as he himself states in the film: Clementine comes from clemency, or being merciful. If an authority offers clemency, it does not forget, but chooses on some level to forgive. And that is the lesson that Joel really needs to learn.

Question 5: Does he get what he Wants and/or what he Needs?

This is arguably the most complicated film to answer this question that I’ve done so far. He does forget his relationship with Clementine, but he no longer wants to at that point. And further, something still stays in his brain, which drives him to encounter her again. Either way though, it’s safe to say that Joel does get what he needs. Which is why as ambivalent as this film is about relationships, it ends with something of a feel good factor.

Ok, now that I’ve attempted to answer the 5 key questions, let’s have a look at Eternal Sunshine’s sequences. 


The Sequences

There are normally, but not always, 8 sequences, or stages, in a film. A sequence is a combination of scenes that are tied together by having a single overriding dramatic question or tension, and they tend to be between 10 and 15 minutes in length. A good way to think about it is that every 10-15 minutes, the audience should be on some level asking themselves a different dramatic question. 

Act I:

Act I has our first two sequences, and the first one is always pretty much “life as it is”. Now, Eternal Sunshine messes around with its own timeline a lot, so you could debate whether this first sequence — the first 17 minutes of the film — is actually a flash forward. You might notice, for instance, that the title doesn’t appear until the start of sequence II, when we slip back into the main timeline of the film. But anyways, this first 17 minutes tells its own mini-story. Joel wakes up disoriented and a little out of sorts in the morning. He decides to call in sick, and the urge suddenly takes him to travel out to Montauk. There, he engages in what we sense is about usual levels of intense self-loathing. He encounters Clementine, who appears chaotic, gung-ho, and confident in all the ways that he is not. Now, it’s really worth noting here that Eternal Sunshine does not hide the fact that Clementine is “a lot”, but nevertheless we can see that Joel likes her and we buy that he does. The other thing that’s worth noting is that there’s a few hints here that something odd is happening. Joel feels something is off when he wakes up in the morning. His car has been pretty severely scratched. He doesn’t know what caused him to go to Montauk. He doesn’t recognise the Huckleberry Hound theme song. And finally, 17 minutes in, after visiting the frozen Charles with Clementine, a guy knocks on his window and asks if he can help him. Which is odd. I don’t know about you, but I’m now wondering if Joel will figure out why everything seems so off, and that’s a tension. So, at minute 16, we suddenly cut to a devastated Joel in his car at night, and we enter Sequence II.

Joel is driving. And crying. Cry-ving if you will. He gets home, and something is up. He’s being watched, but he knows it. He takes a pill and some guys come in to find him passed out on the floor. Suddenly we have another shift. And now he’s explaining how he’s been trying to get back together with Clementine but she’s acting like she’s never seen him before. It’s worth noting that this is why she reckons he looks familiar on the train, but he doesn’t recognise her. By this point, her memory has already been wiped, but his has yet to be. So, Joel eventually finds out that Clementine has had him wiped from her memory, and after some investigating, he decides to do the same thing with her. Now, it’s really disguised here, but at minute 27, Joel makes the big decision to wipe Clementine from his memory and the ball is immediately set rolling. And so we wonder if Joel really will forget all about Clementine, and we end Act I and we enter Act II. 

Act II begins with Sequence III, the first attempts to solve the problem. Now, this sequence always starts with a “What’s the plan?” scene, which tells us what our Act II is going to look like. And Eternal Sunshine is
ingenious in this regard. Because as it is introducing us to the world of Lacuna’s head honcho Howard, receptionist Mary, loser Stan, and creepier loser Patrick, it also slowly reveals that everything we’re seeing is actually inside Joel’s head and the reality of the scenes gradually breaks down. At first everything seems normal, but soon Joel’s discomfort begins to interfere with his perception, and we discover that he’s already asleep and that Stan and Patrick are 1) deleting his memories and 2) not very good or professional at their jobs. Now, sequence III is also the “refusal of the call” sequence, where the protagonist rejects the call to change and wants to stay the same as they were in Act I. And so, initially, Joel does not mind that his memory of Clementine is being wiped. However, this sequence then ends with an acceptance of the call, or the protagonist’s first UNconscious move towards their Need. And so, at minute 37, after having a big fight with Clementine and accusing her of using sex to get people to like her, Joel then tries to apologise. But she keeps disappearing as he tries to. And even though he insists that he’s happy that he’s erasing her, you’ll notice that he is chasing her. He’s even offering to drive her home. [] Anyways, if we started this sequence with a tension that was something like “Will Joel really go through with having Clementine erased?”, we have an answer: yes, he will. And so, at minute 37, it’s time for sequence IV: the greater attempts to solve the problem, as we now wonder: “Will Joel change his mind?”
Now, I often overlook this sequence a little bit I think because sequence III has so much to cover, and the midpoint that comes at the end of it is so important. But it’s worth noting here that with Act II now fully set up, this is a sequence of complications, and Eternal Sunshine is a great example of this. No sooner has Joel fully realised what is happening to him than he discovers that Patrick is using his memories to trick Clementine into dating her. Which is like a mix of gaslighting and rohypnol. He’s not a good guy. But also, Mary arrives to complicate and complexify the scene in Joel’s apartment. Now, Mary is a really important character, both for obvious and somewhat subtler reasons. She serves a clear plot function, but also a thematic one. She presents the counterargument throughout, only to finally become the embodiment of the argument. Here, her referencing a book of quotations introduces the idea: “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better of their blunders”. In other words, it is better to forget your mistakes. At the same time, Joel is initially struggling with the memories of the downward slope of his relationship with Clementine. There’s a lot of bitterness and resentment going on here, but the further into the sequence we delve, and the closer to the midpoint we get, the more things change, and the more they move towards where they need to be. Patrick has to leave because real life Clementine is freaking out. When he goes to see her, she says that nothing makes any sense, and he calls her “Tangerine”. Which, of course, with her now having blue hair, does not make any sense. Meanwhile, Mary gradually starts to talk less about Howard and have more fun with Stan. And the further back Joel remembers, the more good memories start to mix with the bad. And then, for all that Eternal Sunshine appears messy and chaotic: at exactly 50 minutes into a 100 minute runtime, we have a perfect midpoint, or the protagonist’s first CONSCIOUS move towards his Need. 13 minutes ago, even though Joel was chasing Clementine, he told her that he was happy she was being erased. He was not yet ready to admit his folly to himself. But now, at the end of sequence IV, Joel revisits a deeply tender memory of reassuring an upset Clementine that she is not ugly. This memory suddenly spurs him into action, and he screams into the sky that he wants to call the whole thing off. He has indeed changed his mind, and so at minute 51, we enter Sequence V: the honeymoon sequence.

The Honeymoon sequence is so called because the protagonist is experimenting with their Need and is usually rewarded for it. So, here, that begins to happen as we wonder some version of the question: “Will Joel find a way to remember Clementine?” Now, something else that is sometimes a feature of this is that this basically happens for everyone in the story. And so here, as Patrick tries to copy Joel on the frozen ice, Clementine shoots up and demands to go home. She knows something is really wrong. In Joel’s apartment, Mary is now underwear dancing with Stan and presumably not obsessing about Howard. Meanwhile, Joel initially struggles to confront Howard in his own head, but begins to develop coping mechanisms. Clementine tells him to hold his eyes open to wake up, and it actually works. She then suggests that Joel hide her somewhere she doesn’t belong. Joel dives back into his childhood, and it seems to work. Things are going quite well, and Joel does seem to have found a way to remember Clementine. So, at that, an alarm goes off in Joel’s bedroom, and we enter sequence VI, the bridge from the Honeymoon to the lowpoint. 

Now, you could talk me into this being two mini-sequences really, as first Joel attempts to hide in his childhood, and then attempts to hide in shame and humiliation. But anyways, for now, Stan and Mary are sitting in post-coital bliss, but again, the shape of this story is the same for everyone. So, as soon as we enter this new sequence, they are driven apart again. With Joel’s memory having disappeared, Stan has to call Howard, and Mary is back to being a little girl with a crush on her teacher. Joel tries to warn his mind’s Clementine about Patrick, but of course she can do nothing about it. At the same time, real life Clem is having a bit of a freak out as Patrick desperately tries every trick in the book. Soon, Howard arrives, and as the principal antagonist, he brings an heir of formidableness. He is immediately more effective at finding and erasing Clementine, and when Joel’s eyes open, he notices and drugs him. The forces of antagonism have grown considerably, an things are not looking good for Joel. Our protagonist again tries to confront Howard in his head, but we can see now just how much his memories are degrading. Everything is getting darker, and faces are disappearing. 

And so, Joel makes one final play. He moves into the really horrible memories: of getting caught masturbating by his Mom and pulverising a dead bird as a child due to peer pressure. And we can see how supportive he now views Clementine to be. Or at least how supportive she can be. It highlights how sad it would be to lose her altogether from his life. But Howard still finds him, and his memories degrade.

Now, I have to admit at this point, I struggled for a long time to pin down exactly where Act II ends for reasons I’ll get into, but I think we’re really close here. Which means we are really close to the lowpoint, so it’s fitting that Mary again pops up with a truly memorable quote that emphasises the power of the counterargument: “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot; The World forgetting, by the world forgot; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned”. Now, I’ve got my issues with Charlie Kaufman, but he is a phenomenal writer. This quote is taken from the poem Eloisa to Abelard, about two former lovers who cannot rekindle their romance. Not least because Abelard got castrated for hooking up with Eloisa in the first place. They did not mess around in the 12th century. Now, not only is this resonant to the plight of Joel and Clementine, but Eloisa to Abelard tells a very similar story to that of the relationship between Mary and Howard: a younger woman having an affair with an older man. The quote belongs to Eloisa, who wishes she could forget Abelard so she can dedicate herself to God. The additional layer, and the one of extreme irony, is that Mary is quoting this out of context from a book of quotations, just as her relationship with Howard is out of context with her erased memories. That. Is. Writing.

Anyways, Mary then kisses Howard, and will soon discover the truth of her situation. This is also a low point for Stan, as he pathetically tries to hide behind a door and then alert Howard that his wife has arrived. This guy is such a bloody weasel. But these are our subplots, and more pressingly, we come to the end of our second act, in my view, when Joel eventually stops fighting, and must accept that Clementine is going to be erased from his memory. They have a tender conversation in her bookshop. As is so often the case, the low point of a story is the moment when the protagonist no longer believes in the counterargument, but the argument seems impossible. And so, Joel laments: “It would be different, if we could just give it another go around.” Clementine says that maybe they can, and implores him to remember her. But at that, she disappears. Joel no longer wants to forget Clementine, but he no longer believes that he can remember her. And so at that, with a textbook 22 minutes remaining, we end Act II, and we enter Act III.

Act III has a false resolution and a true resolution. So, while Mary goes back and finds her file, Joel has now embraced the fact that he will lose his last memory of Clementine: the day they met on the beach in Montauk. And I love the whole scene that follows. Joel is now sad but accepting, as Clementine breaks into a beach house. And I wouldn’t be overanalysing at maximum capacity if I didn’t point out that Clementine says she’s going to pretend to be the woman of the house: Ruth. Ruth, which has a similar meaning to clemency: a feeling of pity or remorse for the pain of someone else. But more importantly, as this is the false resolution, just as he had done when he first re-met Clementine in the first sequence, or when he decided to erase his memory to avoid the pain, or when he refused to talk about problems when he and Clementine fought in sequences 3 and 4, Joel once again runs away. Only now, it’s because he’s limited by his memory, and he truly wishes that he hadn’t. Joel has changed, and so once Clementine whispers to meet her again in Montauk, and once he’s watched bittersweetly as the rest of his memories with her pass him by, with 12 minutes left, we enter Eternal Sunshine’s true resolution. 

Howard’s job is finally done, and we suddenly find ourselves back where we started in sequence I. But now we have extra context. As Joel and Clementine meet again, Mary — now embodying the argument — collects all the files from the office and posts them out to Lacuna’s clients. And so, Joel and Clementine are soon driving to his apartment to sleep off a night on the ice, and Joel encounters his greatest fear: he’s opened himself up to someone and here is a recording of her saying incredibly hurtful, cutting things about him. And once again, just before our climax, Joel retrenches one last time and kicks her out. But she soon follows him back to his place to find him listening to the hurtful things he’s said about her. She apologises for saying hurtful things, but can’t bear the things he says about her, so now it’s her turn to run away. But now, finally, in our climactic action, Joel does not run away. 13 minutes ago, Joel said he wished he had stayed. Now, he follows Clementine and asks her to stay. Importantly, Clementine insists what we already know: they will have problems and they will hurt each other. And Joel, acting in accordance with his Need, responds: “Ok.” There’s one final shot of the two of them playing in the snow. Enigmatically, the shot repeats itself, before fading into white. Possibly a sign of a situation repeating itself before being erased once again, but we are not to know.


I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a totally unique film that is so well crafted, and there are very, very few stories that succeed at being so high concept while feeling emotionally truthful throughout. But, one of the things that I am fascinated by with this film is just how much of a collaboration it really was. There’s no arguing that Charlie Kaufman is an extremely intelligent, extremely creative writer, but I must admit I find “straight Kaufman” a little hard to take. Like Aaron Sorkin, I think he benefits from having a strong director that balances him out a little. And that is never more evident I think than in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What makes this film so beautiful is its mix of real sweetness and real sadness. But when you read Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay… Jesus, it is grim. So much of the sweetness is just not there. So, I’d like to talk about the screenplay for a bit here because I think it is an especially fascinating case study of what can change between script and finished film. 

So, as you might expect, you can see all the characters, a lot of the key beats, and much of the dialogue. But at the same time, so much changes. For starters, the film begins with an old lady being ignored as she tries to get a book published. She’s insistent that this story needs to be told, but no-one is interested in this old lady and her eccentric ways. Her story is called Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and we are 50 years in the future. We will eventually discover that this old lady is Mary. But before that, we arrive back to the present and we first join Clementine as she visits the clinic to erase Joel. It’s only after that that we join Joel and where the film itself actually begins. In this way, some of sequence II is in sequence I, but a lot of Joel’s clinic stuff isn’t in the script. 

Now throughout the main body of the second act, the beats are largely similar, but again I feel there are important tonal differences. For one thing, Clementine sure is naked or in her panties a lot in the script, and sex seems to be much more prevalent than the focus in the film on the couple’s emotional connection and sense of companionship. Joel also seems to comment a little more on his situation and on the nature of relationships and connection. It really does come across as a Charlie Kaufman confession at times rather than something that really serves the character and their journey. 

There’s also something else here that reminds me of the theory of first dates presented by Rob in the film High Fidelity: It’s what you like, not what you are like. Joel and Clementine’s bonding is much more expressed through shared appreciation of stuff. They debate over a lyric from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs album and the poet Anna Akhmatova. One of the great capacities of film is that characters don’t have to say they like Tom Waits. They can be listening to Tom Waits. In the film, the fact that Stan and Mary are dancing to The Willowz tells us a lot about them, without them needing to say “Don’t you love California Punk Rock?”  

But this is evocative of something deep seated in Kaufman’s writing. It makes sense that Kaufman’s version of Joel and Clementine would focus on ‘stuff’, because Kaufman really seems to believe that it is almost impossible to achieve a genuine connection with other people. He’s fascinated in his work with things that could be ‘real’. In fact, some variation of the word ‘real’ is used 56 times in an 85 page script. So, that’s an average of once every 90 seconds! For example, Clementine’s speech at the midpoint of the screenplay is about how it’s hard to become real but all real things are beautiful. For the record, she is referring specifically to the book The Velveteen Rabbit. Again, in the film, they remove the direct reference and make it about how she used to tell an ugly doll she had called after herself to be beautiful. Overall, the film is much more focused on the personalities and deep fears of these two characters, which feels far richer and far more important.  

Finally, once we’ve finished with the Joel and Clementine story that’s in the film, Mary’s story continues. She discovers that she got pregnant with Howard’s child and Howard convinced her to have an abortion, and this really traumatises her. After she delivers the tapes, Howard convinces Stan to go and speak to her...because people are traumatised and are begging to have their memories re-erased. Mary relents, and she returns to work with Howard. She continues to listen to all the erased memories though, and these become the subject of the book that she will attempt to have published 50 years in the future. After leaving the publishers, old Mary returns to work, where she now hates Howard. She leaves that day and on the way home, as she listens to the memory of someone being raped, she dies.  

So ya, pretty grim. But there’s more. As part of the continuation of Mary’s story, 50 years in the future, Older Clementine comes in to use the service once again. We discover as we leave the scene that she has used the service 15 times, and each time she has been erasing Joel Barish. Now, you could describe this as ‘clever’. It’s a good evocation of the idea that we need our painful memories to learn. But it strikes me as a little cheap. The film as it is is already successful at fully exploring the sci-fi limits of this concept. And the moment I read that Clementine was coming back 50 years later, I just thought “Ugh… typical unnecessary, unearned, weak dystopian sci-fi bullshit.” As I’ve said before: good films tell us something, and great films convince us. Maybe it’s just me, but this just does not feel convincing. It does not feel emotionally truthful, and it opens up a whole field of questions about the feasibility of something like this that the film avoids by being so tightly focused. Rather than have a 50 year trip into the future, we simply have an ending that tells us that these characters have indeed learned something, but whether that will be enough to make them happy is unknown. Then, the simple final shot of the couple playing in the snow that is repeated before fading away leaves us with the question of whether this situation has really been resolved in a way that is far more interesting.

Reading Kaufman’s script, it really makes you realise just how much Michel Gondry’s playful style and Jon Brion’s score do to shape the final film. But of course none of that would have been possible if Pierre Bismuth hadn’t had the original idea, Gondry hadn’t developed it, and Charlie Kaufman hadn’t poured his soul into crafting a flawed but magnificent screenplay. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a testament that real collaboration can result in an absolute masterpiece. 

This has been Mark Overanalyses Film. Next time, I will be looking at Psycho. If you enjoyed this episode, please like, rate, follow, recommend, and whatever else it is that’s good for this kind of thing! A special thanks to Mary Kate O’Flanagan who taught me everything I know about film, including these methods. Thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, and see you soon.