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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Chaitanya Kumar

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

If you could, would you erase memories of past lovers? This idea is at the heart of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Chaitanya Kumar says he wouldn't. Still, the movie made him rethink the way we experience and remember love.

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  • Chaitanya Kumar

    Chaitanya Kumar

    is a senior policy advisor for the independent British think tank Green Alliance. Sadly, he no longer writes his blog on love, films, and life, but does write on environmental world-changing stuff: renewable energy, clean growth, and climate change.


Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as we talk with climate expert Chaitanya Kumar, as he talks about the movie that changed his life, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you haven’t seen this movie, don’t worry. We’re gonna talk about all the details you'll need to enjoy the conversation. And if you’ve seen Eternal Sunshine, prepare to have your heart broken all over again.

[music: “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” by Beck, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Original Soundtrack]

Ms. Percy: Has there ever been a movie that captures the loneliness and heartbreak of love as well as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? When I think about this movie, I think about where I was the first time I saw it. I was on a date, actually, and it was going really badly, but the movie itself was transformative. And it’s because it’s so raw and honest and vulnerable in talking about the reality of being attracted to someone who causes you pain; being attracted to someone who may actually not be the best person for you.

[excerpt from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

[music: “Sidewalk Fight” by Jon Brion, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Original Soundtrack]

Ms. Percy: The movie centers around Joel and Clementine, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. And it’s kind of a complicated plot to describe, but essentially, the two of them meet and fall in love and then break up and then choose to go through this really extensive procedure where they’re gonna have their memories erased so that they no longer can think of each other, can even remember the relationship that they had.

[excerpt from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Ms. Percy: This kind of a bizarre, and yet, completely interesting plot could only come from the minds of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman — Charlie Kaufman, who brought us the insane Being John Malkovich, and Michel Gondry, who had at that point was mostly known for music videos that were visually arresting and unforgettable.

[music: “Peer Pressure” by Jon Brion, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Original Soundtrack]

If you ask someone if they’ve seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and they have, chances are that, immediately, they let out a big sigh, because it’s that kind of a movie. It’s the kind of movie that, every time you watch it, you learn something new about yourself and about love and about the film itself. You catch things that you never saw before. And it’s a movie that changes you. And it changed the life of Chaitanya Kumar. It made him rethink the way we experience and remember love.

[music: “Peer Pressure” by Jon Brion, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Original Soundtrack]

Ms. Percy: I want to start with kind of a general question, but — I know, in just reading a little bit about your writing and reading about you, it seems like you are a big movie fan. And I wonder where your love of movies comes from.

Chaitanya Kumar: [laughs] I think it’s my general reserved nature. I spent a lot of time watching TV, growing up, largely because both my parents are employees of the Indian government and usually have the 9:00 to 5:00 routine. So I used to come back home at like 2:00, 2:30, so I had got a good chunk of time to just do nothing — or, watch TV, which is what I did. [laughs] And obviously, it would start with cartoons; then, eventually, upgraded to films. And I’ve circled myself with friends who are also equally into films, and it helps. We’ve — in fact, we started collecting films. Maybe I shouldn’t say this on the radio, because a lot of it is pirated, but… [laughs]

Ms. Percy: [laughs] We won’t report you.

Mr. Kumar: [laughs] …we’ve collected about 5,000 films…

Ms. Percy: Oh, my God.

Mr. Kumar: … between the three of us, growing up — over a period of five years, I think. So I used to take care of the “English” cinema. A friend of mine used to do world cinema, so anything but English. And another friend used to do Bollywood and local, Indian cinema.

Ms. Percy: Oh, that’s so smart, actually, that you divided it up that way — very strategic.

Mr. Kumar: Yes.

Ms. Percy: So we have this American hero here, called Mr. Fred Rogers. I don’t know if you know Mr. Rogers at all?

Mr. Kumar: It rings a bell; but no, not really.

Ms. Percy: So he was a children’s television host, and he also just was this amazing educator of children. And when he won his Lifetime Award at the Daytime Emmys, at the big television awards show here in the U.S., when he was accepting his award he asked the audience to take ten seconds and think about everyone who has helped them come to where they are; who’s made them who they are.

And I’m not gonna ask you to do that, but I do want to steal from him a little bit and ask you to think about the first time that you saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and just take ten seconds to think about where you were, how old you were — everything that was going on when you first saw that movie; and how you felt.

Mr. Kumar: Sure.

Ms. Percy: So what memories came up for you right now?

Mr. Kumar: Well, I clearly remember when I saw it. I was 21. And it was right after a day at university; came home, had put — [laughs] again, I shouldn’t be saying this, I suppose — I’d put the movie on download the day before, given how slow the bandwidth was, back in the day. And by the time I got home, it was done, so it was ready for me to check.

Ms. Percy: So this is 2006.

Mr. Kumar: 2006, yes. The movie came out in 2004, and it was in 2006. The first reaction was, as a premise of the film — of erasing someone off your memory — was mind-boggling. I’d never heard of that before, and obviously, it just opens up a Pandora’s box, the possibilities of doing that to yourself. So that, obviously, struck me. And the second bit was, actually, coming out of the film not really understanding it, because it’s a bit — Gondry and Kaufman play with the screenplay quite a bit, cutting and slicing it in different ways.

Ms. Percy: And Charlie Kaufman had done Being John Malkovich; so he’s known for playing with your mind.

Mr. Kumar: Exactly. So in that sense, it was a bit difficult to understand. But I immediately related to Joel Barish’s character, because it sort of resonates a lot with how I am in reality, and that struck with me, as well. So it was a clear invitation to go back to that film the day after: Watched it again, and I completely fell in love with it. And I’ve watched it at least 50 times. And I watched it again, two days before this interview. [laughs] And I still love it as much as I did the first time I saw it or the second time I saw it. Yes.

Ms. Percy: So it’s interesting that you related to Joel, because he’s someone who feels things so deeply but has trouble expressing them, and through his relationship with Clementine is — she’s kind of the one who says everything that comes to her mind.

Mr. Kumar: Yes. [laughs] If you imagine the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as being part of a certain era, we’ve sort of evolved from there, in terms of how we perceive and understand feminist values, for example. And Clementine’s character was like the prototype for the Magic Pixie Dream Girl…

Ms. Percy: Yes, that character stereotype.

Mr. Kumar: Massive stereotype; so I fell for that initially, but obviously, I’ve grown over the years, in some sense, and I’ve met my partner, who is — I hate to stereotype her in some sense, but she’s also sort of helped me grow out of that obsession.

Ms. Percy: Thank God.

Mr. Kumar: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.

Ms. Percy: Because Clementine is kind of batshit, I’m not gonna lie. I’m like, why — why? She’s beautiful and adventurous and outspoken, and that’s so appealing, but long-term, I’m like, why does Joel want to be with her?

Mr. Kumar: [laughs] Yes. The original script was extremely dark. In the film, you basically have them erasing their memories, probably, twice. But the original script apparently had them erasing each other 15 times. So in some sense, it depicts the extreme fallibility of human beings, in terms of just falling for that other person who is just the opposite of you in some sense, again and again and again.

Ms. Percy: That you can’t control that, right?

Mr. Kumar: You can’t control that, yes.

[excerpt: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Mr. Kumar: Again, that’s something that’s stayed with me for — in fact, I use it as a theory in some sense — like “opposites attract” in a lot of ways — but that doesn’t mean you have to be opposite, or likes are not compatible. But in some sense, I feel like the right kind of conflict that one needs in life is provided by those opposites, and they help you grow each other, as well. Well, I hope so. At least, that’s what me and my partner like to think — that we sort of help each other grow.

Ms. Percy: Like yourself — I haven’t seen the movie 50 times, I admit. I’ve probably seen it five, and one of those times was last night. And watching it again, I was really struck by — because every time you see it, you notice something else. And this time, I was struck by how much it captures loneliness, and — but the loneliness of being a human being and the vulnerability of trying to be in relationship with someone else, of opening your heart to them and how uncomfortable that can be, and how awkward. And I just wonder what lessons you’ve learned from it, as you’ve been watching it through these years.

Mr. Kumar: It’s a question I’ve been asking myself, and I get different answers at different points. But I suppose, again, when I watched it a couple of nights ago, the thought I had was the idea — the beauty and the frailty of love is something that the movie leaves me with and our desperate need, in some sense, for having it and desiring it; and no matter who you are and no matter what upbringing you might have, that there is a part of you that desires love from your fellow human being. And I think that’s universal, and the movie captures it quite beautifully, but — the pathos of it, obviously, but also, the conflict of it that is also common nature. So we go through it. We put ourselves through all this — horrible conflicts and confusion and loneliness and all of that. But it almost feels like a necessary part of being a human, in some sense.

Ms. Percy: It kind of is what defines you as a human being, in some ways.

Mr. Kumar: Yeah, I’d say that. Yeah, definitely.

[excerpt: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Ms. Percy: So, unlike a lot of movies where the character or the dialogue are the things that are really memorable and stand out — and that’s not to say the movie doesn’t have really amazing writing and lines — I feel like this movie is more about the mood and the cinematography and the world that the director, Michel Gondry, and the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, create onscreen. It’s about what you’re watching, and what you’re feeling as you’re watching it. And so I wonder, what are the scenes that you play over and over in your head, when you think about this movie?

Mr. Kumar: So there’s one scene when they — at least in the film, according to the film, at least, the first time they meet; or, rather, the second time, let’s say. And she invites him to his house. They have a drink. She’s obviously very flirtatious with him and says, “You know what? We’re going to get married.” And he gets up. He’s about to leave. She, hurriedly, in an excited way, pulls up the door and basically says…

[excerpt: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Mr. Kumar: And beautiful guitar/piano riffs that play at the back, and this lovely dim light of the lampposts in the nighttime, and him just walking in the cold, away, and going home and very excitedly calling — [laughs] calling her back — it just captures that feeling of the excitement of first love and the excitement of falling in love. That was beautifully captured, I think. That’s one scene that’ll always stay. And I keep crying every time I watch that scene — out of happiness, of course. But that’s one scene.

The second, I think, is — I think, again, at the end of the film, when both of them have a conversation on the beach — on the steps. They’re sitting down and having a chat about —

Ms. Percy: Oh, in Montauk, yeah.

Mr. Kumar: Yes, in Montauk, about the fact that this is the last of their memories.

[excerpt: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Mr. Kumar: And he responds — again, I don’t know how he does it, but he just says, “Enjoy it.” And the scene cuts to Clementine being Clementine, jumping around, trying to play with the waves, and Joel being Joel, has his hands in his pockets and walking next to her.

[excerpt: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Ms. Percy: So you talked about this earlier, about how the original screenplay was a lot darker, for Eternal Sunshine. And I didn’t know this until a friend told me to look up the screenplay, that it had an alternate ending, originally, where it was a lot sadder, far less hopeful than the ending we see in the film that was released. And it showed Clementine as an old woman, going back to the doctor’s office and asking to have Joel erased from her mind again — yet again; we don’t even know how many times it’s been, at this point. How do you feel about this, knowing that this ending was originally part of the story, and then, the ending that actually ended up in the movie?

Mr. Kumar: Well, a part of me thinks Charlie Kaufman was on drugs or was intoxicated at that point and sick of life…

Ms. Percy: Probably true, yeah. [laughs]

Mr. Kumar: [laughs] …because that would be absolutely depressing.

Ms. Percy: Can you imagine the credits rolling after that, and walking out of that theater? You’d just be like — just jump into traffic; just kill yourself, at that point.

Mr. Kumar: [laughs] No, I think they did the right thing, in terms of not dragging it all the way till they’re old, partly because that makes it more relatable to people. You don’t want a cinema to play out the entire life as a possibility. Some films do, I suppose. But taking a snippet, taking an extract of that, and then showing what life could be within that boundaries, I think, is useful. It might feel way too unrealistic — if that was possible — and you would start asking ridiculous questions of “Oh, this memory-erasing business just is not possible,” and “It’s not credible,” and all of that. But I fear, if they did that, we might end up questioning the credibility and the premise of the film itself, instead of enjoying some of the human elements of that.

Ms. Percy: It’s interesting, because when I first read that alternate ending, I actually thought, wow, I think the film’s message would then, for me, be that we can’t control who we’re attracted to; and it’s gonna happen again and again, because it’s out of our hands. It’s something that’s a mysterious combination of brain, body, chemistry, all these things, and so — not exactly that we’re bound to repeat the same mistakes again, but just really that — that these two people were so inexplicably attracted to each other that it happened again and again and again.

Mr. Kumar: And I suppose the question, also, is, what — if it is genuinely out of your control. But it’s like what they say about memory — some things happen now, but your memory of it is slightly different than how it actually happened. There’s always something that changes, shifts, in your recollection of that past memory. So if I am so fallible that I keep falling for the same person again and again — surely, I’m falling out of love for different reasons, in some sense.

Ms. Percy: Oh, interesting. Yeah.

Mr. Kumar: Or am I falling out of love for the same reasons? That seems less plausible — that I’d hate the person again for the same reasons, over and over again — which makes it interesting, the fact that you could hate someone for several reasons, [laughs] over and over, over your lifetime.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] We’re so complex, yeah.

Mr. Kumar: Exactly, and also, fall in love for several reasons, at the same time. And yeah, as you said, we are extremely complex, and I think that’s something wonderful.

[excerpt: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Ms. Percy: So my producer, Maia, found your old WordPress blog…

Mr. Kumar: God. It’s so bad.

Ms. Percy: …which is where she first discovered your love of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She also found a post from 2010 where you talked about discovering for the first time — or maybe admitting for the first time, online — that you’re a real romantic, and another post where you wrote a love poem. And it just — I can’t help but read a couple of lines from it; I hope it won’t embarrass you too much — because it just feels so in tune with what Eternal Sunshine is about. So you wrote: “Things have to change, they ought to be different / but in matters of love, there is no calculation / I have given it all again, but only to let go / and this time I need you a little more.” And I wonder how this movie has shaped your own view of love; throughout the 50 times that you’ve watched it, how it’s really maybe defined love in a different way for you.

Mr. Kumar: Yeah, I mean — one approach or one way of thinking about love that I’ve grown fond of, over the years, is the fact that love is a verb and not a noun. So love is in your doing; is an action. And I think, having seen the film twice now with my wife — first time was when we had just started going out. And if I could slightly digress, and I’ll come back to this question very quickly.

Ms. Percy: No, please do.

Mr. Kumar: One of the ways we came together was me — [laughs] — and this is sort of ridiculous, but me on a rooftop, narrating pretty much the entire film to my yet-to-be girlfriend, back then. This was in 2012. And she sat there through the entire thing, obviously having not seen the film, and thinking, “This guy is an absolute lunatic,” but somehow, I managed to draw her into the entire script and told her the entire story. And I’d like to think that was one of the reasons why she fell for me [laughs] at some point.

Ms. Percy: How could she not? Come on. [laughs]

Mr. Kumar: [laughs] Sounds a bit too cheesy. But putting that aside, we’ve seen that film since then, twice. The first time, she didn’t enjoy it at all, and the second time, which was a couple of days ago, she quite liked it. And I think us being able to see how our relationship, over the last five years — we got married last year — but through the years, how our relationship has changed: how the excitement, or the butterflies in your belly of falling in love at the first stages, giving each other gifts and not being able to hang up on the phone, for example; to points where we keep fighting all the time and [laughs] realizing that “Why have we gotten married in the first place? This is a bad mistake”; and then, again, falling in love — so, the peaks and troughs that you experience in life. The only difference, of course, is, we don’t have the option of erasing each other’s memory. [laughs] But I’m glad we don’t have that option, and even if we did, I don’t think we would take it.

But yeah, I think it’s in acknowledging that it is a commitment. It is work. It is a verb. And you have to keep practicing that art, keep getting better at it.

[music: “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” by Beck, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Original Soundtrack]

Ms. Percy: Chaitanya Kumar is a senior policy advisor for the independent British think tank, Green Alliance. Sadly, he no longer writes his blog on love, films, and life; no longer writes poetry — or, at the very least, is not releasing it. But you can still find his most recent writing on environmental, world-changing stuff at the

On the next episode of This Movie Changed Me, we’re going to talk about the dreamy John Cusack movie Say Anything. If you want to check that movie out before the conversation, you’ve got two weeks, and you can find it streaming on Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube, and Vudu.

This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Marie Sambilay, and Tony Liu, and is an On Being Studios production. Subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts, and we’d love it if you’d consider leaving us a review, because that’s what people really read. I’m Lily Percy. Treat yourself tonight and watch a movie.

[music: “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” by Beck, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Original Soundtrack]