I’m deep into the muck of “Society of the Spectacle” and I’m starting to think that Kaufman threw it into the story as a practical joke. He could have used any one of hundreds of sociological tracts written in the last 100 years to illustrate his point that people have lost the ability to relate to one another openly and sincerely, instead he tosses in this weird French communist pamphlet that has some merit on its own terms (it’s both a precursor to the whole “Hypernormalisation” theory I’m working through on my other blog and a mirror image argument) but, at least from what I’ve read so far, has little or nothing to say about how people interact within this false culture.
So, I’m not punting on Guy DuBord yet, I’ll keep plowing through his book, but I don’t want to stop in my tracks either, so I’m going to take a step back and analyze the background issue that Jake is avoiding by getting into this meta discussion about people and cultures.
This is essentially a movie about two emotionally ambiguous people. Kaufman likes this terrain. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is basically about people with this mindset. And the funny thing is, it’s possible to look at that earlier Kaufman movie, and parts of this one as well, through a highly romantic frame. There’s a soft focus way to interpret “Spotless Mind” that makes it a story about two soul mates who have such a passionate bond for each other that they have to keep severing the bond, but can’t help themselves from re-tying it.
I don’t know, maybe I’ve just grown old and cynical about such things, but I see “Eternal Sunshine” through a far darker lens these days. I think this is a movie about characters deeply mired in emotional ambiguity, people who have a wide variety of reasons for wanting to keep potential romantic partners at a distance. Some are just fearful of commitment, others have a narcissistic draw to being excessively admired, others still have unrealistic expectations of their worth and latch onto people willing to give them some degree of positive feedback, and it goes on and on. There’s not just one couple in this movie, there’s an entire chorus of characters with their emotional ambivalence in plain sight.
Normal, well adjusted people come into contact with the emotionally ambivalent and figure out pretty early that they can’t have a long term relationship with that kind of person. But fellow emotionally ambivalent people have a tendency to find each other and to find ways to perpetuate their ambiguity in good times and bad. “Eternal Sunshine” is, in that context, a chilling story — even if you wipe the fondest memories of these people from their minds, the emotional ambivalence virus has an amazing way of latching back onto them and bringing them back together. Even long-term couples of this ilk that have decided to part often do so in a highly ambivalent manner.
You might not think of Jake as being emotionally ambivalent — he worships her, isn’t that a sign of his strong devotion? Actually, no, it’s one of the clearest signs of emotional ambiguity, an ability to worship but not love. Jake, who has either literally invented the young woman or has fashioned an ideal persona out of her, cannot see her as a real woman with real faults and her own unique back story. She can only be seen in terms of his own needs and how she fulfills them. When we reach the climax of the film, Jake is so bought into the young woman’s indomitability that he doesn’t even act to defend her from harm, he runs off to slay a personal demon leaving her literally in the cold.
The movie is essentially about the young woman’s emotional ambivalence in the face of this. She has excellent instincts. She knows that she’s in an unstable relationship. The question we do not know from this film, however, is if Jake fits a pattern for her or is just a uniquely wrong guy she’s going to get rid of before too much damage is done. Her ambivalence in tossing him aside — going on the trip to begin with and never voicing her desire to leave — gives all the evidence we need that this is an emotional virus that she carries as well.
The positive thing about this emotional affliction is if you have it and somehow end up in a relationship with someone who doesn’t, you’re either going to address your core issue and overcome it or you’ll lose the relationship. Stable emotional people are a wonderful thing, they bring all of those doubts to light and force the unsure to decide whether they want to wallow in future uncertainty or really make an effort to make a stable relationship work.
I think the emotionally ambiguous have a social duty, like COVID-19 patients, to publicly announce their affliction so that everyone who has come into contact with them can emotionally quarantine before beginning a new relationship or taking a current one to a new level. This isn’t to say that it can literally be passed on like a virus. Rather, like tends to find like, and if you find any kind of kinship with someone who you can’t quite figure out, it’s probably useful to look in the mirror as well.