discriminate between what is true and false in their own relation to feeling. While they have a chance to start afresh with one another, their compli- cated emotional history as a couple has seemingly had no effect (whether it is recalled or not) on their impulses about how best to proceed now. They are diminished for us if we regard them as a pair whose suffering and attempts to love have made no difference. They present themselves to an “inviting stranger” as they always did, thickly encased in self- protective deceit. The consciousness of grief, in other words, is not what points them toward each other. They do not intuit, in their silent appraisal of each other, a possible companion in grief. They have no alertness to each other’s distress signals, and cannot therefore imagine this distress as a possible key to self-recognition. The “new” person is viewed instead as a relief from the burden of knowing, or being known, a light escape from the burden of heavy, nameless emotion. Joel and Clementine will turn a troubling doubt about what ails them into a trifling suspense about how to gain another’s favorable attention without giving anything away. 118 GEORGE TOLES
Viewed coldly, the train scene is about two people with little available emotional capital who mimic the act of acknowledging another’s presence, but with no real intention of taking anything in, that is to say, of exposing themselves to something unfamiliar. They serve up a meretricious vulnerability that, while real at some level, is not connected to any possibility of exposure here . They yield revelations to the extent that there are perceived opportunities for personal gain, but nothing they offer each other counts as magnanimity. What they are least eager to let the other glimpse is their mutual despondency, as though sadness is not only a secret but something to be proudly hoarded. Perhaps involuntarily they rely throughout their train meeting on the rote expressions of their favorite social masks—boisterous and recessive. But though we can decide we know this on our second viewing, we can’t manage to view their opening conversation strictly in terms of our disappointed knowledge. We are unable, fortunately, to get beyond appearances, and make the couple’s failure to connect more genuinely interfere with our pleasure in their seemingly audacious “trial and error” banter. Appearances, however misleading here, strongly sug- gest vitality and possibility. We observe, on this screen of appearances, a gap between two strangers being narrowed; challenges being offered and nervously rebuffed; disclosures by Clementine made without obvious calculation; interest quickening on both sides in spite of missed cues, awkwardness, and Clementine’s disproportionate level of aggression. Out of this extended dialogue Eternal Sunshine viewers are obliged to fashion their own first memories of the couple. Though we may well find it difficult to turn so much conspicuous tension and constraint into satisfying romantic symmetry, we do catch tantalizing glimpses of un- voiced needs and pent-up energies futilely craving expression. Clementine
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