This essay may contain major spoilers for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Frank Stockton’s The Lady, or the Tiger?; And Other Stories, and Inception, minor spoilers for Total Recall, and middlin’ spoilers for Louise Gluck’s Mock Orange.


When Maribou and I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we thought it was the most romantic movie we had ever seen. We held hands for, like, a week. We made our friends watch it. They didn’t think it was romantic at all. Then they broke up. (True story!) [Ed.: They got back together. Jaybird: I didn’t think that that was particularly relevant to what happened with regards to the movie. Ed.: They’re getting married. In November. We’re going to their wedding. Jaybird: Yes, I know. I’m looking forward to it. In any case, they broke up after we made them watch this movie we thought was romantic and they thought was not. Ed.: I think it matters in the long run.] Asked another group of friends who watched it what they thought. Yep, to a person, they all thought that it was anti-romantic.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a bit of a sci-fi film, a bit of a distaster movie, and a bit of a relationship movie. It’s about a guy who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, finds out that she’s had a procedure done to have her memories of him erased. He then goes through the same procedure and the majority of the film takes place in his mind — in his memories of her as the memories are destroyed. At the end, after the procedure, they find each other again… and find out that they’d both erased the other.

The question that seemed obvious to me was “did they make it work this time now that they have all of this new information?”

My take was that it was likely that they would. It was Maribou’s take as well. [Ed.: No. I thought it was a movie about the hopefulness and bravery of love in the face of the world’s absurdity. Jaybird: that’s the same thing entirely. Ed.: Whatever, Simone de Beauvoir. Jaybird: Whatever! Jean Paul Sartre!] We thought that they’d have a little more self-knowledge this time around. We also really related to Joel and Clementine. We got through our horrid year and were stronger because of it. Of course they would too! And, of course, our friends were also really relating to Joel and Clementine.

And that’s why they broke up and argued that, of course, Joel and Clementine would break up again. [Ed.: And oh, look, they got back together and quit breaking up. See, it matters.]

Which, in turn, brings me to The Lady and the Tiger. This is a short story by Frank Stockton published back in 1882. You’ve probably read it. On the odd chance that you haven’t, I’ll break it down for you here: The punishment for certain types of crime in this particular kingdom was to be put into an arena and you had to pick a door. Behind one door, a lady who you would then marry. Behind the other? A tiger who would then eat you. In either case, a good reason to go to the arena with the kids and have a nice party. Well, one day, the princess fell in love with a commoner. Now, the princess was exceptionally jealous, but loved the commoner something awful. The king found out and threw the guy into the arena. The guy looked at the princess. The princess told him to take a particular door. He opened the door and saw…

Well, at this point, the author says “what was behind the door?”

And everybody starts arguing about how of course it was the lady or how of course it was the tiger. It’s not really an answer as much as an opportunity to relate to the princess. Or the guy, for that matter.

Personally, I think that Stockton should have asked if the guy took the door she suggested… and *THEN* asked what was behind the door… and that brings me to Inception.

Inception, if you haven’t seen it, is a movie similar to Eternal Sunshine insofar as the movie mostly takes part in somebody’s head — specifically, in their dreams. There’s some MacGuffin that the main characters are supposed to deliver to the subconscious of Cillian Murphy’s character and, as the story progresses, we get to the end when *BLAM* we find out that it’s not a MacGuffin delivery movie but a Lady and the Tiger story that is supposed to inspire you to go to Village Inn and get some pie and argue about whether it was a Lady or a Tiger.

This irritates me.

It’s not that Inception was poorly executed. It wasn’t! It had the best weightless scene that I can recall being done in a movie. The ticking clock that was the van? I found myself taken out of the movie because that was so well done. The dreams weren’t quite as surreal as Dreamscape’s dreams were… but, hey. We’re a lot more sophisticated than we were in 1984.

The problem was that the movie misdirected the entire time. They spent the two hours delivering the MacGuffin and then, at the end, told you that, no, you had spent two hours watching an entirely different movie than the one they had been telling you that you were watching. Instead of setting you up with a plot you could discuss, you got the rug pulled out from under you in the name of getting you to discuss the “surprise” ending that you didn’t know you were monitoring until the second the credits started rolling.

Unlike Eternal Sunshine where there was some real opportunity to argue over whether it would work out for the two main characters, you were given an ending like Total Recall’s where all of the effort in creating the movie in the first place was in giving both sides of the argument justification for pounding the table and saying whether it was “real” or not. (Note: I’m talking about the movie, not the source material for the movie.)

That’s the thing that bugs me most of all. You’ve got this relationship going with the story you’re being told… and this low, humiliating premise of union and then… wham. Split. Like Louise Gluck said, “we were made fools of”.

When it comes to Eternal Sunshine, we know that the rest of the story is the point. Life is the point. Maybe they’ll make it (I think they will). Maybe they won’t (many friends thought they wouldn’t). But it’s not something that could have been cleared up with something as simple as five more minutes to answer the question. When the storyteller, instead, shrugs and says:
And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?, It feels like nothing more than a deliberate attempt to get you, the viewer, to conflate being aloof with being interesting.


When it came to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I really got the feeling that the author himself didn’t know if it would work out. (I understand that early drafts of the film had Joel and Clementine erasing themselves multiple times!!!)

Stockdon and Inception (and Total Recall) were deliberately framed in order to provoke the argument.

The disagreements that came up over Joel and Clementine’s future were due to the depth of the characters.

The disagreements that came up over Stockton and Inception and Total Recall were due to excellent production.

The former feels truly interactive to me. The latter strikes me as just manipulative.

My preference for the interactive has brought me to video games… but that’s another post.


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to


  1. I think I mostly agree. (I have only had about three cups of coffee, so I’m feeling a little sluggish, hence the “I think” part.)

    Eternal Sunshine created a relationship that felt real, that made us want to think about whether it would survive the second time around. It also pointed to the future–now that we know all this, what will happen now?

    Inception didn’t create such characters or relationships. I didn’t mind the ending, because to me it wasn’t so much a lady/tiger thing as it was a way to cast the entire film in doubt. It points to the past, as in “what did we really see and who do we really trust?” It’s movie-as-puzzle and while I found the movie sometimes fascinating and sometimes irritating, I found the puzzle great fun to think and talk about.

    It reminds me to some degree of Primer, in that I love the concepts and the confusion and the puzzle of the movie, while finding the actual plot and motivation of the characters a bit thin and annoying.

    • It’s movie-as-puzzle and while I found the movie sometimes fascinating and sometimes irritating, I found the puzzle great fun to think and talk about.

      For my take, it was like being shown a Rorschach plate and being asked to hammer out whether it was food imagery, or sex imagery, or death imagery. I can’t get away from the fact that it’s an inkblot.

      If I think it’s the tiger behind the door, does that mean that I think that women are harridans who would rather see me dead than happy? If I think it’s the lady behind the door, does that mean that my relationships are healthier? Hey, I even suggested that Stockdon ought to have added a question of whether the dude followed the advice or the opposite of the advice the Princess gave! What does *THAT* say?

      And so on and so forth down the rabbit hole until it feels like a “What interpretation of the ending of Inception are you?” facebook test.

  2. Thanks for redirecting back to this post, which I sadly missed the first time.

    You’re right — “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is incredibly, heart-breakingly, beautifully romantic. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and the only “serious” Jim Carrey movie in which I can stand him. And I think Joel and Clementine may break up, over and over, but they always end up back with each other. Always.

    And I didn’t like “Inception” because they set you up, just as you say, and ask you to answer a question about which I cared not at all. It was hard to root for the MacGuffin plot (high-concept corporate espionage! Oh, goodie!), and the romance between DiCaprio and Cotillard (luminous as always) left me totally cold.

    My only reason for liking “Inception”was their effective use of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, on whom I have a preposterous crush.

    • And I think Joel and Clementine may break up, over and over, but they always end up back with each other. Always.

      I think that the parallel plot between Mary and Dr. Wierzmiak changes things. I don’t think that Lacuna will necessarily be around in a year or so… and, even if it is, I don’t know that Joel and Clementine will go back now that they have the new information contained in the letters. The new information changes things.

  3. Now I’m trying to figure out if there’s a movie that fits both categories.

    One with the gimmick at the end to argue about, that still had a story to argue about.

Comments are closed.