Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

This was a wonderful movie, in ways a Philip K. Dick story with heart and hope and mercy, and I can’t tell you how much I liked it. The basic plot is about two people, Joel and Clementine, who don’t quite fit in the world without each other. They’ve broken up and have or are having their memories of their relationship erased from conscious thought. Midway through his procedure, Joel changes his mind, and desperately tries to hold onto some memory of Clementine. Fleeing with a representation of her, he runs through the terrain of his memories as they’re being erased, looking for someplace safe to hide her. And, ultimately, there’s reconcilation and recognition of a past that’s been obliterated, and a chance for a future at the ends of the earth, or at least Montauk in the off-season.

Slate’s review (cited by the NY Times Arts section this weekend, along a number of points about the philosophical — existential, epistomological — background of the movie) notes that Eternal Sunshine follows a formula of mid-century Hollywood screwball comedies with a story of remarriage: the protagonist’s first union breaks, and over the course of the movie they find each other again. Although their partners are imperfect, they’re right for each other. The Alexander Pope quote is, of course, ironic, as neither Joel nor Clementine find happiness in forgetting. But it took this sci-fi process of forgetting to realize where they should be. Slate also had an interesting article on the implied neuroscience in Eternal Sunshine and contrasts it with Memento. The later film about memory erase treated memories as objective facts filed away by the brain and retrieved robotically as necessary. More recent neuroscience suggests that memories are as much about the emotion surrounding the memory as anything else — more intense moments are better remembered and shape the objective facts — and, while there may theoretically be a way to selectively erase memories (recall of memories involves rewriting them to the neurons with revised a emotional context, and the process of rewriting may be interrupted), it may be difficult to remove the emotional contexts in general. People who have done harm in the protagonist’s past, such as in Memento, would have left him uncomfortable, suspicious or ill at ease. The repeating scenarios in the movie would not have been possible.

Update, just to elaborate a bit on the epistomology. There are the obvious bits about distinguishing between what’s real and what’s happening inside Joel’s head, and also about objective facts (like the dent in his car) that Joel no longer knows about. The more interesting aspects have to do with what we know about Clementine. Except for the segments at the beginning and at the end, we never see her outside the memories and imagination of Joel. Everything we know about her is what Joel knows about her or imagines how she would react in a given — usually surreal and invented — situation. This image of Clementine is in some sense what Joel loves, and, fortunately for them, this image seems to conform to the real Clementine — her reaction to his gift, for example — and is not a pure fantasy.

One Response to “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind”

  1. John Says:

    This movie was utter nonsense, complete guff. While watching the film I wished that I was dead; that I could get the memory treatment and forget I ever watched this crap; that I was outside; that the ceiling had a pretty picture on it; and that I could take a baseball bat to the film’s director, writers, cast, producers and – most importantly – its reviewers, each and every one of whom assured me that this would be a cinematic masterpiece.