Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The World Forgetting by the World Forgot

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Every experience that you’ve ever had, from the desolation of bottomless despair to the zenith of limitless euphoria, constitute the wholeness of your being. They make you who you are, whether you like it or not. Do you deny it? Your experiences shape how you see and interact with the world around you. To loose one’s memories is to loose one’s grasp of self.

Today, I’d like to talk about an extraordinary film called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In it, we can explore an array of interesting principles including the value of memory as well as the concepts of fate and chance. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman presents us with one of his finest accomplishments through peerless storytelling and deep and meaningful characters. Likewise, director Michael Gondry outdoes himself in Eternal Sunshine by devising some of the most ingenious uses of line, shape, space, and color in nearly every shot than I have seen in any film. The result is aesthetically beautiful, and I do not use the term lightly. I have never seen a film which has kept me so engaged on visual level while only utilizing such simple elements of design. I do not hesitate to call this film a true work of art, and as such I have developed a deep and profound respect for it.

The film explores several different yet equally important topics, the best way to proceed is to analyze them one at a time.

Memory

“Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” 

Many philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, support the idea that tampering with one’s memory or any other form of ‘self deception’ as he put it, is morally wrong. That’s all well and good, but what about the nature of memory itself? Is it not true that a man is shaped by his experiences, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Everything that he has been exposed to will effect the choices that he makes as well as his outlook on the world. Essentially, this view presupposes the premise of subjective reality based upon the perception of the individual. For instance, if one were to be exposed to violence at a young age, that individual may grow up thinking that violence is a normal and valid response to conflict. On the other hand, that same individual may become disgusted with the violence that he was exposed to as a child and later in life adopt a non-violent worldview. Either way, and regardless of which choice he makes, that individual has been affected by the events that have occurred in the past. He is who he is now because of who he was then. Such a principal may seem like common sense, but it is vitally important nevertheless. Every choice you make, from the kind of coffee you drink in the morning to your stance on the upcoming election, is a result of the things that have happened to you in the past and your memory thereof.

Now consider Joel, who voluntarily forfeit his memory to escape the pain of the past. Considering what we now know about the nature of memory, is it possible to suggest that Joel is not quite complete? In other words, is he somehow less of a man? Physically, he is healthy. He has a brian, a heart, a liver, four functioning limbs and all the rest, but what about mentally or philosophically? For a real-life example, we need only look to an amnesia patient. If his memory is muddled, unclear, or even cuts off at a certain point, can we conclude that some part of him is missing, even if he does not know it himself? If he has no concept of how much time has passed between his last memory and the present, can he try his best to pick up where he left off and be no worse for it, or is his case hopeless because he cannot remember the events which shaped and guided his life up until that point. It is for you to decide. Both schools of thought are valid, and no great philosopher has succeeded in reaching an objective conclusion.

Determinism

While not an outright theme, Determinism is subtly woven into the context of the film. In short, determinism states that all events in life are based on the law of cause and effect, meaning that for every action there is one and only one unalterable and unavoidable reaction. According to its supporters, mostly pre-enlightenment philosophers, the process began at the very instant of the universe began and continues uninterrupted to this day. This being the case, and all actions being a result of cause-and effect, it would follow then, that free will as we know it would be rendered an arbitrary illusion as all of our ‘choices’ are indeed the only actions that could have occurred under the circumstances.

In the context of the film, determinism may be viewed as the inevitable fate of the two lovers, Joel and Clementine. The two had their memories erased and by reasonable conclusion should not fall for each other again. The simple phrase “Meet me in Montauk” whispered by a fleeting memory of Clementine travels through space and time and memory to find Joel in the present against, or perhaps because of, all odds. Ultimately, Joel and Clementine find each other again, almost as though it was meant to happen no matter what.

Indeterminism

Let me qualify this apparent contradiction. Indeterminism, as one would assume, is the opposite of determinism, and suggests that chance, rather than fate, is the determining factor in the process of events in the universe. Indeterminism began to gain widespread popularity with the advent of the study of quantum physics. Until that point, all observable information that humans possessed was based on the law of cause and effect, lending a huge amount of support to determinist thought and creating a grim outlook for free will as a concept. However, in 1927 Werner Heisenberg formulated his uncertainty principal, which states that that position and momentum of a particle cannot be known simultaneously. Essentially, what Heisenberg was suggesting was that the movement of the particles was without cause and therefore based on chance. Once it was accepted that the smallest units of matter were floating around more or less randomly, the concept was soon applied on a grander scale and free will returned as a valid concept of decision-making.

In the case of Joel and Clementine, it seems as though it was by mere chance that they fell in love the first time, and it seems as though it was by mere chance that they were able to find each other again. Isn’t it miraculous that a simple shard of a vast and beautiful memory was spared, when all other vestiges of Clementine were erased from Joel’s brain? Such a simple phrase…”Meet me in Montauk.” There was nearly an infinite number of variables, and still they fell in love again. I know what you’re thinking. How can we know if the events that transpired were machinations of fate or the defiance of free will? The answer is, admittedly, unsatisfying. We cannot know. Perhaps the more important question is “what do you believe?”

For now. and perhaps always, the truth will be a matter of perspective.

*Special thanks to Professor of Philosophy Christopher Grau of Clemson University.

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13 thoughts on “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The World Forgetting by the World Forgot

  1. mistylayne October 10, 2012 / 6:38 pm

    Brilliant analysis. I adore this movie.

  2. greatmartin October 10, 2012 / 6:39 pm

    I am NOT a Jim Carrey fan and though I adore Kate Winslet I avoided this like the plague and, sorry, this post by you makes me glad I did.

    • Steve October 10, 2012 / 7:25 pm

      I avoided this movie for the longest time, thinking it must clearly be over-hyped. It can’t be as good as everyone keeps saying it is… But it is. It really is a great film that deserves at least one viewing. But, ultimately, each to their own.

    • Albert Cantu October 10, 2012 / 8:27 pm

      Why is that? You should give it a chance and watch it once. Jim Carrey is not his goofy self in this role and if that’s your major qualm then let me reassure you, you won’t be disappointed.

      • greatmartin October 10, 2012 / 9:38 pm

        Sorry but reviewers I respect didn’t like it–and when it was on cable after 30 minutes I turned it off–just not my kind of movie :O(

      • Andrew King October 11, 2012 / 3:31 am

        It really is a great film, and while I understand what you are saying I don’t exactly think it is fair to discount it without even watching it once. I respect Ebert as a god among reviewers, but quite frequently I find I disagree with his opinions, and by thank goodness I do, otherwise I would have missed out on a good number of quality films. And with a movie this notable and widely praised I find it difficult to understand why you wouldn’t want to see it and form your own opinion rather than borrowing someone else’s.

      • greatmartin October 11, 2012 / 3:54 am

        Sorry I am going through the same thing now with The Master–I thought it was a boring piece of junk and, yes, I know I am the only one in the world who thinks so—generally I can get a feel of a movie within the first 15-20 minutes and even if I won’t like it I just am unable to walk out of a theatre before a movie is over–now watching it on TV is another thing, in most cases! :O)

      • Andrew King October 11, 2012 / 4:14 am

        Well you aren’t alone on the Master thing, at least not entirely. I thought by the end it was so unnecessarily convoluted it was next to impossible to get any real meaning out of. But that a great example because here is my point. I thought the first half was amazing, if all I did was watch a section of it and read a few highly positive reviews, I would be lauding it as the best movie this year, but I’m not. I similarly turned Eternal Sunshine off after about 15 minutes the first time I saw it, without seeing the whole film the first bit just seems a little like a generic indie film pretending to be deeper than it actually is. I do, however, love this film, and the only reason I can think of for someone disliking it is either they didn’t connect on the film with any kind of level which I find unlikely, or it was just a movie that was too “inaccessible”, which I would find hard to believe for someone who was interested in seeing The Master in theaters.

  3. ckckred October 11, 2012 / 2:05 am

    Charlie Kaufman is the best screenwriter working right now in my opinion and Eternal Sunshine’s his best work in my opinion. It’s a movie you really have to delve into and demands multiple viewings. Nice analysis.

  4. yawriterinthemaking October 11, 2012 / 3:16 pm

    I saw this film in an English class two years ago. I thought it was a little confusing, but enjoyable.

  5. Daniel Robison October 11, 2012 / 10:52 pm

    Even when Jim Carrey has dramatic roles it’s still hard to take him serious. This movie offered a good opportunity for him to show his dramatic capabilities in a world that was bizarre enough to accommodate any stereotypes I took with me while viewing it.

  6. Wyatt October 24, 2012 / 12:28 am

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over
    again. Anyhow, just wanted to say excellent blog!

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