Friday, 4 March 2016

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Remembering How to Forget

They say love hurts. But what hurts far more is remembering a love that is no more. That remembrance is what really hurts. Remembering what was lost, what you had, what could have been. Remembering the times shared, the minuscule intimate moments, the private conversations and public displays, the complete happiness and utter despair. Remembering what went so right you couldn't believe it was true. Remembering what went wrong but not sure if you could have done anything to stop it.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a love story about memory. Or a memory story about love. Whichever you prefer. It examines ideas about memory, love, heartbreak, loss, and the dissolution of romantic relationships. In other words, it looks at why breakups suck and whether it would be better to just forget.

"But is it though?" - Clementine, maybe

Since the film came out in 2004 and has made a bit of an impact on the cultural consciousness, I'm not going to give any spoiler warnings or describe the plot in great detail since I'm assuming it's common pop culture knowledge. If you haven't seen the film, you probably should since it's pretty fantastic, but I'll try not to get ahead of myself.

The basic premise of the film is that Joel Barish, played by Jim Carrey, has his memories of his relationship with Clementine Kruczynski, Kate Winslet, erased after he learns that she has had her memories of him erased from her memory following a fight/breakup. He does this through an unexplained medical procedure which exists in the world of the film that is done while he sleeps. Most of the film flicks between the real world and Joel's dream/memory world as his brain fights the procedure and tries to hang on to his memories of Clementine.


Before I get into the memory part of the review or start talking about love and loss, I just want to take a moment to comment on the science in the film, or lack thereof. I mean, there is science in the film but it's not actual science. They never give any explanation or offhand remark about how it actually works. They tell Joel what the procedure does but not how it does what it does. It just does.

It's movie magic science. It works because it works, don't ask how since it's not important. In many films this is often the result of poor writing where they haven't taken the time to think out the logistics or mechanics of the fictional world and just need a handy narrative device.

But the thing is, in Eternal Sunshine it isn't important how the machine works. We don't need the explanation since that's not what the focus is on. The details of how something works aren't important since it is the emotional impact of memory which Kaufman wants to explore, not the science of memory. Kaufman isn't a writer who write scripts for the head, although his films would have you believe this due to their surreal nature. Rather he is a writer who writes stories for the heart.

"Awww, that's sweet." - Clementine, maybe.

If the film was about the science of memory, there could have been some sense of how memory is incredibly flawed and constructed. Our memories are never actually perfect records of the events that we experienced. Memories are more like stories made up of details we can recall, correctly or not, shaped into narratives imposed on them so they make sense. Narratives which are informed by how we feel when we remember them.

Then the film could have focussed on Joel's flawed recollections of his relationship with Clementine or something along those lines. And while there is the slightest hint of that in the way Joel's memories are limited or certain details are forgotten, the film treats memory as infallible when it is in fact very fallible.

"Okay. This might not be exactly how I remember it." - Joel, most likely.

But then again, that's not the point Kaufman is trying to make. He's not concerned with memory in and of itself. Rather he is more interested in how he can use the idea of a person erasing their memories of a relationship as a narrative device to explore how a breakup and memories affect us. It is the emotional core at the heart of the idea which is the focus, not the hows or whys of the idea. 

What's a clever twist is that rather than showing us the beginnings of their relationship and how they got to the point where they break up and are hurt enough to want to erase their memories, Kaufman flips it. We start with the end and work our way backwards. From the hurt and tatters of an emotionally drained relationship back to the bright and exciting blossoming of new love.

Blossoming and Kentucky fried.

By showing us the relationship in reverse, it has even more of an emotional impact at the end of the film once Joel has had his memories erased. That's the other thing, Kaufman doesn't cop out. Joel's memories are erased.

There's no hammy ending where he has managed to hold on to his memories of Clementine by the power of love. Although it is ultimately hopeful as they both agree to try again despite knowing they have had their memories of their previous relationship erased.

And that's the real point. Love is hard, people are difficult to live with, relationships are tough, and memories can hurt. But it is worth trying. Love and happiness is worth the attempt even if it might fall through. Or your memories are erased.

Musings Rating: 5 Musings

The type of movie that academics write complex theses on while everyone else quotes the quotable quotes endlessly and talks about how cool the memory sequences looked. A lot of musing to be had.


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This introduction is supposed to let you know that you have found the correct Caleb. 

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