The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Memory and Association
Lacuna is a company in Michel Gondry’s film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which offers a procedure to have specific events removed from one’s memory. Both main characters, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski, opt to have this procedure following a painful breakup— each therein erasing the memory of the other. The word, “lacuna” itself means gap or emptiness which, as the story reveals, is exactly what the service provides. The film shows associations, bridges by which memories are interconnected, still persist even after the deletion of the memories to which they are tied. Eternal Sunshine offers an intricate mix of psychological and philosophical subjects that help underscore the importance and influence of association. The film plays with the ideas of of memory, society, and perception, questioning the balance of association’s effects on a character, and a character’s effect on the memories they form.
The first scene shows Joel skipping work, he says that he does not understand why he does this, and further that he is not an impulsive person. As the story progresses, this claim shows all too true. It is only after Joel encounters Clementine, a enthusiastically spontaneous character, that he begins to shed these layers of insecurity. Even as it is revealed that Joel’s memory has already been erased, the story shows that this seemingly impulsive course of action is triggered by a remnant of his past relationship. This suggests that even with his memory removed, the associations that persist after the procedure drive the character to change.
Before undergoing the erasure process, a session of brain mapping is required in order to pinpoint the target memories. This is accomplished through a series of association with artifacts from Joel and Clementine’s relationship. The mapping shows the location of memories related to the objects shown. The deletion of these memories is meant to enable the advertised “spotless mind.”
The receptionist of the company, Mary Sevevo, recites several literary quotes underscoring this idealized bliss of the forgetful. As it shows, the reality is not so clean; those who undergo the procedure are not content with their loss, but are left instead a canvas with holes. One critique of the film creates this analogy, “a relationship is a loom. It weaves lives into one another. Just how much unweaving you would have to do in order to erase all traces of one is unclear” (Reeve, 18). This helps underscore the film’s use of association as an innate structure of human memory.
This is displayed in Joel’s journey through his subconscious as the erasure procedure takes place. The progression is that of the paths constructed earlier and is not linear, but still traceable through Joel’s mind. The presentation of both Joel’s internal memory and consciousness as aware of what is happening offers insight into his relationship with Clementine and his growing regret of having chosen to undergo the procedure. Rather than the blissful ignorance the procedure seems to offer, Joel is conscious to his loss twice over.
In Clementine the procedure is seen as something of a restart button. Her hair marks her emotions and perspective. In the course of her relationship with Joel her hair changes from its initial blue, to red, and then orange. When she encounters Joel after her procedure, her hair is once again blue. The repeat of the color, titled “blue ruin,” suggests that she has reverted to her mental state prior to their meeting.
The use of cinematography underscores this feeling of loss created by the purge of even unhappy memories. The fluid transitions connecting many of the memories within Joel’s internal narrative adds to the theme of association. The character focused perspective offers a stream of consciousness as the setting shifts from one memory to another. One prime example is the scene in which Joel as an infant is bathed in the sink; the scene quite literally flows to the next as the characters are pulled down the drain to the next setting.
The fluidity of the consciousness is juxtaposed with increasingly choppy effects signifying the memory removal. Earlier in the film, the memories fade gradually to white, but as Joel’s consciousness fights harder to retain his memories, chunks and whole constructs are deleted rapidly. Layering the linear consciousness over a constantly changing backdrop helps display the way in which the character associates his inner timeline as a series of events, and further helps to display the effect the procedure has on Joel’s character.
The cinematic depiction reflects psychological perception– the further-reaching memories are stark, with fewer and fewer details. The film itself embodies themes and ideas of physiology and philosophy— “Gondry’s work reinforces the perspective not only of a great deal of research in empirical psychology but of a long phenomenological tradition in philosophy” (White 108). All these implementations help to create associations between memory and reality, and display how they come together to form complex characters and their struggles.
The scenes in the external world (that is to say- not in Joel’s subconscious,) follow patterns of circularity. Clementine, though impulsive, unknowingly aims to reenact the events of her relationship with Joel. She wishes for the memories she lost and attempts to recreate them. One analysis of the film suggests that “memories are so intricately and complexly interwoven that one must purge all memories connected with a given individual or relationship if the procedure is to have any chance of success” (Jollimore 37). While this idea is on the right track, it may be more accurate to call for complete erasure of the wants and desires of the character undergoing the procedure. We see in Clementine, even with all evidence and memory of the relationship gone, a characteristic instinct to pursue the very thing she aimed to lose.
This nonlinear format is shown differently in Joel’s memories as he tries to hide his manifestation of Clementine in his childhood. Though inevitably erased, the scene shows the malleability of memory. This redefines the idea of fluid memories, it shows that not only is the course of memory nonlinear, but also changeable and altered without necessarily being destroyed.
In both his childhood memories and his relationship with Clementine, Joel’s major hurdle are his insecurities. His memories and wants as a child also help to explain his psychology as an adult. He is eager for attention, but does not demand it; he would rather wait to be acknowledged. It is only after he meets Clementine that he becomes incrementally more open, an openness which he loses as a repercussion of the procedure.
When they re-encounter one another, this aspect of his personality is revealed again; he asks himself “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” This displays Joel’s reversion to his feelings of unfulfillment. Joel’s want of acknowledgement, but fear of taking action, makes him, as he describes, “boring.” In many ways, Clementine is the exact opposite; though she too craves attention, she treats this want as an objective rather than an obstacle. This trait manifests in the characters erratic behavior (e.g. breaking into an empty beach house in her first encounter with Joel, and her constantly changing hair color.)
Though she is a mercurial character, Clementine is also perhaps the most rigid in the sense that her want and need to change is never altered. In fact it is this blatantly verbose character that allows Joel to remain influenced by Clementine even after her erasure. Joel’s perception of Clementine is so vivid that he is able to recreate her within his mind. She gives him the support, enabling the realization of his want to retain the memories of her. This shows an association of characters and how they serve to define one another.
In these ways change is displayed as both good and bad. Change at the hands of interpersonal interaction is growth, while the change from the procedure is regression. One of the best examples of this is Mary’s character. She offers several quotes in praise of the bliss offered by the procedure that her company offers, however her character arch shows the flawed implications of the procedure. She repeats her blunders of falling in love with her boss. In altering her memory, the loss offers her an escape from the emotional pain, but disallows any growth or closure. Because of this, Mary inevitably to repeats her misstep. Her drastic change, however, comes not from erasure, but from realization of the procedure’s faults. She is able to denounce the company and seeks to restore the grievous losses of the patients.
It is notable that each character that undergoes the procedure is shown to follow some trope of their forgotten hardship. One analysis offers that it is human nature to want to accept hardship for the want of making an impression on the world. This is the idea of the “experience machine”- people will not choose complete pleasure over having the opportunity to create an influence or reality in itself (Grau 121). In the final scene in Joel’s mind, he is aware of his memories being taken, yet it is the association of this loss that stays in the subconscious of this character and allows him to retain some inkling of his relationship with Clementine. This human want of experience over ignorance can be seen as a means by which Joel is able to overcome the full effect of the procedure, thereby allowing him to retain some association with Clementine.
The intricate story, characters, and cinematography of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind display and evoke complex psychological and philosophical themes that deal with the value and necessity of associations and experience as part of personal and interpersonal development. It suggests that the experience of grief is necessary for growth, and displays the faults of ignorance.
Grau, Christopher. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Morality of Memory.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64.1 (2006): 119-33. JSTOR. Web.
Jollimore, Tory. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Ed. Christopher Grau. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Reeve, C.D.C. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Ed. Christopher Grau. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
White, Stephen L. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Ed. Christopher Grau. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
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