Film Discussion 09: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Since no one was able to make the discussion yesterday, I thought I'd do things a little differently this week. While I still think the best way to tackle a movie is through live discussion, there's something to be said for the written word as well, and thanks to blogs and comments, the discussion can still happen here!

In the video above, I shared some of the questions I had prepared for the discussion so you'd still have something to think about. I'm going to attempt my own answers below, and I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

1) What does this film tell us about our need for love? Even if love and relationships harm the characters enough for them to wish to remove their memories, they continue to seek it.

This film's premise asks what it would be like if we could remove all memories of a person, presumably after a breakup. For most people, some of their most traumatic times are after they break up with someone, someone they loved at one point and have poured their life into, who is now stripped away from them.

So you might think that if these people are so hurt by the memories, they might think twice about entering into a romantic relationship with someone. And yet all the people working for Lacuna Inc. enter into these relationships with, what appears to be, reckless abandon. Either they are fools, or there is something within us that is seeking love.

To me it seems that Lacuna's services are more like Tylenol than a cure. We have an ache or pain, and instead of seeking a cure or trying to find what is causing our ailment, we turn to Tylenol to dull and get rid of the pain. Then we can keep living as we are without the consequences. Lacuna allows people to simply remove the painful memories of a relationship so they can go on living, and most likely entering into similar relationships which will cause the same pain later. They aren't healed, they just don't have to live with the consequences. Which brings us to the next question...

2) What does the film tell us about memories? Can you remove memories of a relationship without removing years of your life? Also, the doctors in the film are only addressing the brain of a person to remove the relationship, but are ignoring the heart. Is this why their method doesn't fully work?

Lacuna's goal is to better people's lives by removing the memories that cause people pain. The problem is, you can't erase a single person from your life. As you see in multiple scenes of the film, to remove Clem from Joel's mind, they remove whole sections of his life. She lived in his apartment so he has to clear almost everything out. All of his memories of the beach for the past few years are gone. While it seems easy enough to remove your memory of a person, when that person is in a relationship with you, for better or worse, that person is tied to every aspect of your life. The only solution is to basically give you amnesia for everything that happened in the time you spent with them.

And I think that is part of the reason the treatment doesn't seem to fully work. A relationship is tied to so much of you, so removing a relationship is that much more difficult. Both Clem and Joel seem to still have echoes of events and people even after their memories were erased, which is because the treatment by Lacuna isn't holistic  It only involves the brain of a person, as if that is solely where something like a relationship can live. But we're dealing with love, which is at least partially tied to the heart, no matter how much science may argue otherwise. This is why Clem and Joel find each other again after their "surgery." This is why Mary is still attracted to the Doctor. Memories are only part of the equation.

3) Which is better, "ignorance is bliss" or "eternal sunshine of the spotless mind?" As William Arnold writes, "...is traumatic memory a precious commodity that makes us human, and capable of growth?"

So if you can't remove a relationship simply by removing the memories, is it worth removing those memories at all? The root of the pain felt by these people is much deeper. The Tylenol treatment can't cure them, it can only solve the immediate effects of the breakup. It seems that in order for these people to grow and learn, they need these memories if they hope to have a successful relationship. By removing them, they feel better now, but are only setting themselves up to make the same mistakes again in their next relationship.

We catch a glimpse of this at the end of the film when Clem and Joel get their tapes and memories back. They've started "fresh," but thanks to their memories they can hopefully progress in their relationship quicker. At the very least, they know their own faults and what they are up against if they are going to be together, an informed decision they wouldn't be able to make without the knowledge they gave up in the procedure.

Now, what do you think?

That's my attempt at beginning the conversation this movie started. Now I want to hear from you! What are your answers to these questions? What other questions did this movie spark for you? What have you been thinking about since watching the film? Let me know in the comments below! And hope to see you at the next discussion!

Ben Brandt

Ben is a front-end developer with a love for all things web. When he isn't coding for his 8-to-5, he's usually running, watching movies, or playing with new web frameworks and languages.

Portland, OR

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