Spring Semester, 2011. PHL110
or better known as Dr. Jeff Vetock (Dr. V) and his Introduction to Philosophy class at Penn College. It was probably the best and most memorable class in my 5 years of attending.
Dr. V was not only the best professor I had, but he was also one of the coolest guys I ever met. The class was amazing. Our term paper at the end of the semester was a huge deal. Basically, it passed you, or it failed you. For the course. I wanted it to be special, and personal. So, I came up with this, and I drew inspiration from my favorite band of all time: Circa Survive.
There’s a strong connection between the music of their first album, and the film. This does explain a lot of the plot. But even if you haven’t seen it, maybe this could provide perspective.
Press play, and enjoy the read.
A Freudian take on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of those movies you have to watch a few times to fully grasp the meaning of the film with the concept of determinism, and the Freudian concepts of the uncanny, repression, and the unconscious prevalent throughout the film. It’s about a man who is heartbroken to find out that his girlfriend has been so upset with their relationship, she goes to an experimental clinic, called Lacuna Inc., and has her memory of the relationship erased. He is so distraught over this so he decides to have the procedure done as well, and the film takes you on a journey through his memories of his love, one by one, as they are being erased.
The movie begins with Joel Barish waking up in his bed on Valentine’s Day. He decides to skip work and take a train out to Montauk. While he is strolling the snow-covered beaches he meets a girl named Clementine and they talk on the train while going back home. Clementine asks Joel if they have met before and they both agree that the recognition probably came from her working at a local bookstore that he frequents. They also live in the same neighborhood. Once they get home, Joel goes over to Clementine’s apartment to have a few drinks and they get to know each other.
This is where the first instance of determinism and fate is noticeable in the film. Our textbook states that determinism is similar to fatalism and predestination. (Solomon. 402) Fatalism states that the end is inevitable. (Solomon. 402) There is an instant bond between them and they make plans to go to the frozen Charles River in Boston the next day. They go on their trip and it seems they become even closer as they lay on the ice looking at the stars. They have done this before, although to them, this is the first time they have ever done something like this. They have broken up in the past, and they don’t know about it, but they still share a bond with each other. Is this bond a form of determinism? The bond is what makes them click automatically. When they get home the next morning, Clementine asks Joel if she could sleep at his place. He’s fine with it so they go to Clementine’s apartment so she can get her things. As Joel waits outside in the car, a seemingly random person comes up to Joel’s car and asks if he needs anything. Joel has no idea what this guy is talking about and the guy asks again if he can help Joel and why is he outside the apartment. Joel says he has no idea what the guy is talking about, and the person walks away.
The next scene begins the flashback of memories that are in the process of being erased. The rest of the movie, until the very end, takes place in Joel’s mind. He visits each erased memory in reverse, ending at the first memories he had of Clementine. The first memory shows the day before as Joel is crying in his car while coming home. As he walks in the lobby of his apartment building to get his mail, he runs into a neighbor and they talk about the impending Valentine’s Day. His neighbor says Joel is lucky to have Clementine because she seems like a great girlfriend. Joel finds an envelope from Lacuna Inc., and tells his neighbor he needs to go to bed. In his apartment, he puts on new pajamas and takes two pills. As he walks to his kitchen, he starts losing his balance and finally collapses on the floor. Meanwhile, as he was previously walking into his apartment, two people in a van were following him. One of the people in the van, Patrick, was the person who walked up to Joel’s car in the beginning of the movie. Patrick and his partner, Stan, work for Lacuna Inc., a company who specializes in erasing memories of lost love and other traumatic events; and they have come to erase Joel’s memory of Clementine. As they walk into his apartment, they find Joel passed out on the floor. They put him in is bed, and start the procedure. The procedure is done in the patient’s home, in their own bed so they aren’t confused when they wake up the next morning.
The first memory shows his conversation with his neighbor and then everything starts fading, the audio starts to deteriorate, and then there’s a beep and it flashes to another memory. Joel starts to revisit memories that are in the process of being erased. He sees himself during the procedure and this is where the concept of the uncanny comes into play. According to the Wiktionary article, “the Uncanny is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, often being uncomfortably strange.” Joel gets this feeling as he can recite the directions the doctor is giving him during the procedure, and he can hear the voices of Patrick and Stan as they are erasing his memory. There are other memories that give you a sense of the uncanny. The most recent memory of Joel talking to his neighbor is almost shown from a third person view. It’s as if Joel knows this is a memory and that he is being watched by the present-time Joel. His neighbor’s face is blurred out, but he still knows this has happened before and this is stressful and strange for him. Many of the bad memories in the film are distorted and washed out, showing an uncanny and eerie rendition of the memory. You can almost tell this memory is one Joel has wanted to get rid of because of how it’s portrayed. His memory of reading the card from Lacuna about Clementine’s procedure, for example, starts to deteriorate and Clementine’s name just disappears from the card.
“There is an emotional core to each of our memories, and when you eradicate that core, it starts its degradation process.” That quote is from Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, head of Lacuna Inc., and he is explaining to Joel the process of the memory erasure. This emotional core can be the result of repression and unconscious feelings that make up the memory. If you get rid of those primal feelings, there is no attachment or meaning to the memory.
As Joel journeys through his memories, repression, and the unconscious start to become more and more evident. This is how you see his memories as they are being erased. During the procedure, he becomes almost self aware in his memories. He sees himself in the passing memories and soon begins to realize that he doesn’t want to lose the memories of Clementine. The journey turns into a struggle to repress and hide the memories Clementine so they aren’t erased. While Stan and Patrick perform the procedure, distractions arise and they allow Joel to get “lost” in his memories and he starts to gain some control of the process. Throughout the memories, you see Joel’s relationship with Clementine and the problems they had. You also see the wonderful times they shared. The last memory you see is of the first time they meet. In the memory, they talk about that memory and they visit a house they shared their first moments in. The world starts to disintegrate. In an uncanny way, the house begins to spontaneously fall apart around them. They know the memory will be gone, so they savor the moment. As the last moments of the memory fade away, Clementine whispers into Joel’s ear, “Meet me in Montauk.”
Freud’s themes of repression and the unconscious dictate the journey through the erasing memories. There are thoughts and actions that Joel probably would have never thought about when he and Clementine were together. As state earlier, throughout the procedure, Joel begins to realize that he doesn’t want the process to go on. He starts manipulating his memories and he and Clementine travel to other memories of his life. They travel to when he was younger and try to conceal Clementine, and travel through unconscious thoughts throughout the journey such as other repressed memories. They visit the time he was forced to hit a dead bird with a hammer when he was younger. He was bullied into doing it and the memory seemed like it had a deep effect on the rest of his life. Another memory is when he was four years old and his mother’s friend came over to watch Joel. A clever way to hide the memory of Clementine, he made her into the form of his mother’s friend. You can say that the journey they took to hide Clementine was a journey through his unconscious.
The procedure is over and when Joel wakes up, the beginning of the movie is portrayed again. The flashback is over and Clementine finds records of her memory erasure in her apartment. In Joel’s car, she plays the tape she recorded about her failed relationship with Joel and they become very confused. In Joel’s apartment, they find the tape he recorded about Clementine and they know they can’t have a successful relationship. Joel wants to try anew and the film ends with them reacting to the choices they have.
Determinism is evident throughout the film. Their memories were erased and they have absolutely no recollection of ever meeting each other. But then they meet again, in the same place. What if Joel never skipped work the day after his procedure? He would have never “met” Clementine again, and he would have never known about her. The last memory that was erased had a message. Clementine told him to meet her in Montauk. He did just that. When he woke up at the end of the procedure, shown in the beginning of the film, took a train to Montauk instead of taking the train to work. He said he never does things like that, so obviously fate led him to Montauk and Clementine. That bond, determinism, is what made him come back. In the way the film ends, you are left to decided the fate of Joel and Clementine’s relationship. They know they will have problems but there is an underlying feeling they will try again. I think they will try again.
Dir. Michel Gondry. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Anonymous Content, Focus Features, 2004
Solomon, Robert C. Introducing Philosophy: a Text with Integrated Readings.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
“Uncanny – Wiktionary.” Wiktionary, the Free Dictionary. 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/uncanny>.