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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A Quest for Answers: Fight Club

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

There are few questions more debated than the meaning of life. Ever since the inception of man people has been asking that simple and inexplicable question, and man has even come up with a number of answers. There is God, children, the afterlife, or any number of other answers to this ultimately unanswerable question. This movie, like those people before it, seeks to answer this same question. It attempts this by letting the audience enter the eyes of a man struggling with the very same problem they are. The narrator, Edward Norton’s character, proceeds through the film in multiple different iterations. There is the start of the movie where he is completely materialistic, there is the middle of the movie where he is enraptured by Tyler’s words, and then there is the end where he rejects Tyler’s philosophy and finally realizes there is no true meaning to life. These different stages of the narrator’s life represent the many answers to the meaning of life. The film uses these versions of his character to show and then reject these views of life.

The movie begins with the narrator debating on where to start the story. After much deliberation he decides the story must begin during his insomnia. He hasn’t been able to sleep for six months, and reality has been reduced to something akin to a dream. Work is like sleepwalking, and people have become nothing more than temporary inconveniences. There is no point to his life of sleepwalking, no point that is but his hoard of material possession. He has a coffee table in the shape of the yin yang symbol, a versatile dinning set, and even glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections. These objects define him; they are the only things that make life worth living. This is the first meaning to life that Fight Club explores. The narrator believes that he can only become complete through the objects he owns. The people around him are worthless, as is every struggle in his life, so the only things that is of any real value are the material objects he owns. These things define him, they determine if he is successful or a failure. Everything else is useless and meaningless, so these objects end up controlling who he is. He has come to the point where the only thing that can get him off anymore is the Horchow Collection or any other catalog of commodity fetishism. He no longer has the ability to feel happy when he’s not buying another table or kitchen accessory. His values continue in this fashion until one day a gas leak causes his apartment to explode. Once he has lost all of his material possessions, he is left with a void inside of himself. There is nothing in his life to find meaning in. The things that had held all of his value and were his single reason for living are now gone. At this rock bottom state he was lead to Tyler Durden.

Tyler Durden is the driving force of the second philosophy of this film. After the destruction of the narrator’s apartment he calls Tyler and has a drink with him. At the bar the narrator tries to gain Tyler’s sympathy by describing all of the important things he has lost. Tyler responds to this with condescension and humor instead of the sympathy he was expecting. Instead of a tragedy he sees this as a chance to break free from consumerism’s grasp over the narrator. Tyler explains to the narrator that the objects he has invested in are meaningless and of little true consequence. This exchange marks the beginning of the narrator’s dalliance with Tyler’s philosophy. He has been swayed by Tyler’s words and they influence the narrator profoundly. His old consumerist ways have failed him and he has been left with nothing to believe in. To fill this gap he accepts Tyler’s ideas and throws away his old materialistic philosophy. He even goes as far as to move in with Tyler and start Fight Club. These new ideas take complete control of his life in the very much the same way materialism did. Where he was once working to make money and buy new things he is now involved in Fight Club and project mayhem. He has in many ways changed his entire view on life.

Tyler’s philosophy can be described a form of existentialism. He believes that life lacks any real meaning, and because of this people should live based on their own desires and try to improve their own world. In his mind it is very possible that “God hates you”, and it is man’s responsibility to rebel and fight the absurdity of life. Tyler thinks that by accepting the possibility that none of this matters and that life is absurd mankind can hit bottom and start anew. Project Mayhem is a great example of this. He wants to destroy the status quo of modern society by bombing all of the major financial buildings. By destroying the status quo Tyler is setting the world free from its corrupt and consumerist ways. Tyler believes that this will drive the world to restart and force people to take a look at society and reform. In one scene Tyler states that “self-improvement is masturbation.” By this he means that improving on a rotten core is futile and that the core should be scraped all together and replaced. This more than anything else is the defining idea in Tyler’s actions during the events of this film.

As the movie progresses the flaws of these ideas become more and more apparent. They are particularly noticeable during Bob’s death. In this scene the members of project mayhem are huddled around Bob’s corpse bickering over different methods of disposing of his corpse. The narrator tries to make them understand the tragedy of Bob’s death, but they can no longer understand. Through out the movie they transformed into nothing more than terrorists who bomb buildings, vandalizing other people’s property, and imposing their values on others. But, during this scene it is apparent that they have lost all individuality and have simply become tools for project mayhem. They have ironically lost their personal desires and have become nothing more than pawns. This kind of radical behavior starts to repel the narrator and makes him lash out at Tyler. The narrator’s discontent eventually manifests itself into a full on rejection of Tyler’s philosophies.

Over the course of this film the narrator has had his views on life continually crushed. First his materialism is quashed by the destruction of his apartment then Tyler goes out of control and alienates the narrator. These continues rejections lead to his third and final view on life, the idea that there is no meaning to life at all. The narrator finally realizes that prescribing any meaning to life is foolish and embraces nihilism. This idea is exemplified by his attempt at self-murder during the final scenes of the film. After Tyler becomes a malicious force, the narrator realizes that there is no reason to continue living any longer. He puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. By doing this he finally gives up on trying to find any meaning in life.

Fight Club at its core is a film about meaning. Through its narrator, who experiences three popular views on life, it explores its meaning. The narrator represents the everyman. He moves through life looking for some point. He asks the questions that every human asks and goes through a journey to find the answers he desires. There are multiple stages to his journey but ultimately he finds that there is no answer and learns to just give up.