Thursday, June 08, 2006

Thoughts on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Christy and I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a few weeks ago.

-- warning: spoilers below --

The first thing I liked about the movie was that it focused on Psychology and did not introduce religion. The original quote from the poem by Alexander Pope is “How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd”. After I realized what the movie was about, I worried that they would work up to equating the concept of eliminated memories with the Christian concept of automatic prayer/forgiveness. But they primarily stuck to the simpler metaphor of murder/suicide. (Under the premise that all you have of past life is your memories).

A question I think about sometimes is whether we would be better off if we could eliminate all negative experiences. In religion, they often explain bad things by saying that it makes you appreciate the good things more. Our society is also big into the idea of “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. I, for one, don’t think you need black to appreciate white. Look at children, for example, who often experience pure joy. They are not comparing this to anguish. So I do think life would be better if it were all positive. I also think that it is easy to eliminate most or all negative experiences on a daily basis, but most people do not do this. There is usually a way to interpret a negative, and put a positive spin on it. I find that some people just aren’t happy unless there are some negatives to talk about. Think about how often you hear people say things like “if such-and-such happens, I’m going to be really upset.” Or when you ask them how an event was, they just tell you about all the negative things that happened. But with children, they always seem to think the opposite, “I hope this happens, because that would be great”.

This movie demonstrates how much fun you can have with your mind. I have often enjoyed thinking about something that could never happen, but then imagined it happening and enjoyed the knowledge that it does exist. Who is to say that something existing only inside someone’s mind is any less valuable than it having actually occurred? In fact, I would argue that having an event transpire in my mind can be even more of a powerful existence than had it instead occurred in the real world but then gone unremembered.

This movie of course touches on the classic theme of whether people have “soul-mates” with whom they are pre-destined to become romantically involved. Initially, it seemed to be pushing the magical soul-mate theory, although by the end it almost seemed to go the other way, since we learn that the two protagonists did not really meet the second time by chance after all. I guess ultimately they leave it up to the viewer, which I think is fine. In America, certainly there seems to be myriad evidence against the classical concept of soul-mates.

The next item is the most unique and interesting theme of the movie, which is: What would you have done if you knew in the past what you know now? Specifically, would you go through with a relationship if you knew that it was going to have much joy and even more pain. Tennyson said ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But what if you could have loved another during that same timeframe? That would change the equation. Of course the ultimate drama is when the main character begins to realize the true value of the happy memories after he has already agreed to delete them.

Here are some other movies that this movie reminded me of:

The Truman Show – one of my top 5 all time favorite movies. The similar concept here is the God-like character that oversees the action of the protagonist. Ed Harris got an oscar nomination for Truman Show. Tom Wilkinson was not as good, and his character had the silly plot twist at the end with Kirsten Dunst.

Mulholland Drive – Very similar how the action being viewed was really inside someone’s mind, with radical shifts in perspective as time shifts from one mental place to another.

Being John Malkovich – This is the obvious one, with both movies written by Charlie Kaufman and being nearly identical in many ways.

I ♥ Huckabees – The shared concept here was that knowledge of one small item can change the course of one’s life forever. The twist here was that the item came directly from the characters themselves (in the past) as opposed to from an acquaintance.

A book I am reading by Robert Pirsig makes the argument (I think) that if you were born deprived of all of your 5 senses, then you would technically not be alive. A similar argument would seem to be that if you do not have any memory with regard to any events then there is essentially no basis for your present life. It would be interesting to see a story about someone who has lost all of their memory, and whether they could give any rational statements that would make them seem to be living in any traditional sense. I recall that in the final stages of Alzheimers, when she could not remember hardly anything, it was hard to justify any reason for my grandmother Freda to remain alive any longer.

The final thought I had about this film was whether it might be better not to know about certain things. I have always been of the (minority) opinion that all knowledge is good, especially for well-adjusted people who can deal with all variety of difficult subjects. This film certainly makes a compelling argument that there are some things that you are better off not knowing. But not decisively, as in the end they leave it open to some consideration by the viewer.


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