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If you had the choice to erase an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend from your mind, would you? This is the decision Joel Barrish faces in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Would erasing all memories of a person be worth it in the long run? There are complications to erasing memories, as to lose the bad memories of someone would mean you would have to lose the good parts too. Perhaps there are lessons that this person taught you throughout your relationship and without these lessons, you would not be the person you are today. We are the sum of our experiences and our memories. It can be argued that Joel and Clementine decided to date again because they would rather have the memories of each other, both good and bad, rather than not have any memories of each other at all; through the theories of Freud and Nietzsche, this be proven.
When viewing the film, you appear to see the couple’s initial meeting. We find out towards the end of the movie that this is the second time they are meeting, without the prior knowledge of each other because this is post-procedure. Mary, the receptionist for the Lacuna Corporation, the company that performs the memory erasure procedure. Mary ends up acting upon feelings she has for her boss, Dr. Mierzwiak due to a previous, memory-erased affair. This leads him to tell her that she had the procedure done to erase him from her memory. Her response to finding out this information is to mail back all of the pre-procedure tapes which reveal personal information on why the patient wants to have a certain person erased. Joel and Clementine receive their tapes in the mail and listen to them. These tapes hold the other’s worst traits and habits. They decide even after listening to the tapes, that their relationship will be worth going through again.
The way that the brain is analyzed and displayed in the film is similar to Freud’s theories of the mind. In the first half of the 20th Century, Sigmund Freud explored the psychoanalytic approach to the mind. The psychoanalytic approach is the theory that people can suffer from an unconscious idea, emotion, or charged memory that they are not aware of and these repressed memories can be relieved by bringing it to consciousness. The tripartite division of the mind is credited to Freud. He thought of the mind as in the three parts: the id, ego, and superego. This theory of the mind explains the levels of organization in consciousness. These levels of consciousness are linked to behavior, traits, motivations, control, socialization, dynamic energy of personality. The id is the instinctual drive that seeks immediate gratification. A small child is an example of the id because small children focus on pleasure and what benefits them. The ego or “I” is the perception of one’s self with the conscious mental states that can be articulated. Perceptions of the real world and decisions on how to act are under this category. The ego is governed by the reality principle; whatever comes through is the ego. The superego contains the person’s conscious derived from the morals and norms learned in childhood. It confronts the ego with rules and prohibitions like a strict parent, causing inducing feelings of guilt or anxiety. Repression is caused unconsciously by the ego and superego.
Freud’s theories can be found within many scenes of the film. The one scene in particular that displays the id is the scene with Joel as a four-year-old child. He is hiding under the table because he wanted his mother to find him. She mentions that he is always near her. He then begins to panic saying that she (his mother) is not looking at him and that she never looks at him. This may be the reason Joel is very insecure and clingy as an adult. Joel asks Clementine if she was out sleeping with other men when she came home late one night. His trust issues in this matter could have developed from his mother as well. Mary’s id, or subconscious, slips out when she kisses Dr. Mierzwiak. She says that she has loved him for a very long time. At the time, she did not know about this past affinity for Dr. Mierzwiak and their affair that had been wiped from her memory with the same procedure Joel is going through. Both Joel and Clementine go through the “I feel,” I want,” and “I think” emotions throughout the film. This represents the ego of their personality. The superego comes from the repression from childhood and can cause outbursts as adults. Guilt and anxiety can be the result of this. Joel is reserved and insecure while Clementine is free-spirited and impulsive. Their personalities are the results of their childhoods.
Similar to Frued, Nietzsche also questioned why humans do the things they do. Nietzsche believed our human lives are driven by a will to power. We crave power. We also crave hunger, sex, and the instinct to survive. Will to power is an authentic form of self-expression. It means that you embrace who you are. The choices you make shape who you are and who you become. We have the desire to assert ourselves in the world. Becoming something better than you are is one of the drives and it is the one that sticks out the most in this film. One develops personal strength from the struggles and challenges of life.
Before we are burdened by the woes of life, we are a free spirit. Nietzsche believed that a true, free spirit appeared as a child at play. Children are usually not weighed down by grief, rules, or hurt. They play without a care in the world; this is because they have not experienced many bad things yet. They essentially have a “spotless mind.”
The character’s traits are derived from their childhoods. In the flashback scenes from Joel’s youth, he was made fun of quite frequently. This could be the reason why Joel is a very reserved and introverted person as an adult. In another scene, Clementine asks Joel is she is ugly. She said as a kid, she thought she was ugly. She begins to cry and then says that she does not believe that people understand how lonely it is to be a kid. She said it is like you do not matter. She recalls a memory from when she was eight and she had a lot of dolls. Her favorite was an ugly girl doll named Clementine. She kept yelling at the doll, “you can’t be ugly, be pretty.” It was as if she could transform the doll, then she could transform herself too. This memory from childhood shaped how Clementine saw herself and how she wishes she could see herself. Deep down, she is insecure about her looks but covers it up with her outgoing personality.
Children are born with “spotless minds” and as they grow, their minds become stained with many memories. Good and bad memories are created and shape the child’s behaviors, traits, and will to power. The title of this film is taken from a poem from Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope. Mary recites a part of the poem in the film right before she kissed Dr. Mierzwiak. She is reading from a quote book and points out that it is a Nietzsche idea. Someone wanted and prayed to have the bad memories taken away. To have the bad memories taken away would mean that there would be eternal happiness. But usually, the memories that teach us a lesson are brought about by mistakes that are made.
To create their spotless mind, Joel and Clementine begin by bringing in any physical items that remind the person of the other. Seeing an object can bring back memories of that person: good, bad, or indifferent. The one assistant at Lacuna, Patrick (Elijah Wood) is trying to date Clementine. He uses Joel’s objects from their relationship to try to make Clementine like him. He manipulates her subconscious memory with the objects.
While the physical objects manipulate Clementine’s memories, the order of the memories also serves a purpose. The relationship is viewed backwards from the end to the beginning when they meet. The freshest memories are the worst memories and they get visited first in the memory erasure. We then get to see the joyful and romantic moments of their relationship later because they happened chronologically before they broke up. These are the memories that make Joel realize he wants to remember her. In his mind, Clementine offers that he takes her to a memory where she does not belong and hide there until the procedure is finished in order for him to remember her. Because the relationship is told out of order, sometimes visual clues, such as hair color can help give clues as to when the memory took place. Clementine’s hair color is a character within itself. Each hair color represents the seasons in their relationship. Blue Ruin is the name of the blue dye that Clementine uses when we first meet her in the film. This blue represents the winter and the death of their relationship. A hibernation for their relationship would be a better word, considering after the blue starts to grow out, they meet again, and begin their relationship for the second time.
Joel and Clementine choose to reunite their relationship even when they know it is going to fail because the relationship changes them as people. While it may have ended on bad terms, they experienced many good memories together and learned more about themselves and each other through their relationship. At the beginning of the film, they adored the biggest flaws the other had. Joel loved the way that Clementine never stopped coloring her hair yet at the end of the film, that was one of the things he could not stand. They both now know their ultimate flaws before going into the “new” relationship and choose to accept them anyway. Like any relationship, I think both of them are going to grow through the experience. Their relationship will cause each person to learn more about themselves and the parts of themselves they may choose to improve. To lose the bad memories would mean that they lose the good memories too. Both Clementine and Joel agree that in this relationship, the good outweighs the bad and they continue to experience the relationship, despite their inevitable outcome. It is better to experience love and loss than to never love at all.
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