Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Recommended with caution. Charlie Kaufman, who wrote this movie, also wrote Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and I must say, he is probably the most interesting and unique writer in Hollywood. Though I disagree with his worldview, his stories are very thought-provoking and stimulating. Years ago, Francis Schaeffer opened the eyes of the Faith Community to see that Art movements are driven, not merely by aesthetics and style, but by philosophy and worldviews for changing culture. Well, I’m here to say that modern movies (along with TV) is the new dominant art form that is driven by philosophy and worldviews. And this movie proves the point loudly. The power of movies is the ability to incarnate a worldview into the story such that it fleshes out what is otherwise considered an ivory tower philosophizing. Case in point: Eternal Sunshine, which deliberately proposes the Nietzschean philosophical notion of the “eternal return” or “eternal recurrence.” Bizarre brain hurting stuff that would otherwise be limited to pointy-headed academics arguing in a classroom is now popularized for the culture to consume, and 99 percent of the viewers won’t have a clue that they are ingesting and synthesizing the philosophy of the Grandfather of Postmodernism himself, “The Antichrist,” Friedrich Nietzsche. The story is a romance between Joel (Jim Carrey), a nerdish boring nobody, and Clementine (Kate Winslet), a wacky impulsive girl who fall in love and out of love because they end up getting on each other’s nerves. Clementine goes to a special doctor who can erase memories in order to purge herself of all the memories of Joel, who ended up making her miserable. When Joel discovers this, he goes to purge his memories of her as well. Unfortunately, in the middle of the erasing, we are in Joel’s mind, and he decides he doesn’t want to erase her because there was so much good that he experienced because of her. So he seeks to try to save some of those memories by harboring them in secret recesses of his mind. It’s all very clever and interesting, and the movie is cut non-linear, so it reinforces the confusion Joel is experiencing as he discovers his blunder. Well, what happens is that they end up together again, without knowing who each other is, and start a romance all over. When one of the employees loses faith in the company and reveals to the two lovers that they have been together in the past and erased their memories, the two of them get depressed and consider breaking up to avoid the inevitable misery. Clementine says, they haven’t changed. They are the same people, and they will end up doing the same thing to each other. But Joel ends up telling Clementine, “So what.” So what if that happens. There is so much fun along the way before they get there. They decide to just go for it anyway. This is a very interesting proposition that our memories, (another postmodern discussion) are not mere reminiscences floating around in our brains, but substantively change who we are. Trying to get rid of bad memories will not redeem us. They change us permanently, and are inescapably a part of who we are. And here’s where Nietzsche comes in. Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence or eternal return was another logical result of the “death of God” philosophy. He understood that linear history, with its beginning, middle and end, reflected a Christian worldview of origins and purpose, so he tried to replace that linearity with a cyclical view he called “eternal recurrence.” This view posited that the universe, being eternal, had no beginning but was eternally changing. Since the universe is finite, it will ultimately keep changing through every possible change, recycling all possible states, over and over, throughout all eternity. There is no heaven, no eternal reward and punishment; there is simply the eternal return of everything. Essentially, this is a rather pessimistic worldview about the nature of man. But so what? Says Nietzsche. So then we should embrace this fact that man is “eternally the same,” he doesn’t change, and is destined to repeat himself, winding up in the same place he started. We should accept this and “be who we are,” rather than try to change ourselves according someone else’s morality (read: Christianity). Lest anyone think I am reading too much into the film: A big worldview clue for the viewer of movies is that when a character in a movie quotes someone like a famous person, that is more than likely a reference from the writer to the influence of the theme. And Kaufman has the Kirsten Dunst character in Eternal Sunshine quote Nietzsche from Bartlett’s quotations, not once, but twice, just to make sure we get it. She quotes, “Blessed are the forgetful: for they “get the better” even of their blunders.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, #217). Kaufman mocks traditional story structure and along with it, traditional morality, by having protagonists NOT learn and NOT change for the better. In other words, we are redeemed not by repenting or changing but by recognizing that we don’t change, and just enjoy the ride of life. Experience without morality. This nihilistic worldview scorns redemption, and condescends to traditional story structure. But of course, in a twist of self-contradiction, it ultimately supports traditional notions of redemption because proposing that we need to stop seeking redemption and embrace who we are is in fact a proposition of a kind of redemption. It’s just a different kind of redemption. But it is still saying we are doing something wrong and need to change how we are dealing with it. Instead of realizing our faults and changing them according to a moral standard, this is a redemption from morality and goodness into the selfish embracing of ourselves without repentance. By the way, the movie is edited non-linearly, which also reinforces the Nietzschean contempt for linear history. A brilliant script and movie with a diabolically egocentric worldview. By the way, in case you are interested, I write all about this and how Nietzsche has influenced other films in my book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment.

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