What Michel Gondry's movie, full of practical effects and the noise of film-grain, tells us about the mechanics of memory
As our lives become increasingly digitised, our memories migrate from the mind to the online realm. The internet has become, with astonishing rapidity, a Borgesian library that stores photos, notes, and messages to loved ones. The cloud is now home to those things that once existed in corporeal form, perhaps stored in a shoebox or a suitcase under the bed. Transhumanists celebrate the techno-miracle of everlasting digital life; the luddites among us are wary of what we lose when we give away these parts of ourselves to technology.
Along with this process of quantifying life into data has come the “cleaning up” of audio and video. Technophiles and half of our artists are excited about these improvements to quality; purists and the other half of our artists lament the sapping of life that comes with smoothing out so-called “flaws” in music and film. As these moves into the future accelerate, certain features of yesteryear’s documentation of life have taken on an appealing nostalgia: the crackle of a record placed on the turntable, pin lowered into the groove; the analogue slowness and the smell of a physical book; the sepia colouring of photographs, the result of a chemical process to increase the longevity of these finite physical forms; these by-products have become selling points.
Film has also become an object of reverence. Many cinephiles favour film over digital for the nostalgia it provokes. Sofia Coppola insisted on shooting Lost in Translation on film because she “wanted the movie to feel ... like a memory. Film does that”. She also said that she remembers things “through film and photos”, which is why the grainy texture of film is so evocative of memory. “Film gives a little bit of distance, which feels more like memory to me. [Digital] is more present tense.” This thinking seems to resonate with Alan Yang, whose movie Tigertail explores the hidden memories of an immigrant father; Yang shot the flashbacks on rich, grainy film and scenes in the present on smooth digital.
There is one movie that captures the mechanics, the aesthetics, and the experience of memory more lucidly than any other: Michel Gondry’s lo-fi sci-fi rom-com (genre-folding, era-defining, etc., etc.), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For those who have forgotten the central premise of this movie, Eternal Sunshine depicts one night in the life, and in the mind, of Joel Barish as he undergoes a procedure to expunge every memory of his relationship to Clementine, who has recently erased him from her own memory. Most of the movie takes place within Joel’s mind as he navigates moments he shared with Clem, moving with imaginative physicality through the abstract space of his own consciousness.
This is the cinematic challenge posed by Charlie Kaufman’s script: How can a movie communicate the inherently anti-rational nature of memories and, at the same time, coherently express what it feels like to remember and to imagine? How can a filmmaker convey the inside of another person’s mind?
Gondry responds to the challenge with a belief that memory is not smooth and clean, not tidy and seamless, not convincing in a superficial, literal way. It is messy, it is incomplete, and it is stitched together like a patchwork quilt. Although Eternal Sunshine does capture the “unreality” of being inside one’s own thoughts, more importantly it captures our absolute belief in that unreality while we are living in it. There is nothing so special about observing that the subjective, interior world is not that of the objective, external world. What is interesting, and inextricable from the experience of being conscious, is how utterly convincing it is to the one doing the dreaming or remembering.
We have all woken from dreams that were entirely convincing from within, and then watched the reality of those dreams dissipate like steam into the air as we recounted them to someone else. We realise in waking life (wondering how we ever, even temporarily, forgot) that people don’t fly, Grandma has been dead a long time, and dogs don’t speak English. The same goes for memory – ten years ago is not one footstep away from the present, and yet we skip easily across the timeline of a life in remembering. What Gondry wanted to capture is this essential credulity we have about our cognitive experiences.
Gondry has spoken of the need to convince the viewer that what is happening in Joel’s memories is really happening in the same physical space that Joel (or, more literally, Jim Carrey) occupies. “If you want something weird to happen,” the director says, “you have to feel it happening in reality.” This accounts for his use of practical effects over CGI, and it also speaks to his rejection of digital cameras.
Film grain reminds us – further down than our subconsciousness, deep in the bones – of a fundamental truth that digital disguises: When we see the image on film (the close-up of our hero’s face, the establishing shot panning across a city, or the contrast and even clash between two opposing figures) we see within the image the particulate dust of creation coalescing into being. Film grain gives texture to the world, revealing that atoms and particles come together to build reality out of smaller, real stuff.
When I watch a highly produced movie shot on digital, with motion control and post-production clean-up, and full of set pieces that never existed in reality but were painted around actors with a computer program, I find myself unable to suspend disbelief, unable to forget the artifice of what I’m seeing. This perception of the artifice is not always a problem (as we will see in a moment) but what fails is that the artifice doesn’t indicate anything of the real world beneath it. Things are too smooth and too perfect in digital for a film like this. I don’t see the world in 4K (not even with my glasses); film and its “imperfections” reveal reality to me on the screen.
One of my favourite aspects of the world of Eternal Sunshine is how mundane its sci-fi is. Lacuna is a company that has discovered a ground-breaking procedure for targeting and erasing specific memories from its clients’ minds, and yet it is run out of a shabby downtown office by a team who believe tossing a lab coat over their civvies makes them look professional. These employees are bumbling losers who treat their jobs like any other means of passing the time and making a buck. This is futuristic tech reduced to a second-rate business venture, and it is far more realistic than the hoverboards and spaceships of other movies.
This lo-fi approach to sci-fi is present in Gondry’s visual ethic, which makes special effects appear less “special” than quite ordinary. It is not the look of the thing that moves the viewer, but its ontological strangeness, its inherent bizarreness in simply existing. We are supposed to see how the movie achieves its effects, to glimpse their physicality and construction, so that we feel their reality. When Joel’s mother bathes him in the sink, we are not “convinced” by the obviously false arms (designed to make the adult actor appear child-sized). There is something more compelling about knowing that the actors were actually interacting with the arms we see on-screen, rather than pretending to interact with limbs digitally added later.
There is a moment in Eternal Sunshine when Joel trips backwards in an empty room and lands on a sofa that has just appeared, the room suddenly full of props and life. The edit that stitches one shot in the empty room to a separate shot in the full room is relatively inelegant and easily spotted. Perhaps some motion control and post-production CG could have smoothed out the seam, but the resulting effect would be merely to impress the audience with the filmmaking capability to trick our eyes.
In allowing us to glimpse the reality of the edit and understand that Joel has moved in a single movement from one shot to another, the rough transition prompts us to consider how this is, in fact, our own experience in dreams and memories. We skip from one moment to another in a manner that would disturb us if it happened while awake, and yet doesn’t seem at all odd to the remembering or imagining mind.
Gondry’s quirky and deliberately rough-edged visual aesthetic speaks to the insights Eternal Sunshine makes into the nature of our realities: We often “see the seams”, especially in a postmodern context of pointing out the fabrications of our daily lives, and yet go on believing in the story. There is chaos underlying the order we impose on the universe, and facing that fact allows us to build our structures better, without having to pretend that our structures are reality itself.
The dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity bears some relation to the distinction between order and chaos, or tidy and messy. Objectivity is interested in order, in categorising the reality it casts its analytical gaze on, in shedding as many preconceived notions as possible to stare nakedly at the subject; the subjective is unabashedly full of its own preconceptions, a point of view wobbling beneath the weight of its own epistemic and experiential baggage. In Eternal Sunshine, Gondry embraces the solipsistic nature of memories and makes full use of filmmaking vocabulary to communicate this subjectivity.
There is a scene in Joel’s memory in which Clem publicly berates him. Joel is in full focus while Clem and their surroundings have faded into a fuzzy sheen, a smoky distance. Gondry achieves this effect in-camera by placing a large sheet of translucent plastic between Joel and his background. As a producer explains, “The idea behind that effect was that, in your memory, you remember not the entire frame of the scene, but you remember certain elements ... [In that scene] Joel’s memory of [Clem] is not quite as salient to him as his memory of himself.”
A careless comment instigates this fight, but it is Joel’s desperate desire not to have it out in public that provides the bellows to the flames of Clem’s fury. He is horrified to be in the spotlight, before an audience of strangers. His experience in reality was one of feeling exposed; his memory, therefore, puts him in the focus. Clem’s words are violent in their intent to hurt him, to provoke him into an argument she needs to have, and so they take prominence when the audio on her indignant posturing is allowed to fall out of synch with the image, her angry face (less impressed upon his mind) fading while the words that are so pertinent to his shame linger a little longer. Eventually, though, they fade too.
In some sense, the technology of Lacuna already exists within human experience. Once all memory of a thing has faded, it is, in an important sense, erased. Once there is no one left who remembers Clem’s words, or Joel’s existence, or so many other things that are otherwise important, they are no longer important at all. In the realm of value, the objective depends on the subjective. Reality requires an audience for reality to matter.
We do not have “spotless” minds, the kind Lacuna promises to its clients. We do not have tidy minds and we do not have tidy lives. The cosmos in which we live is a complex soup of unfathomable depth and breadth. There is some order within its systems, which we appear to be grasping with increasing yet ever tenuous accuracy, but from the finite perspectives of fallible humans, scurrying around on a planet that scuppers many of our designs on life as we attempt to make sense of the senseless, much is still unknown and untameable.
Thinkers of various persuasions have understood that the best we can do in such cosmic circumstances is to “make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens” (as phrased by Epictetus). Today we have the Serenity Prayer, although I prefer how the Mother Goose rhyme originally phrased the same sentiment:
“For every ailment under the sun There is a remedy, or there is none; If there be one, try to find it; If there be none, never mind it.”
Because much of our lives will always be as messy as a Pollack painting and as intelligible as a Rorschach splash of ink, our obsessive endeavour to tidy and organise life is a losing battle, a pretence to control we will never have. And so much is lost in the clean-up. With photos stored in the cloud and accessible through apps, they are perfectly, computationally sequenced; this means I rarely stumble across a forgotten image that has slipped into another collection, as frequently happened when my photographs were printed out and kept in a small box. I miss that serendipity, and I find the lack of spontaneity in these digital collections quite lifeless.
With the online photo library, I can now find any of the thousands of photos I have in a moment, and I can view dozens at once thanks to the thumbnail previews that display when I open a folder of these images. This means I look at photos more regularly than I used to, but less closely, with less reverence. The act of clicking on an icon and scrolling through hundreds of pictures lacks the symbolism and ritual of flipping through the pages of a physical photo album. The slowness and depth (each the result of the other) is gone, replaced with skimming and forgetfulness.
It strikes me that this might be a manifestation of Eternal Sunshine in reality – perhaps this is the Lacuna tech made real. In the movie, we see technicians locate a memory on a computer screen, click on it, and press delete. The memory is gone forever. And if most of the mnemonic content of my memories has been delegated from my mind to the digital file on my computer, when I hit delete and a photo is erased, how much of the memory is lost with it?
I used to have a tactile relationship with mementoes that augmented my memories. In the digital world, this sense of touch has been removed, so a layer has been lost. And as the picture quality of photographs rises (perfectly framed and correctly saturated thanks to autocorrect), their depictions of the world lose fidelity. They don’t look the way I saw the same scene with my own imperfect eyes.
There are now digitally clean photographs that I took – of sunsets and loved ones, of places I knew and moments I want to remember – that feel less real to me than Michel Gondry’s movie does. His scripted scenes and actors pretending to be real people have a certain truthfulness that is the result of the director’s aesthetic and moral appreciation of how sloppy, confused, and disordered life and the mind (and the life of the mind) are.
Gondry’s unique expression of our internal worlds reminds us that astute observations of real life in art are much more than mere displays of technical skill. This is not about demonstrating how accurately a filmmaker can convey some aspect of life, like those hyperrealist drawings that are quite impressive in their craft but empty of substance, full of artistry and devoid of art. What Eternal Sunshine does that is so much more vital than replicating subjective experience is reminding us how irreplaceable and necessary memory is to the human condition.
Shakespeare knew the importance of memory, who wrote that “nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn / The living record of your memory”; Maupassant praised memory for being “a more perfect world than the universe” because “it gives back life to those who no longer exist”; Proust built an entire literary career on his understanding of memory. And Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind elevates memory by getting down in the dirt with it. Gondry’s vision gives us the mess, the squalor, the confusion, and the pain – and in doing so, reminds us of the importance of memory.
• Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, dir. Michel Gondry, screenplay Charlie Kaufman (2004)
• Let’s Get Lost: An interview with Sofia Coppola and Ross Katz, Press release from Focus Films (2003)
• Sonnet 55, William Shakespeare (1609)
• Suicides, Guy de Maupassant (1880)