Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Forget, Memory

The Whys of the Oubliette Film

Recent popular films on memory loss raise the question of whether it’s something to fear—or enjoy.

Molly C. O’Donnell

The recent rash of films concerning memory loss (and the popularity of these films) strikes me as a quixotic curiosity. What is it about the idea of losing one’s memory that fascinates so many of us? Reaching far beyond standard soap-opera amnesia, the concept of forgetting has poked its chubby little finger into every cinematic type of pie. From the fluffy meringue of romantic comedy in Fifty First Dates to the continental Bavarian cream of action-packed thrillers like The Bourne Identity, an epidemic fixation on recall is undeniable. So why has the concept of forgetting become such a muse for contemporary screenwriters and a favorite of modern audiences?

A friend of mine predictably pointed to 9/11 as the source for our new-found addiction to memory loss, pondering a subliminal rebellion against a culture bent on remembering painful events in an effort to meaning-make in the face of a refreshed existentialist crisis. Another offered the Baby Boomers’ forthcoming golden years as an explanation: perhaps the fear of senility or Alzheimer’s of such a large portion of the population is reflected in the anxiety of these films.

But that begs the question, are we anxious about memory loss? Or do these movies show us enjoying an infantile freedom from recollection?

Certainly Memento is an illustration of the sense of panic accompanying perpetual amnesia. How much of a person’s identity is caught in the web of memory has been a philosophical and neurological debate for decades. Human curiosity is part of what theologians, philosophers, and humanists have argued distinguishes us from our thumbless and furry companions, and our need/want to know has always been the central theme in creation myths. But from Prometheus to Eve, knowledge reveals itself to be a burdensome and inexplicable gift, riddled with adult responsibility and the human lack of ability to handle that responsibility. Our desire to know defeats us because of the lingering debt to history, and the action implied therein, that comes as the price of enlightenment. So our relationship with knowledge, and by extension memory, is ambiguous.

If the issue is a shirking of adult duty, then the even-more ambiguous Freud is the predictable authority. In Freudian terms, we could see the obsession with memory loss (and the resulting anxiety it seems to provoke in these films’ characters) as representative of our fear of vulnerability or a return to the helplessness of childhood, despite our unconscious desire for second infancy. In movies from Total Recall (which, admittedly, is not the best example of a recent film) to Memento, there is a real sense that memory serves as a defense mechanism against those who (still retaining their memories) would take advantage of us. And that without our precious recollections, we would be more toyed with than Job. The truism is again resurrected: knowledge equals power. If we lose our ability to remember, we lose a big chunk of our humanity and self-identity.

But does that really pan out? Thinking about the most recent of these cinematic oubliettes, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we see the erasure of experience in action. The process is depicted as an adventure, half-nightmare, half-fantasy. And in true Kaufman fashion, the mind is the most colorful landscape available. In this film we see anxiety provoked by the relinquishing of control. The people left in charge when you lose your memory are shown always abusing that power. (In Eternal Sunshine, Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo get high and dance naked on Jim Carrey, practically using him for an ashtray in the process, while his and Winslet’s personal moments are scrubbed away; Elijah Wood’s character attempts to use Winslet’s abandoned affections to get a little; and the good doctor behind it all takes advantage of his lovestruck receptionist’s fuzzy recollections of their affair.)

It could be, however, that the popularity of forgetfulness in films is just symptomatic of our larger interest (however deep) in the world of the psychological interior. Movies like What Dreams May Come, Fight Club, and A Beautiful Mind could be added to the genre sketched above if that were the case. But is that the entirety of it? We’ve been a culture fixated on the mind for a long time, and there’s something unwieldy, disorderly, and a bit unnerving about memory in particular that defies our attempts to dub others either “normal” or “insane.” Lurking in these other mind-oriented films is the safeness of “the other.” The dead in What Dreams May Come are teetering on the precipice of insanity from the beginning, but more importantly they’re not us because they’re dead. A Beautiful Mind’s mathematician is a schizophrenic genius, so he’s “other” for two reasons: he’s schizophrenic and he’s a genius (assuming I’m not the only non-genius who’s a part of the theatre-going public). But the characters from the recent amnesia films are flawed, affable, and reflect the average Joe. Their fears and desires are thus closer to our own and not so easy to put aside.

The Hollywood storyline that surfaces in all of these movies is that the freedom from memory is the freedom to be happy and still maintain self-identity. While the characters’ curiosity seems to paradoxically increase in direct proportion to how little they remember, they remain wholly themselves despite their fragmented vision of the past. Drew Barrymore’s amnesiac, daily wooed anew, lives out in many ways the best fantasy of all the characters in this genre, falling in love and never losing that sense of newness that inevitably fades from relationships that last longer than a day. Mary still falls for the father-figure psychiatrist (Wilkinson), and Clementine is still instantly attracted to Joel in Eternal Sunshine. Matt Damon’s character even retains his kung-fu mastery and assassin’s knowledge of handguns in The Bourne Identity (so does the Governator in Total Recall, to dip back once again into the possibly irrelevant). Memento’s Leonard Shelby gets the privilege of creating his own reality everyday, becoming a questing hero in his own mind, though possibly a villain in reality. But what does he care? He won’t remember.

The same could be said for following this line of reasoning: suspend disbelief almost to the point of absurdity to pretend that these popular films are extremely intertextual and are truly emblematic of a social-psychological phenomenon. Really what difference could it possibly make? You could just forget that you ever considered it.

That’s really the point though, isn’t it? We don’t have the luxury of forgetting, which is I think what we’d all really like to do, hence these films’ insurgence in the theatres. Perhaps we have embraced the amnesiac thriller because we’ve witnessed the failure of the psychiatric thriller (Analyze That!) and we still have memories with which we cannot or will not come to terms.

The anxieties and fears these films deal with are the result of imagining the consequences and confusions of a memory-free existence. They consider what’s to be lost—but considering the downfalls of amnesia wouldn’t be worth it if we weren’t interested in the possibility of escapism and carefree happiness that a spotless mind offers. :::

Molly O’Donnell is a graduate student of English literature at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and a production editor at INFORMS in Baltimore, Maryland.
posted by editor ::: April 12, 2004 ::: pheatures ::: (3) Comments