Provost's Film Series
April 5, 2005
Memory and Moral Sense
As the story goes, one day Pierre Bismuth, a French performance artist, mailed a note to several of his friends informing them that he had decided to erase them from his memory. He wanted to spark a reaction. What he actually sparked was one of the boldest, weirdest and most perplexing movies in recent cinema. Among those who received the letter was Michel Gondry, a young filmmaker born in Versailles. Although his only previous feature (Human Nature) had met dreary reviews, Gondry had already secured an international reputation as the director of music videos for pop artists such as Björk, Radiohead and The White Stripes. He soon linked up with Charlie Kaufman, the offbeat American screenwriter of such surreal critical favorites as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Their collaboration—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)—is the counterpoint to the current campaign to eliminate Alzheimer's disease. Rather than endeavoring to preserve the memories that constitute our individuality and humanity, the doctors and characters in this film try to restore emotional health by simply wiping out the most painful recollections from the past. The movie joins a growing list of recent works—most notably, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, a story about short-term amnesia—that explore the relationship between memory and moral sense.
Elective Brain Damage
Eternal Sunshine may seem like a zany ride through a circus funhouse but it strikes closer to reality than we may at first suspect. “Whether the filmmakers knew it or not,” British researcher Stephen Rose observes, “their scenario plays into some very current science indeed, and a major debate among neuroscientists.” Howard Mierzwiak, the doctor in the film, extracts painful memories from people’s minds by locating and treating the parts of their brains associated with specific objects and sounds. “Technically speaking,” he admits, “the procedure is brain damage.” The scenes in his seedy backstreet operation belong equally to comic books and to Orwell.
But Dr. Mierzwiak may not be as crazy as he seems. Apparently, there is enough speculation about the prospects for erasing the pain of “post traumatic stress syndrome” that the President’s Council of Bioethics is already pondering the moral repercussions. In China, researchers at Fudan University discovered that NR2B, a neuron unit in the prefrontal cortex of mice, plays a vital role in the establishment, consolidation and retrieval of permanent memories. After conditioning mice to fear electric shocks whenever certain music was played, the researchers were able to eliminate the panic in the mice by deactivating NR2B and destroying the connections between the neurons in which memory codes are stored. Similar studies have been successful in chickens and other animals. Short-term memories are stored in the form of transient increases in neurotransmission between nerve cells, primarily in the hippocampus, but eventually long-term memories are created by structural changes in the connections, or synapses, between the nerve cells. Since this process requires a series of biochemical mechanisms, it is possible to use drugs or inhibitors to disrupt it. Experiments have already shown that when animals revisit a familiar scene their old memories can be re-invoked and then suppressed by biochemical blockers. But, as Rose notes, the film does honestly poke holes in some of the hasty optimism about memory control: Eternal Sunshine “plays neatly with the enigmatic nature of memory, and the impossibility of separating the continuous stream of our recollections into ‘files’ that can be tidily dissected and removed.”
In the end, Eternal Sunshine may leave us with more ethical and spiritual questions than scientific ones. Those questions are implied by the poem that gives the film its title. In Eloisa to Abelard, the eighteenth-century British satirist Alexander Pope lends an ironic tone to the claim that forgetfulness and an empty mind will breed happiness:
The world forgetting, by the world forgot;
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resigned.
Along with Pope’s ironic phrase, there is that old folk song that haunts the film. What happens to our humanity when Joel’s memories of his own darling Clementine—and our own ragged memories of love’s sorrows and prospects—are “lost and gone forever”? And what happens to our spiritual values—the concepts of guilt and redemption, reconciliation and grace—when chemicals erase both consequence and culpability?
Eternal Sunshine may be a film that cannot be seen only once. It is a patchwork of narrative fragments, arranged in nonlinear order, and witnessed from multiple viewpoints. Much of it takes place in Joel’s head, as he clings to memories before they are rubbed out. For all of the cleverness of Kaufman’s script, the film would not work without the cinematography of Ellen Kuras, who splices together scenes of real life, memory and imagination with a dazzling seamlessness. As Jeffery Overstreet writes in Christianity Today, “I’ve never seen something so true to the experience of dreaming, from the way people’s faces morph from one thing to another to the way events take place against incongruous backdrops.” But all this amounts to more than mere technological wizardry. As the critic Nev Pierce writes, “Underneath the visual verve is a clear-eyed look at the painful realities of relationships, but beyond the depression and the mordant cynicism is a message: love will find a way.”