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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' must surely qualify as a work of genius purely on the basis that it makes sense at all, in spite of a completely nonlinear timeline and the seamless switching between the material world and the world of the mind (both in real and manipulated memory). But Gondry (for whom I've rather a soft spot) manages this so creatively that you are drawn into the twists and turns and get to have a pretty good idea of what the film is trying to communicate at any given point. And on top of that the film communicates a lot. Most obviously it deals with the nature of memory and dealing with the past, raising some interesting questions about how we would respond given the hypothetical option of re-writing our personal histories.

But at the heart of it is a simple exploration of character and relationship. Clem and Joel have been left hurt by a whirlwhind romance turned tempestuous, and each (independently) decide to have all memories of each other erased by a very clinical clinic which offers this service as though it were no more unusual than having an aggravating tooth removed. Most of the film follows Joel as he undergoes this procedure…but whilst asleep he begins to regret his decision and fights to save the memories. In this context -- i.e. with an eye into his mind during the procedure -- events are presented in an un-ordered, discontinuous way which produces some really clever juxtapositions, intentionally contrasting the strengths with the weaknesses of the two characters and their interactions. And it quickly becomes clear that the very things which they grow to love about each other and the very things which they grow to hate have origin in the same characteristics.

Clem is drawn to Joel because he is nice and dependable and devoted. But later these same character traits become reframed in her mind as closedness and boringness, and are the substance of heated accusations when they begin to argue. By contrast, he is entranced by her impulsiveness and vibrancy, but eventually angered and hurt by her ruthlessness and thoughtlessness which are really part and parcel of the same thing. By the end of their relationship they become excruciatingly adept at hurting one other; their own character traits come out in the worst light in their attempts to cause maximum damage. For example, after a wild night out for Clem which saw Joel waiting forlornly at home:
Clem: "And you're thinking to yourself 'Did she **** someone tonight?'"
Joel: "No, you see Clem, I just assumed you ****ed someone tonight. That's how you get people to like you, isn't it?"

In spite of the pain each has left with the other, fighting to preserve the good memories seems to help Joel begin to make sense of the bad, at least enough to question whether they may be able to redeem something of what has been lost. As C. S. Lewis was fond of saying, "badness is only spoiled goodness"... In 'cosmic' terms, God creates, the devil can only corrupt -- good and evil are not equal and opposite forces. (According to Augustine, for example, evil is not a substance in itself; rather the absence of good).

The concluding message of the film, as I took it, was that forgiving is better than forgetting. Forgiveness implies learning, healing, mutual understanding and patience. It also implies humility, and a willingness to self-examine, to repent and be changed. To simply forget -- to discard the past -- is to pass up on the opportunity for any meaningful progress. It leaves no room for 'becoming'.*

The Bible has loads to say about forgiveness and restoration of relationship: Psalms of praise declaring the mercies of God (e.g., Psalm 103:8-13, Psalm 130:3-4); accounts of Jesus shocking his contemporaries by pronouncing forgiveness of sins (e.g. Luke 5:17-21); radical New Testament proclamations of forgiveness for all in Jesus' name (e.g. Acts 10:34-43); the clear and repeated command to forgive one another (e.g. Luke 17:3-5); the promise of the Holy Spirit to transform our characters so that we become forgiving and better equipped to co-exist (e.g. Galations 5:22-23). I mean, these examples really are just the tip of the iceberg -- you could even go so far as describe the whole Bible in terms of forgiveness and restoration.

This passage from Colossians 3 is a nice summation, reminding us that we need (and are able to receive) God's forgiveness, that we should likewise forgive others, and that we should submit to the continual work of character-shaping in our lives. As the film so effectively observes, the best things and the worst things about us spring from the same character traits; we need the grace of God to redeem those traits, transforming us into the people He made us to be.
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth...Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:8, 12-15)



*Indeed, the film's critique of postmodernism -- with its rejection of the past as irrelevant to the future -- seems quite intentional, and is most explicit when a naive, idealistic employee of the memory-wiping clinic quotes Nietzsche: "Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders."

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