Volume 2, January 2005

                                                                    ISSN 1552-5112

an international and interdisciplinary journal

of postmodern cultural sound, text and image



Internal Sunshine: Illuminating Being-Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Jason Sperb



Unlike novels, historians’ constructions do aim at being reconstructions of the past.

Through documents and their critical examination of documents,

Historians are subject to what once was.

They owe a debt to the past,

a debt of recognition to the dead,

that makes them insolvent debtors.


Our problem is to articulate conceptually what is as yet only a feeling

expressed through this sense of debt.


-Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative[1]



Released earlier this year, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004) is indisputably a meditation on memory’s role in love and love lost.  Eternal Sunshine surrealistically documents the attempt of one man, Joel Barrish, with the help of a futuristic medical procedure, to literally erase all the memories of his ex-girlfriend from his mind, only to regret the decision once the procedure begins taking effect.  Eternal Sunshine seems to continue a long line of films and other cultural documents in recent years consumed with memory.  “After more than a decade of intense public and academic discussions of the uses and abuses of memory,” Andreas Huyssen recently wrote, “many may feel the topic has been exhausted.  Memory fatigue has set in.”[2]  Yet, Eternal Sunshine may also allow us a way out of this postmodern mood—the vague affect that, even while conceding that the “act of remembering is always in and of the present,”[3] even while acknowledging, embracing (why not?), that the past is hermetically “preserved in time,”[4] our understanding of the past is rarely about the past.  Does Eternal Sunshine, for instance, merely reinforce the cliché that it is better for one to have loved and lost, than never have experienced love in the first place?  Or, more pointedly, does the film suggest we need to remember simply so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes we once made again, as several characters in the film do?  Such an argument certainly requires more space than allotted here, and I would of course resist simply reducing the film to such a simple maxim; however, Eternal Sunshine’s representation of one man’s memory does challenge previous cinematic notions concerning the act of remembering.


Specifically, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind offers a (late) postmodern view of memory, which resists earlier postmodern tendencies of historicity—neither toward Fredric Jameson’s “nostalgia films”[5] nor toward any notion of the past as simply simulation.  It resists—as defined by Svetlana Boym—both reflective and restorative[6] forms of nostalgia; it neither claims the past as an objet a of longing, nor asserts the past to be absolute truth and tradition.  I am tempted to suggest that Eternal Sunshine’s notion of time instead exists in an affective space which punctures the past, present and future, but which also remains essentially outside all three planes, too.  It revises a postmodernist view of memory, which respects the unrepresentability of events, while also allowing for the possibility of knowability. “Adopting St. Augustine’s fine formulation, there is a present of the future, a present of the present and a present of the past,” writes Gilles Deleuze, “all implicated in the event, rolled up in the event, and thus simultaneous and inexplicable.”[7]  When I conclude, I will return to this notion of Eternal Sunshine as intuiting a web of time outside its own visual, deconstructive spectacle.  For now, I have chosen to limit my analysis to a brief discussion of the film’s use of light and lighting as a crucial means for illuminating how memory and perception are staged within the course of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  I would offer, moreover, that these lights evoke Deleuze’s notion of the recollection-image[8]—something which actualizes a pure recollection of an unrealizable past, which can exist only as a virtual element. In other words, “memory is not in us.”[9]  As such, the film also employs natural light to highlight this absence of memory—the moments before we “move in a being memory”[10]—the notion of characters living in and perceiving the immediate moment, as opposed to putting themselves into the past.  This later becoming is realized by the use of the artificial spotlight—emerging more prominently as the film progresses and Joel’s memories fade—which provides a powerful metaphor both for the artificiality of mental recollection and for the claustrophobia, the suffocating loss, of inevitably fading personal memory.


The opening moments of the film offer a fascinating cinematic glimpse into the possibility of one person being emptied of memory.  The film opens with Joel awaking after the above procedure has already taken place and successfully removed the memory of Clementine (and much of the past two years involved).  Naturally, there is therefore a curious emptiness to his existence—prior to thought, before memory—in these first few shots.  The natural light of the opening scene highlights how Joel is stuck squarely in the moment, perceiving only the world around him, serving in stark contrast to the majority of the rest of the film, where he is literally trapped inside his own mind and his own memories, often in darkness.  The first shot of the film is a close-up of Joel awaking.  His eyes, upon opening, first gravitate to the bright light of the window, shown in the next shot.  As Joel sits up in bed and kicks off the blanket, a long shot captures Joel’s entire room—importantly, the natural light coming through the window serves not only as the literal center of the shot, but it also provides the sole source of illumination in the otherwise cool blue and gloomy set.  Joel is almost in darkness as a silhouette against the bright background.  The natural light here suggests a new beginning, free of the tainting influence of memory.


The natural light continues through the next scenes; “it is in empty time,” writes Deleuze, “that we anticipate recollection, break up what is actual and locate the recollection once it is formed.”[11]  Even Joel’s voice-over contributes to the sense of mental emptiness here—his first words are “random thoughts for Valentine’s Day, 2004,” suggesting no basis for a unified thought process, presumably from having been cleaned of so many of his most prominent memories.  “I ditched work today.  Took a train out to Montauk,” he continues in a flat, emotionless voice, “I don’t know why.”  In many ways, this is Joel’s motivation throughout the first twenty minutes of the film; he does not understand why he is so empty and why he does the things he does and points towards the film’s conclusion, which will call forth the question of “why?” as it pertains to present layers of time.  As in Joel’s apartment, the natural light again beats off the dreariness of the train platform and the quiet commuters waiting.  He mentions he needs to get his car fixed—another seemingly random observation from his spotless mind, but which also points out one of his few new memories, having noticed the unexplainable dent on the side of his car just a few minutes earlier.  In Montauk, the light snow falling on the sandy beach and blue ocean shore—Joel walking completely alone—provide other examples of pale natural light filling in the void of memory.  The idea that this shot of Joel walking across an empty beach could signify the emptiness of memory is reinforced when the film then immediately cuts to the blank pages in Joel’s diary, a result of him having torn all the pages out connected to Clementine, which of course he doesn’t remember doing.  Denied cohesive memory and still trapped only in the process of immediate perception, Joel’s empty voice-over continues as he childishly digs a hole in the sand: “sand is overrated.  It’s just tiny little rocks.”  Having had Clementine removed, her existence once the dominant blot in his life, Joel now has little of depth or substance to remark on, backgrounded by the natural light and the brightness of the sun over the ocean.  Light and setting creates a cold void here, a barrenness meant to signify the absence of Joel’s memories.


Natural light, however, diminishes over the course of the film—not only because Joel begins the process of becoming memory (even while it is paradoxically being removed), but also because the removal procedure crucially takes place at night.  Over fifty-three minutes into the film, a three-and-a-half minute montage of Joel inside his own memory begins, with the spotlight as the central, unifying motif.  The spotlight follows Joel around as he works his way through his own pure recollection.  Joel is seen lying on the frozen Charles River with Clementine; the film then cuts to him lying with her on the floor of Union Station.  While attempting to penetrate the past, Joel’s recollection moves laterally through the separate “circles” of memory which are contracting back to the “point of view of the actual present.”[12]  He rests on the floor confused by the sudden shift, under the glare of an anonymous spotlight.  He turns to her, only to see Clementine literally pulled out of the light—taken from that particular memory.  He then finds himself back on the river, alone.


This is the crucial point in the film when Joel realizes he doesn’t want the procedure anymore, the limits of his few memories of her represented by the spotlight.  Perhaps, Joel begins to realize not only his love for Clementine, but also the need for a past, a pre-existence, which cannot be reclaimed or reshaped, but which also, cannot be ruptured from his existence either.  He crawls and runs along the river, trying to find Clementine, followed by the spotlight.  When he finds her, Joel grabs Clementine’s hand and they run together to find a place where she can’t be taken away again.  However, the spotlight follows them everywhere, as he moves from recollection to recollection.  On the one hand, the spotlight signifies the procedure hunting his memories down for deletion, yet Joel’s inability to outrun the spotlight, with or without Clementine, suggests that the small circle of light also represents the limits of Joel’s memory, and, by extension, the limits of his recollection of a sealed past which remains outside him.  All he remembers of the river, for example, is what was originally right in front of him.  The all-consuming natural light of the opening of the film, which offered the opportunity to perceive the entire surroundings, has now been reduced to this confined space of limited and quickly fading recollection.  The spotlight follows the two of them as they visit memories of spending time with their friends and returning to the doctor’s office in a vain attempt to stop the procedure.  Clementine is erased from these memories, and Joel is left only with his light.  Here again, the spotlight signifies the limited perception of Joel’s remembering, which remains in and of the present.  He cannot again completely experience the moments he thinks he remembers; Joel can only see limited illuminations, fragments in his imagination vaguely informed by his understanding of the past.


The Union Station/doctor’s office scene echoes similar sequences throughout the film.  The spotlight follows them as Joel runs with Clementine away from a drive-in theatre; through the bookstore she works at and back to the doctor’s office.  Most pointedly, the finale of the memory scenes—that is, the last memory to be erased, if not necessarily the climax of the film itself (it is debatable where such a moment is located in the film’s narrative)—also uses the spotlight to great effect.  Joel remembers when he first met Clementine on the beach in Montauk.  The first scene is bathed in natural light, as he recalls her first conversation with her.  During this moment, Joel realizes that he needs to just enjoy the moment, knowing he can stop the inevitable loss.  The brief natural light suggests here the willingness finally for Joel to just accept the moment as is, without thinking of what came before or what comes next.  Quickly, the sequence turns to night, however—reflecting the unavoidable fading of even this last memory.  Joel follows a freezing Clementine into a warmer, abandoned summer home—the same home illuminated by natural light as Joel walked the Montauk beach in the film’s opening.  This scene is illuminated again by the spotlight, following Joel around as he contemplates the final moments of his memories with Clementine.  At first, the spotlight appears to be that of a flashlight Clementine finds which she uses to search her way through the house; yet as the scene progresses, a clear rupture occurs between the light emanating from her flashlight and the free-floating spotlight confining Joel—his attempts at puncturing into the past have now turned back on himself.  Thought initially to be just another prop, this light too becomes the disembodied embodiment of Joel’s recollection-image.  Clementine walks around the house, looking for alcohol and checking out the second floor, while Joel simply paces about, under the glare of the spotlight, resigned to both the internal limitations of his memories and the eternal, irrevocable decisions he has made.  He is unable to follow her up the stairs, just as in the original past itself, as though literally trapped within the limits of his own memory and experience, trapped within the light.  The spotlight, essentially Joel’s memory, becomes this man’s only source of comfort as he confronts the inevitably of forgetting.  The spotlight also signifies the suffocation Joel feels from memory, knowing he cannot reach back to his past and realizing that the past is literally vanishing around him.  As he talks about wishing he “had stayed” with Clementine that night, following her up the stairs, the summerhouse comes crashing down around him.  He realizes the failure of his love, and the failure of his nostalgia—“one is nostalgic,” writes Boym, “not for the past the way it was, but for the past the way it could have been.”[13]  But, of course, Joel now momentarily accepts the past “the way it was.”  The sand and ocean floods over the kitchen and living room floors; his spotlight becomes the only constant for him in a past literally crumbling down for good.


When Clementine returns to Joel for their goodbye, she walks down the stairs and into Joel’s spotlight—entering for the last time Joel’s perception of this past.  This moment is followed up by a shot of Joel and Clementine together at the foot of the stairs; importantly, the house at this point has completely fallen away, except for the portion of the building covered by the spotlight.  This image brings into relief how the spotlight is literally the limits of his perception and memory; the only parts of the house which still exist in the scene are the parts exposed by light, just as the only portions of the home to exist for Joel are the ones which he could have immediately perceived and stored for recollection from that moment.  The last shot of this scene then is a close-up of Joel and Clementine face-to-face, though not embracing or kissing, as though this is the closest physically Joel can get to Clementine when trapped within his own mind.  Here, memory is a “mode of re-presentation [. . .] belonging ever more to the present,” representing a past preserved in time.  He cannot kiss or embrace Clementine, because he cannot move beyond his mental existence of recollection images and into a preserved past.  Their faces are barely illuminated by a small, tight spotlight—the memories of her have nearly vanished for good, while the tightness of the shot calls attention to the suffocating feeling of memory, the feeling of being dragged and walled off from past experiences which remain progressively more in the past, and thus representative of a memory one is increasingly unable to mentally access again. 


The preceding shot is followed by an elaborate finale whereby Joel remembers driving away from his first meeting with her, though the clear symbolism here is that he is also driving away for good from the memories of Clementine.  What makes the sequence so striking, is that Joel and the car are surrounded on all sides by final, brief images of his memories of Clementine—sitting in a restaurant, visiting friends, going back to the bookstore, enjoying the beach, watching TV—with these last glimpses again framed with the use of the spotlight, including sometimes a red spotlight which evokes the car’s rear brake lights.  In this case again, memories of Clementine are literally behind him and she has become “just a girl” to him.


As the memory is finally erased, the film cuts back to morning, with successive shots of the two doctors in Joel’s house both bathed in the natural light of morning.  They are framed from the point of view of the window, illuminated by the sun; they are not the blank slate silhouette that Joel will be when he rises from his bed, shot from the other side of the room and blocked out by the bright backdrop.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has returned to its first pure state of memory absence and the past has received its proper preservation from the present.  The doctors leave, then Joel later awakes; the film repeats the same shot of Joel first being drawn to the brightness of the window and the establishing shot framing the window as the center of the room.  As this new day progresses, Joel and Clementine again meet, without the memory of their past failed love, and once again begin a courtship, emphasizing that perhaps one of the film’s clear themes—echoed in the subplot with the one older doctor’s affair with his secretary (who begin another affair after the first one had been erased from her mind)—that to forget is to repeat.  The coexistence of sheets of the past must be retained; how events interact in the collective present, the web of pasts, presents and futures, must be restored.  The film must return to “the paradoxical characteristics of a non-chronological time: the preexistence of a past in general; the coexistence of all sheets of past; and the existence of a most contracted degree” in the present.[14]  Or, put more simply, “contemporary nostalgia is not so much about the past,” writes Boym, “as about the vanishing present.”[15]


The last shot of the film is of Joel and Clementine running along the same Montauk beach together.  They are once again bathed in the intense paleness of snow and natural light.  The film frame then morphs to pure white—the very last image of the film before the credits emerge.  Here, the absence of communal memory, the want of a shared past, becomes foregrounded by the bright natural light and emptiness of the image.  The white, blank slate which closes the film suggests they have started over, “creative forgetting” has won out, but much of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind suggests that they are doomed to fail again.  “We need both past and future to articulate our political, social, and cultural dissatisfactions with the present state of the world,” writes Huyssen, “memory discourses are absolutely essential to imagine a future and to regain a strong temporal and spatial grounding of life and the imagination in a media and consumer society that increasingly voids temporality and collapses space.”[16]  Otherwise, the future—as in end of Eternal Sunshine—becomes the past, anyway.  What Eternal Sunshine seems to advocate is not the knowability of a definitive linear history, but the feeling that temporal boundaries will simply reconstruct themselves in the absence of the possibility of a preserved past—the future will simply replace the sheets of past until the sheets remain.  Whatever is ultimately to be gained or loss by Joel’s amnesia, the film clearly foregrounds light as a mark of the scope and limits of perception and the recollection image into this sealed temporality.






[1] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative vol. 3, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988), pp. 142-143.


[2] Andreas Huyssen,  Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003), p. 3.


[3] Ibid.  My italics.  


[4] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989), p. 98.


[5] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991), p. 287.


[6] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic, 2001), p. xviii.


[7] Deleuze, p. 100.


[8] Deleuze, p. 98.


[9] Ibid.


[10] Ibid.   


[11] Deleuze, p. 100.


[12] Deleuze, pp. 98-99.


[13] Boym, p. 351.


[14] Deleuze, p. 99.


[15] Boym, p. 351.


[16] Huyssen, p. 6.





                                                                                                                           Volume 2, January 2005

                                                                    ISSN 1552-5112

an international and interdisciplinary journal

of postmodern cultural sound, text and image