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03/29/2004: "eternal sunshine of the neuroscientific mind."

Finally saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie I'd wanted to see since it came out. It was a touch gimmicky, cringeworthy in places, and a bit too frustratingly transparent when it should have been cunningly oblique (you could almost feel the movie tapping you and whispering "haha do you see DO YOU SEE!!") and vice versa. But on average, I liked it alright, and the whole time I was watching it, I thought "man, I should write something explaining the use of neuroscience in this movie." Then I saw that Steven Johnson already did just that in a nice piece for Slate. Most of what Johnson says is familiar if you've read (or reviewed -- ha) his book Mind Wide Open, like his explanations of how negative emotional memories stick to the brainpan harder than positive ones. But there are some aspects that Johnson doesn't tackle in his analysis. He's right that Eternal Sunshine employs more modern, accurate notions of memory processing in the brain than a movie like Memento does. "The fading of memory in Memento is about the loss of pure information, like an erased hard drive," he writes, while Eternal Sunshine uses a more emotional, nuanced approach to memory that's more consistent with how we now understand the brain. Unlike the sterile, digital erasure of memory in a lot of sci-fi flicks -- aliens zapping our brains and that sort of thing -- real human data storage is more messy, wet, incomplete. We see the latter concept of memory splattered all over the movie, in transitions that slowly fade, flicker, and dissolve instead of sharply cutting off, in scenes that loop and echo each other instead of plowing straight ahead. Joel's relationship with Clementine, like most doomed relationships, doesn't just end -- it painfully disintegrates.

But Johnson only compares Eternal Sunshine to other recent movies, and so it makes you wonder how movies tried to make sense of memory before the not-very-distant past. Is the more unyielding Memento-like approach to brains in the pop-culture context related to our exposure to computers, and to being trained to view the world in a more zeroes-and-ones sort of way? What about movies that toyed with the concept of memory before computers, before the digital age? I'm thinking, for a start, of the visual manifestations of madness in German expressionist films in the 1920s (endless circularity and schizoid angles representing mental illness with startling insight, considering that the symptoms of schizophrenia weren't even recognized as all being part of the same disease until slightly before 1920), of Hitchcock's carefully constructed flashbacks and painstakingly-thought-out investigations of the subconscious mind, and of every garden-variety horror flick that somehow played with the ideas of bad dreams, of buried memories partially resurfacing in nightmares. While Eternal Sunshine might seem to offer something new, at its heart its seemingly forward-thinking understanding of the 'emotional brain' isn't really that modern; it's a function of the same old-fashioned cinematic devices that have been used since the dawn of celluloid to explore the human psyche.

Film is the best medium I can think of for exploring the intricacies of memory processing. So many qualities of film -- its fundamentally analog nature, non-linearness, its complex rush of audiovisual stimuli -- are so naturally given to engaging with human memories and issues of synaptic plasticity. The actual physical qualities of film stock itself lend themselves so well to memories, too -- particularly the grain of film, as the stunning effect of seeing the slow decay of Eternal Sunshine's final few frames demonstrates.

Obligatory music-related comment: I don't think I like Beck much.

Replies: 5 Comments

hey. why do you talk about the "non-linearness" of film. in terms of how you receive it, it's probably the most linear form there is. (at least until the dvd comes out, and then it's not really a film anymore, is it?)

cole said @ 04/02/2004 11:49 PM EST

if i was 'proving' anything i would have put it on proven by science!! (obv)

geeta said @ 03/31/2004 12:23 PM EST

won't art-stuff always get there before science-stuff when it comes to what goes on within? haha art = canaries down the mind!!

(more to the point, you don't have to PROVE anything, you can just say it...)

mark s said @ 03/31/2004 03:10 AM EST

Obligatory music-related comment: I don't think I like Beck much.

Haha, of course you don't. Beck = Bowie - Germany! Or something like that. He's Bowie minus something. Cocaine?

Anthony Miccio said @ 03/30/2004 02:39 PM EST

Very well said. I know that Kaufman's scripts are prone to pat preciousness, and I was impressed and relieved that he could let go of most of that here and be as emotionally straightforward as he was; still, one-for-the-audience lines like "technically, it IS brain damage" (ho ho ho DO YOU SEE) made my skin crawl. That kind of satire only works on The Simpsons.

Jody said @ 03/30/2004 01:48 PM EST

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