Heart Sounds from A Loner

Film Analysis: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
Posted November 17, 2012 by Wael Khairy in Film Analysis. 99 Comments
Every couple of years I stumble upon a film that transcends its
traditional entertainment purposes and goes for something more divine,
ambitious and philosophical. When a film like this comes along, it
reassures me that film is indeed the greatest art form of our time.
Movies that had that awe-inspiring effect on me include: “Last Year At
Marienbad”, “The Exterminating Angel”, “Persona”, “2001: A Space
Odyssey”, “Dark City”, “Enter the Void”, “The Thin Red Line”, “Eyes Wide
Shut” and “Synecdoche, New York”. I like to call them life-changers.
The first time I watched Michael Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind” it felt like a life changer. I remember the night I saw
it, too. I couldn’t sleep all night due to perpetual thoughts rushing
through my head. I used to experience that during the last minutes of an
exam I couldn’t finish on time. That night, I needed more time to grasp
the film’s brilliant originality and fascinating implications. The
second time I saw it, I had a few friends over and it wasn’t as
impressive. Now, six years later I’ve given it another shot.
Surprisingly, it had that same initial effect on me. This almost never
happens to me, and I think I understand why it enchanted me the first
and last times. It is one of those rare films, I’d rather watch alone
than with an audience.
It reaches for something personal like troubling memories buried deep in
our psyche. It is a film that demands the presence of thoughts we put
aside when surrounded by people, things we only think about when we’re
alone, buried in everlasting thoughts. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind” is the rarest of all films, a therapeutically liberating work of
Charlie Kauffman’s marvelous screenplay revolves around Joel (Jim
Carrey), a soloist stuck in the repetitive formula of everyday life till
he meets the spontaneously carefree Clementine (Kate Winslet). Their
relationship escalates into a supposedly dead-end when he learns that
she had him erased from her memory. Furious and confused, he contacts
the inventor of this advanced process, Dr. Howard Mierzwaik (Tom
Wilkinson). Out of sheer desperation he resorts to the only logical
solution at the time, removing her from his memory as well. But as he
re-experiences the passionate days of their earlier relationship, he
falls in love with her all over again.
The film then takes a Hitchcockian turn and becomes a man-on-the run
film, only this time the protagonists are running from an untouchable
entity. They race from one memory to the next desperately escaping the
inevitable erasing process. It’s one of the most original and fresh
ideas ever shot on film. If you haven’t seen this modern masterpiece, I
strongly suggest you stop reading at this point, as I will explore some
of the film’s more thought provoking themes.
One of the philosophical questions this film asks is whether we are
merely the sum of our memories or if there’s more to us than a summation
of past experiences. Would erasing an incident from our micro-history do
us any good? Would a woman erasing the memory of a rape make her happier
or would removing the incident do more damage to her life than the
actual incident itself? Hence, she wouldn’t have learned anything from
it or become the stronger person she is today. Is ignorance indeed
The film ultimately arrives to the conclusion that no, having a spotless
mind does not bring eternal sunshine. You may forget a past memory but
you can’t forget the impulses, instincts and emotions that arose from
that past incident. They are in some sense untouchable because they
shape who we are. Take for example, the simultaneous subplot involving
Mary (Kirsten Dunst) discovering that she had her love affair with Dr.
Mierzwaik erased. She arrives to that discovery through her love to him.
The weak link in Lacuna’s process is that it successfully erases
memories but can’t erase feelings.
Another heartbreaking scene that explores the system’s imperfection is
when Joel and Clementine finally bid farewell inside his head. She leans
in and whispers, “Meet me in Montauk.” You see, the Clementine guiding
his escape is merely a projection in Joel’s mind. She represents his
will to hold on and he does so through what he knows of her spontaneous
When they challenge the erasing process by hiding in childhood
remembrances and other “off the map” memories, the escape route is
always suggested by Clementine. Joel would never arrive to such
conclusions himself, but he subconsciously asks himself what would
Clementine do and acts upon it. So when she whispers that final line
inside his head, what he’s really doing is implanting an impulse;
something Lacuna can’t touch.
The film opens with a post-erasing scene. On Valentine Day, Joel feels
the impulse of going to Montauk instead of working and there he meets
Clementine. She too implanted that impulse during her erasing process
and it’s such a beautiful encounter. That cold day on the beach, they
fall for each other all over again. Both Joel and Clementine do in fact
win at the end, implanting that impulse defeats the system in a final
attempt of desperation.
In that “second” first encounter, it’s almost like a hidden magnetic
force pulls them together. This is portrayed cinematically through
brilliant use of music. Music plays when they talk and pauses when they
pause. Joel and Clementine click in a disguised coincidence, a natural
In another simultaneous subplot, Patrick, one of the Lacuna technicians,
uses the dialogue he knows from Joel and Clementine’s real initial
encounter to sweep her off her feet. The plan backfires on him and only
fuels her confusion and anger. I believe that we as human beings have an
uncanny ability to detect bullshit and truth in words. We think spoken
words is the only way of communicating but there’s an invisible energy
that comes from body language, the way we say things, and the way we
look at a person that tells us if there’s any truth in what is being
communicated. This energy is something beyond what we hear or see; it’s
something we feel, a feeling of truth.
My favorite scene in the film is when they’re stuck in their first
memory, which is also the last memory they helplessly witness getting
erased. Both characters recite some of the dialogue of his memory, but
occasionally, Joel becomes self aware, looks at Clementine and pours out
his commentary thoughts. As they sit in front of the ocean, she looks at
him and says, “This is it Joel, it’s gonna be gone soon.” A sad smile
eclipses his face when he replies, “I know.” But it’s the last exchange
that really hit the mark with me. “What do we do?” she asks. To which he
replies, “Enjoy it.” Joel gives up fighting instantly and chooses to
enjoy the little time they have left together and it’s utterly
Ironically, this reminded me of one of my childhood memories with my dad
who’s a doctor of nuclear medicine; it’s when they use nuclear energy in
a positive way to cure cancer. I remember when he told me that not all
cancer patients choose to fight the disease and there’s nothing he can
do about that, it’s their call. As a young kid, I couldn’t get that
through my head. It just seemed inconceivable at the time. Whatever
reasons they may have, I think it’s their right to do so. Whether it’s
never-ending surgeries that constantly fail or hectic chemotherapy that
leaves them miserable in their potential last days, it’s their right to
let go and enjoy the little time they have left in this world.
Letting go is one of the hardest things a person can do. It doesn’t mean
they’re giving up, it means they’re moving on. We hold on to things we
value as if they will cease to exist when we let go. The truth is they
won’t. Letting go or giving up isn’t an act of cowardice; quite often
it’s an act of supreme bravery. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
tells us to accept things as they are and make the most of what we have
when all hope is lost.
I remember seeing my dad sitting on the living room couch as he watched
the news. He’s one of the most positive and cheerful people I know and
it often puzzled me knowing what he does for a living. I asked him if
dealing with dying people on a daily basis is a depressing job. He
replied something along the lines of “We tend to keep a lighthearted
environment at the hospital.” When I asked him if breaking the bad news
is the worst part of his job, he told me that it was, but every once in
a while he breaks out great news and it makes it all worth it. The ups
and down of life apply everywhere. In the case of this film, it’s in a
relationship. As Joel discovers throughout his mental journey, the ups
are sometimes worth all the downs.
“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean, Tears from the depths of
some devine despair Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, In
looking on the happy autumn fields, And thinking of the days that are no
more.” – Alfred Tennyson
After a break up, the very memories you once cherished, the ones that
drew a smile on your face whenever you remembered them seem none
existent. That’s probably due to the recently bad incident towering and
blocking all things wonderful from your thoughts. I think it’s an act of
self-preservation to let the bad memories stick and allow great ones to
slip through our fingers. It makes moving on easier.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
 I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost
After Joel and Clementine learn they’ve had their memories erased
because things just didn’t work out, they somehow choose to travel that
same road again anyway. I think it’s a perfect ending to a perfect film.
As we’re so often told, it’s about the journey not the destination. They
know what is waiting at the end of that road and they choose to walk
through it anyway. The journey has been erased and therefore, they
choose to re-experience it. Perhaps it’s to arrive at that conclusion
because that’s the only way they’ll understand the nature of their
previous destination. Or maybe, they share a tiny ounce of mutual hope.
After all, they know the pitfalls and hidden traps on that road from
listening to their Lacuna tapes. Dodging them is all that needs to be
done to arrive at a different destination. This is precisely how second
chances are meant to be taken.
Whenever, I watch this film it steers my eyes away from the empty half
of the glass of water and makes me acknowledge that there’s a full half
right below. For that very reason, I’m eternally grateful for its


  – The Ramble of Mr. Jin Yides Art Education and Creation




  (I) A Memory of Thirty Years




  It was in the late summer and early autumn of 1979 when the cicada
singing was not faded away at the lake bank, with the very strong summer
heat, the campus was poppled with some exciting passion and accompanied
with the curiosity of a new term. A teacher came to the door of our new
classroom, and then he started his lecture with smiles. His sound of
voice was not high, and in a very strong Shaoxing accent, he made a
lecture from impressionism to postimpressionism and from the nature of
line drawing to the representation of lines. For the youth of the whole
class who came out from the disaster and chaos of the Cultural
Revolution and who were filled with the enthusiasm for study and the
loose sentiment left from the Cultural Revolution non-government
revolution, such contents were particularly fresh. The teacher was right
Mr. Jin Yide. Thirty years have been passed since that scene, but it is
still engraved in my heart. When we wash off the academic experience
from memories and from which we determine our thought and the lineage
source, we can find this scene is overlaid in the deep spiritual




  Mr. Jin Yide is an old professor of the Oil Painting Department
China Academy of Fine Arts. What has intensively revealed on him is the
quality that shows respect to artistic language rhetoric and the
thinking on theories and that has been a significant lineage of the
tradition of China Academy of Fine Arts. The said scene is not an
unforgettable retrospect of the past only; as for the memory,
furthermore, its significance lies in the spirit of some academy in the
narration and the inquiry on the visible and invisible background and
venation of some techniques. The inquiry of such spirit is of long
standing, is originated from the surgent cultural passion to Rescue the
national character by art from Mr. Lin Fengmian generation and
originated from the dignified professional dedication that one and
another generations of ancestors treated fine arts as an exclusive
academy to have long-term research since then.

The limit, which we set on ourself, must be lifted. “The man who has
made up his mind to win will never say ‘impossible’.”



  In early 1960s, Mr. Jin studied at the Romanian Expert Borba
Research Class sponsored by Ministry of Culture then, and later he acted
as an assistant teacher of Mr. Ni Yide. Under the background of the
united Soviet partys realism painting nationwide, the styles of Borba
and Ni Yide had the trend of expressionism which kept producing deep
impacts on Mr. Jin Yide. Esp. their expression approach highlighted by
lines has passes through the viewing manner of the gloom method,
dismantled the sculpt habit of photo taking type and directly targets at
the analysis on the nature of things and the possibility of shape
hammering. All these have not only greatly deepened Mr. Jins ideas on
sculpt, but have also endued him with a kind of spirit that is
originated from the analysis on the visual senses expression of an
object itself, and then furthermore, based on the academic style passed
down by generations and generations in China Academy of Fine Arts, they
re-shape some thought expression particularity that has become common
since the early period the of academy establishment and that keeps to
the thing-in-itself from visual sense.




  (II) The Lamplight of Jin Yide




  Mr. Jin acted as the tutor for our class from 1979 to 1980. We have
deeply sensed from him the temperament that is sensitive in thinking and
that shows concern to the thing-in-itself from visual sense. In the
autumn of 1979, the National Second Line Drawing Symposium was held at
China Academy of Fine Arts at which Mr. Jin made a speech Some Opinions
on Reforming The Existing Line Drawing Teaching, gave a systematic
introduction of Borbas line drawing teaching to all art colleges
nationwide for the first time and aroused great concern as a result;
furthermore, the influences of such concern even spread to the line
drawing exercise all over the academy. Mr. Jins line drawing works
became a requisite reference beside the high-rise line drawing racks in
the academy and became the reference for those students who yearned for
walking out the light and shade line drawing, and made the earliest
analysis and explorations on the expression.



Was it up to here? The journey which we went with our teacher.

  In the early summer of 1980, we went to Shitang Town, Wenling at
eastern Zhejiang to draw from nature led by Mr. Jin. At that time,
Shitang Town was unadorned but filled with vigor, houses built by stones
were close to cliffs and they seemed to have grown out from stones, tier
upon tier and formed a unified entity. There was a kind of natural
poetic conception in the overall sculpt. Being restricted in some color
tone imitation technique of realistic painting then, however, we just
hid ourselves at street corners and road crossings all day, repeated the
existing life drawing composition from ancestors, and just turned deaf
ears to the naturally existing poetic conception that produced freely at

Here,everyday life was like this: Getting up early in the morning, I ran
to the New Oriental and learned GRE to afternoon.


It is not a severe training, but a class filled with mirth by teachers’
sweat. Only 19days experience, which is enough to alter one’s life.

  Mr. Jin was well aware of this, but didnt say much; instead, he
brought us to go to the sea, asked us to look back the soaring Shitang
on the seagoing vessel, and awakened us the visual sense through the
lookout that had been restricted by our existing color tone composition
so as to make us sense the overall viewing method in the visual field of
the vast sea and sky. After that, we also went to Yandang Mountain which
is more soaring and made us at our wits end with the existing Su Party
life drawing method. Then, Mr. Jin brought us to have sightseeing from
peaks in the moonlight and appreciate the overall poetic conception of
hills in the misty night view. His purpose was to relieve us from the
existing western life drawing approaches and unseal our own visual sense
with the particular style of Chinese landscape instead. That night, Mr.
Jin mentioned painting masters Pan Tianshou and Huang Binhong etc. to
us. When we persisted in the pursuit and exploration on western painting
innovation, such of his words only relieved us slightly from the
solidified restrictions in our heart, and actually we failed to suddenly
get aware of the natural poetic conception existing in Chinas landscape.
I remember that Mr. Jin had two pieces of oil life drawing which were
covered by dark green mountains, outlined with black lines and looked
integrated with intensive stone walls. While the distant waterfall in
the painting seemed to be grasped from memories and just made us feel
novel and astonishing.

Mr. Li’s handsome actions, Mr.Zhu’s sincere expression in his eyes,
Mr.Alick’s jesting speech, and Mr. Even’s artistic stories, which will
be always in my dearest memory.


Hoping the memory won’t be forgotten and we can remember our teachers’
face forever. Hoping we can recall all what we had learned as if our
teachers are reminding us aside, alhough these day of life has passed
and we cannot return to those days.

  In our impression, Mr. Jin has been insatiable in learning and
tireless in teaching all the time. No matter what problems we
encountered in our study, every one would like to ask him for help and
for encouragement, and he would always seek something that deserved
acknowledgement from our ideas. Mr. Wang Liuqiu assumed leadership of
the First Studio then, but the principal tutors were Mr. Jin and Mr. Xu
Junxuan. Mr. Jin was most tolerant and he would always encourage and
appreciate the students pioneering spirit and unique opinions with his
warm words. Later, when we remained at the school and became young
teachers, Mr. Jin furthermore discussed academic issues with us very
frequently. In addition, Mr. Jin has been the most diligent teacher at
the Oil Painting Department. He painted Mr. Ni Yide, Mr. Hu Shanyu and
Mr. Lin Fengmian and brought us successfully to the spiritual world of
the predecessors. From 1980s to the relocation of China Academy of Fine
Arts in the 1990s, Mr. Jins studio was remained at a small garret on the
third floor of the Oil Painting Department. With a balcony, the garret
was right opposite to the main roads between the teaching section and
administration section of the academy. The lamp from the garret would
light on each night and never got off even during holidays. Later, we
called this lasting scene as The Lamplight of Jin Yide, which was
shining Mr. Jins unwearied figure and also twinkling the professional
dedication that has been passed down by generations and generations of
the academy.

Way to go, a stessful, solitary, challenging journey we will face
to.Saying Good-bye to Cambridge Again, in which our nostalgia should
be left to our triumph.


Although our teacher won’t remember us when the day of our triumph come,
the report card will identify what we’ve learned from them, and so is
the expression in our eyes, which they tought us, will never be

(III)Another Road With Hardship




  Mr. Jin Yide might be the one who has walked the longest on the road
along the expressiveness painting among the Borba oil painting research
class. Under the circumstance that Su Party brought the whole world
under its domination, it could be said that the line drawing and oil
painting of Borba Oil Research Class was unique. Simply speaking, Borbas
method is to oppose copying the light and shade effect in line drawing,
but to reach the preciseness of the overall sculpt by lines to have
constructive analysis; as for oil painting, importance is attached to
apply pure colors and the pen tone full of tactile impression to pursue
the overall expressiveness; in terms of creation, in view of Borba, each
piece of painting was creation in which the fundamental issue of art
language hammering and art opinion molding existed but actually the
painting with some subject didnt exist. Mr. Jin has almost practiced on
this road of loners with hardship all the time which was regarded as a
road of formalism before the Cultural Revolution, and which was isolated
beyond the mainstream of the western painting after the Cultural
Revolution when the pioneering generation was passionate of the modern
art trend. It was rarely seen in his generation that Mr. Jin could
remain committed to walking on such a road, making explorations quietly
and endeavoring to convert his inspiration from life into the sculpt.




  It was the 1980s that Mr. Jin was in his high-yielding art creation
period. In a group of his landscape works such as Gold and Silver and
The Six-harmony Pagoda etc., he tended to get mature in terms of his
overall expressive language. The painting Gold and Silver has portrayed
the scenery of the times with great force with a large area of natural
silver grey and shining yellow scrapers, while The Six-harmony Pagoda is
full of power and grandeur by painting hundreds of boats competing to
win in the great Qiantang river with dark green thin oil. Meanwhile, he
created portraits for a group of intellectuals of which the most
successful were for a group of painters. With the realism approach, he
expressed his adoration to his teacher in the painting Ni Yide in which
the typical manner of combined lines and sides was applied to make the
painter become highlighted. Those lines are powerful, not only express
the shape but also reveal the verve of the figure and have portrayed the
hard-bitten look of the generation of intellectuals and this painting
can be called as classic works in the portrait drawing in our country.
If it can be said that the painting Ni Yide is a piece of realism
portrait works, then the painting Lin Fengmian is the works in
impressionistic style. Mr. Lins face was put in one corner of the
picture and what can be found behind his back is misty scenery that was
painted freely with thin oil. The reed marshes interspersed the
picturesque scene of Mr. Lin, while a solitary aigrette symbolized Mr.
Lins rebellious and lonely fate. Baba is another piece of
impressionistic works in which Babas unconventional and unrestrained
portrait seems like relief sculpture on the background of lofty black
characters. This is a lonely gatekeeper. Mr. Jin has endeavored to seek
different expressive words to endow the portrayed ones with some
intuitionistic character strength.




(IV) Heart Words From A Loner




  Mr. Jin was destined to be a lone explorer. He kept seeking truer
expressions in painting. All through the 1990s, his painting was
inclined towards true-life. He painted a large quantity of autumn leaves
and red flowers, a contrast was produced between these brilliant
flowering branches and primitive utensils and brought out traces of the
times, which again converted into disperses strength to make flowers get
disappeared in the flowing wind while the details of blue china get
highlighted. All looked like to be in a hurry and be chasing after
something. Mr. Jin was filled with ideas, he was desirous to narrate
stories of years, but his brushstroke revealed his frame of mind that
tended to be more adrift day by day. In the new century, he suddenly got
relieved from his accustomed heavy load, and his brushwork became
flexible: the flowering branches in his painting stand independently in
the background and look like the four seasons themselves in the
circulated nature. Those flowers suddenly blossom out and in the
twinkling of an eye only. Such instant is on the background of branches
in heavy colors, and seems to be running and flying. Mr. Jin was chasing
after the time with the flowers and undertook the expressions of flowers
with his feelings; flowers bloom and fade, but what he has expressed in
his painting is his state of mind.




  Mr. Jin has become more and more sensitive and he even has some kind
of horrified feeling and some kind of desolate sense. In the Winter Sun
painted in 2001, there is an old tree without any leaf at all and is
standing on the background of a warm sun. In the paintings Forest in
Twilight and Melody of Spring, the former is that old crows are
gathering in trees and the latter is that scared birds are flying into
the forest; both reveal the disturb from outside of the painting, and
bring out the inquiry on some kind of fate; actually, Mr. Jins flower
bird painting is not for describing the scenery but purely for
expressing his mood, which has become more silent and empty, more lonely
and adrift. Mr. Jin has expressed an old mans heart that is unyielding
in his painting; therefore, he created the Series of Old Age in 2005, in
which the portraits melt the lines in traditional Chinese style and the
colors of oil painting together, have the landscape and the faces
overlaid to express the vicissitudes of the old and their restiveness as
well. What we can read in these portraits is not only white hair and
wrinkles, but also the look like rocks which are standing like gullies.
What we really read are some kind of true feelings and the sternness and
strength that are empathy with the overlaid brush strokes.




  The returning crows never bring any shine of the setting sun but
leave some red for trees. There are not only desolate and adrift
feelings but also vigorous life power in Mr. Jins painting, which has
agglomerated the heavy load in his life of staying long in a strange
place and also revealed indistinctly his indifferent relief on life. But
what behind all these is his heart sound which is of a loner who has
kept exploring the true love in the world.


  许 江 Xu Jiang

  2008年12月15日December 15, 2008


  At Nanshan Three-Window Pavilion