Philosophy & Film: A Nietzschean interpretation of Eternal Sunshine

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Think you know Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Think again, buddy.

A film can have many interpretations imposed onto it. We’ve all heard the ‘Toy Story 3 is a holocaust’ metaphor, but more often than not it’s a load of old shit. (In Toy Story 3’s case, I can confirm that director Lee Unkrich denies any such connection.) But what about the films that have intended deeper meanings that have passed right over our heads? I’m talking about philosophical films and the surprisingly interesting meanings (which we can uncover if we, say, study film and philosophy for a term at university). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, is a truly remarkable film and can be praised for its originality, character development and cinematography. But did you know that it is also used as an illustration of Nietzschean philosophy?

Nietzsche famously said that knowledge isn’t always preferable. Eternal Sunshine revolves around a literal method of forgetting

Nietzsche is most famous for his view that knowledge is not always preferable, and that to survive as human beings we must be able to forget certain things. The whole film revolves around a literal method of forgetting and whether or not this is a good or bad thing, so the connection here is already obvious. However, rather contradictorily, Nietzsche also says that it is a test of character in how much we require things to be “thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.” Clearly, we are stronger if we are able to face and accept the truth, and this is strongly implied in the whole film’s treatment of Eternal Sunshine’s procedure as morally dubious and ill-advised.

eternal sunshine jim carrey kate winslet

Nietzsche was a big fan of living in and for the present. People who frame and live their lives within an overarching future context rather than living and appreciating life in the present are basically fools – Nietzsche would have pitied them. He would also have been hashtagging YOLO way before it got mainstream and cool.

The film is a perfect illustration of Nietzsche’s idea that even if something is inevitably going to fail it should be viewed as good in the present moment

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have their memories wiped of each other, yet are able to hear the tapes they recorded before the procedure. The tapes reveal all the reasons why they ended up hating each other and deleting one another from their memories. They then decide to embark on the same relationship even with this knowledge that the relationship is doomed to fail, a perfect illustration of Nietzsche’s idea that even if something is inevitably going to fail in the future it could and should be viewed as good in the present moment. The fact that we want Clementine and Joel to get back together is a sign that the film is implicitly agreeing with Nietzsche here and wants us to see it as the right way to live.

More love for Charlie Kaufman: Synecdoche, New York is an unforgettable masterpiece

eternal sunshine bed beach

There’s also Nietzsche’s view that we must affirm every single thing in our life if we are to celebrate any good thing: “Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe.” Nietzsche believed that everything is causally linked – for example, the fact that you’re reading this is causally determined by everything in your life previously and every single event to happen in your life is connected and ultimately inseparable.

Eternal Sunshine fits with Nietzsche’s deterministic causal view that everything is linked and entangled

This is demonstrated in the most moving scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – when Joel relives an intimate memory of Clementine sharing a heartbreaking secret and he decides that he wants to keep this one memory. But, in deleting the bad memories of Clementine, he must delete the good ones too. This fits with Nietzsche’s deterministic causal view that everything is linked and entangled, and the idea that in saying “yes” to the good, we must say “yes” to the bad.

The great thing about discovering such philosophical meaning behind a film is that it allows us to add greater value to it. It not only has artistic value, it also has instrumental value. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has left me feeling better about the fact that I don’t know what I want to do with my life and that perhaps “knowing my future career” is not synonymous with “happiness”. It’s also nice to twist it slightly, so that you have a vaguely legitimate justification for getting drunk when you know the hangover will be damn awful in the morning.

 

A taste of what Kaufman’s cooking up next: Five alternative films to look out for in 2014

 

All images: Focus Features

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