Tag Archives: Perception

Nietzsche and the Ethics of Memory in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind questions the ethics and morality of memory manipulation that tie into Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas of how memory existentially affirms and ethically tests the moral positions of eternal recurrence.

The following deleted scene is a mock advertisement for Lacuna, provider of the memory erasure service:

Nietzsche argues the importance of forgetting. If one were to remember every single detail, every day of our lives, one would go mad. Eternal Sunshine acknowledges an importance in forgetting: the two main characters, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), have both willingly had their memories of each other erased by the Lacuna procedure. Both want to forget the pain they inflicted on each other.

However, Nietzsche also argues the importance of remembering. To remember is to acknowledge all elements of one’s life both pleasurable and painful. Nietzsche argues embracing all memories is the only way to live an authentic life. In the film, Joel and Clementine have failed to respect the importance of remembering that Nietzsche argues as they both decide to have the memories of each other removed. Therefore, by Nietzsche’s account, they live in self-deception and do not lead an authentic life.

Additionally, Nietzsche considers the various elements that make up a memory of some major life event to be inseparable from each other. In other words, memory is holistic. In the film, a major life event occurs when Joel and Clementine lie on the ice and fall in love for the first time. But, if Joel has only Clementine removed from this memory, how much of the experience is truly removed considering Joel would still have many other elements in his memory of that experience independent of Clementine being there or not: himself laying down on the ice, the starry sky, the passing cars, and the background noises. Traces of the experience still exist. Joel breaks the holistic memory bond that Nietzsche describes and therefore the film again questions Joel’s ethics and morality in partaking in this self-deceptive act.

Finally, Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ questions one’s attitude towards the idea of one’s life infinitely and exactly repeating itself. How we respond to this ‘tells us about our attitudes about ourselves and the lives we live’ (Jollimore 2009 p. 55). The end of the film presents an ‘eternal recurrence’ of Joel and Clementine who decide to live their love affair again, even though they know it will be both good and bad.

Their decision may suggest a happy conclusion, but moreover, it questions if this is ethically the right thing to do considering they both know the likely outcome is only going to cause each other pain.

Eternal Sunshine is a complex film on many levels. This Nietzschean approach to the way the film questions the ethics and morals of memory and its erasure provides only one reading of a rich text that will surely be analysed and debated for a long time to come.

 

Reference Sources

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Case Study 1 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, Lecture 19 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Troy Jollimore 2009, ‘Miserably Ever After: Forgetting, Repeating and Affirming Love’, in Christopher Grau (ed.), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Philosophers on Film, Routledge, London, pp. 31-61.

Stanley Cavell’s Ontological Philosophy of Film

In his book The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell asks the perplexing philosophical question of just what is the human ‘presence’ that appears on the silver screen.

Cavell suggests, as did the realist Bazin, the photographic image is a captured moment in time. A machine (the camera) captures the image objectively in a way unlike say a painting that always includes human subjectivity in its representation. Cavell (1979, p. 26) argues these objective photographic images of actors are ‘a human something’, not just a look or representation of something human as occurs in painting. Of course, the manipulation of photographic images such as editing and digital special effects abounds in film. Nevertheless, a machine still directly captures the reality of what is present in the moment and at some specific time and place.

But, this presence of the image is also not of something human as well. It is illusionary. It does not exist.

Consider the following scene where Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars (1977).

Guinness obviously exists in these images. He plays the role of the Obi-Wan character that George Lucas shot on some hot Tunisian day back in the mid-1970s. That is Alec Guinness on the screen.

But, Guinness has since passed away, the shooting of the scene occurred a long time ago, and the images do not ‘live’ in any present moment in a biological sense. Therefore, it is not Alec Guinness as well.

Considering this ambiguous ontology, why do we even enjoy films? Cavell (1979, p. 21) suggests humans have become so disassociated from the real world (living inside our own subjectivity) that a deep human need arises to create and view these objective images as a way of seeking an escape from the isolating subjectivity and to ‘reach this world’ again.

In other words, through photographic images, we try to humanise our world again by attempting to reconnect with reality, and photographic images achieve this connection because machines mechanically and objectively capture the images of our real world.

 

Reference Sources

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Stanley Cavell’s Philosophy of Film’, Lectures 14 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Stanley Cavell 1979, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Harvard University Press, London.

Complexities of Sympathy: Fritz Lang’s ‘M’

From the perspective of cinematic ethics and morality, Fritz Lang’s M (1931) presents a perplexing and confronting site of analysis for sympathy towards the character Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a child murderer. Professor of Film Studies Murray Smith suggests the ‘structure of sympathy’ is more complicated than the traditional model of character identification provides.

Murray Smith’s Model of Sympathy

1. Recognition: simply the spectator’s acknowledgement of a particular character

  • acknowledgement the character Hans Beckert is a child murderer

2. Alignment: the (objective) perspective presented to the spectator by the camera

  • in the scene, we see both Beckert’s own subjective perspective (the camera looks out to the crowd during his plea) and an objective perspective (medium-close up shots of Beckert pleading to the vigilante crowd and their reactions)

3. Allegiance: the (subjective) position of the spectator’s moral approval of the character’s actions; the spectator weighs up pros and cons of the character’s moral traits

  • most would agree what Beckert has done is reprehensible, but the scene does not present him as cold and antagonistic, on the contrary the emotional close-ups of his desperate pleading suggest his psychological agony in the acknowledgement of his sickness, and goes some way to form a sympathetic spectator allegiance to a morally dubious character

M presents an unusual moral dilemma. The film guides the spectator’s sympathies towards a morally detestable character. The spectator recognises Beckert as a child murder, then the camera presents both Beckert’s subjective perspective (he looks out to the crowd) and an objective perspective (we view Beckert’s emotional reactions) in combination with the spectator’s moral standing to form a complicated site of ethical allegiance. Does Beckert’s sickness make us sympathise with him? Are we unequivocally unsympathetic? Do we sit somewhere in between?

Murray Smith’s model presents a more intricate analysis of sympathy that combines character recognition, filmic alignment, and moral allegiances. It demonstrates ways filmmakers can guide our sympathies and emotional reactions to even the most evil, immoral characters.

 

Reference Sources
Carl Plantinga 2010, ‘“I Followed the Rules, and They All Loved You More”: Moral Judgment and Attitudes toward Fictional Characters in Film’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 34, pp. 34-51.

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Cinematic Ethics’, Lectures 11, 11a to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Cognitivism Goes to the Movies with ‘Vertigo’

The cognitivist approach led by Bordwell and Carroll goes against the grain of psychoanalytic Film Theory (or ‘Grand Theory’) that began in the 1970s. So what better film to apply cognitivism to than Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): a complex narrative of obsession that psychoanalytically explores the subconscious human mind, so the opposite of cognitivist theory.

The scene occurs when Scottie (James Stewart) saves Madeline (Kim Novak) from drowning in the ocean under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Principles of the Cognitivist Approach

Movies elicit the same cognitive responses as ordinary perception

How we see in real life is not that different to what we see in the movies. Scottie sees a woman jump into the ocean, makes a decision to act, and he jumps in to save her. The spectator does not need an understanding of psychoanalytic theory to understand what they have just seen.

Consciousness is constructivist

Humans use practical reasoning to construct and make sense of the world. We do not just passively sense something and leave it at that. If I see a ball coming towards my head, I duck; if I hear a loud explosion outside, I go to investigate. In a similar way, Scottie watches Madeline jump into the ocean, then through practical reasoning makes a decision to jump in and save her. In the real world, the same situation would (hopefully!) prompt the same response through practical reasoning. The cognitivist approach has a strong emphasis on practical reasoning rather than sensations and moods.

Movies are not as ideologically manipulative as ‘Grand Theorists’ have assumed

Spectators are not being manipulated by some form of Hollywood influenced ideology such as sexism if they use their own comprehension and judgement when watching a film. Scottie saves Madeline not because she seen as some objectified woman in constant need of saving; he simply her because Madeline is a person who will die if he does act to save her.

Do we really need more questionable entities to explain movies?

For the male spectator, the ‘male gaze’ objectifies women and identifies with men, but arguably, this psychoanalytic process is an intangible entity (much like the Oedipus complex and the unconscious). The cognitivist approach rejects this intangibility and focuses on methods that are more empirical. Madeline is not a helpless, weak object that Scottie receives perverse pleasure from saving to boost his ego. The cognitivist approach considers questions such as why Madeline jumped into the ocean and what made Scottie decide to save her.

Cognition plays a key role in perception and emotional responses through questions and answers, and therefore proposes a different approach to the more subconscious and intangible psychoanalytic analysis of film narrative.

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Cognitivism Goes to the Movies’, Lectures 6, 6a & 7 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.