Tag Archives: Subjectivity

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.

Understanding Film Narratives: Carroll’s Cognitivist Approach

Noel Carroll adheres to the cognitive psychology position of film narrative; a position that leans towards the empirical and demonstrable aspects of film narrative not concerned with subjectivity or exploration of psychoanalytical theories of the subconscious. Thereby, an unconventional way to look at Carroll’s approach is to apply his theories to a standout film of subjective narrative: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Key Points of Carroll’s Cognitivist Approach:

The scene analysed here occurs at the Club Silencio, where the two main characters (and those of us watching) realise they have taken part in an illusion, a dream.

Cinema intensifies/transforms our realism by focusing and directing our attention

The use of extreme close-ups on the singer’s face forces the viewer to witness every strain of her emotional pain. All other surrounding visual information is bracketed out: the sheer scale of her face intensifies the realism much more than how it would occur in real life. These close-up shots assist in producing a raw, passionate power by the inability to direct our attention to anything else.

We comprehend images directly

Even the ‘untutored’ spectator can at least understand movie narrative without learning any kind of language. For example, film scholars or children can comprehend that the woman is singing a song. Her strained facial expressions and sad eyes tell us it is sombre. Nobody could watch this scene and see, say, an action packed adventure shot because we comprehend (see) the images directly for what they are.

Movies do not depend on conventions to be intelligible – all viewers use the same cognitive processes

Many would be familiar with the melody of the Roy Orbison song ‘Crying’. The woman’s rendition of Orbison’s song in Spanish is still familiar and comprehensible to anyone who has heard the original song. Regardless of the language (convention) sung in, the cognitive process of seeing (a signer on a stage) and hearing (the familiar ‘Crying’ melody) tell us she is singing the song ‘Crying’.

Overall, Carroll’s objective cognitivist approach can also be applied to subjective narratives because to order cognitive processes, movies use both comprehension (what you see) and interpretation (what you think).

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Understanding Film Narrative’, Lectures 4 & 5 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.