LEARNING GUIDE TO:
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
SUBJECTS — Science Fiction; Literature (allusion & magical realism);Age: 14+;MPAA Rating -- R for language, some drug and sexual content -- This rating is undeserved; a more consistent rating would be PG-13; Drama; 2004; 106 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Description: After the stormy break-up of their relationship, Clementine and Joel have portions of their memories erased through a new procedure that destroys all synapses in their brain which hold memories relating to each other. Joel changes his mind mid-way through the procedure but he is paralyzed by the drugs he had been given and cannot stop it. After their memories have been erased, Joel and Clementine meet by chance and the chemistry of their attraction propels them into a new relationship. Then they receive in the mail tape recordings in which each describes their dissatisfactions with the other. However, they decide to try again knowing that acceptance and compromise, and perhaps some pain, will be necessary for their love to continue.
Rationale for Using the Movie: The film can be used as a platform to discuss the meaning of human identity and the role of memory in forming a sense of self. These are important questions posed by philosophers. The Academy Award Winning screen play is fascinating. The plot "coils back upon itself, redefining everything and then throwing it up in the air and redefining it again." Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, March 19, 2004.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will explore the themes of the film and the meaning of human identity and the sense of self. They will be exposed to an excellent production of an award winning screenplay. They will be motivated to participate in class discussions and put their best efforts into writing assignments.
Possible Problems: MODERATE. See MPAA rating.
WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.
USING ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND IN THE CLASSROOM
1. Human identity is the sense of self. In determining the meaning of human identity what, if any, is the role of memory? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. During the discussion, teachers should point out that this is one of the key questions sought to be answered by modern philosophy. One view of personal identity is that man is born sinful and no matter how hard we try, we cannot change that condition. (For these people, the approach to godliness requires the intervention of a savior and divine forgiveness.) Another view holds that man innately knows basic logical propositions from the beginning of his existence and this determines our identity. A third view is that man is born with an empty mind, a tabula rasa, which is continually shaped and reshaped by experience and by our thoughts about that experience, a process called self-identification. Sensations and reflections about those sensations are the two sources of all our ideas. (In philosophical terms, the first view is called "Augustinian" and the second "Cartesian". The third is a modern view first proposed by John Locke, who contended that the self is defined not by the physical body or the "soul", but by repeated self-identification in which memory plays a crucial role. Thus, memory is an integral aspect of the self. However, what is memory? Human memory is shaped and reshaped and, very often, what people remember is influenced by what they want to remember. Thus, some inborn or learned choice, or vision of what the person wants to have happened, must play a role, even for those who adhere to the modern point of view that memory is important to the sense of self.
2. What, if any, is the value in remembering extreme suffering? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Some students will contend that one should recall everything, even the bad times. Others will contend that there is nothing to be learned from suffering and that memory erasure will do no harm. Some will say that it depends upon the memory. A good discussion should include the following concepts: Suffering can lead persons to take action to prevent themselves from being hurt in the future. For example, a person who has a bad romantic relationship can learn the warning signs and how to correct for the problems they reveal. A person can also see potential problems earlier and end the relationship before it starts or before it gets serious with wasted time and severe pain when the break-up occurs. Another concept that should be mentioned is that suffering can cause changes for the better in society. There are millions of examples of this. A person wrongfully imprisoned can use the memory to motivate a campaign to reform the justice system. White American parents whose child was killed by an enraged crowd of blacks during the Apartheid times in South Africa, decided to devote their lives to racial reconciliation. [This is the story of Amy Biehl and her family.] The counter to this is the mistaken idea that memories of situations which are totally out of the ordinary, such as a crime, a harrowing experience while serving in the military, etc. are are so unusual that it is unlikely that people will be able to learn from them. While many people will not be able to learn meaningful lessons from these situations, some will and those people can change society for the better. For example, a soldier whose friends have been killed in a war may decide that the war is unjust and then go on to campaign against it. This happened many times during the Vietnam war and was one factor in changing governmental policy. Another example is that a person injured in an automobile accident might try to have road conditions at the location of the accident changed so that others will not be injured in similar accidents.
3. By the end of the story, what do Joel and Clementine learn? Suggested Response: That if their love is to prevail over the obstacles that it faces, they will need greater acceptance of each other and tolerance for their differences.
For ten additional Discussion Questions, see the Supplemental Materials for this Guide.
Assignments and Assessments:
Each of the discussion questions can serve as an essay prompt.
1. Research and write an essay using sources both from the library and the Internet describing the Augustinian view of the self, that of the Cartesians, and a modern view (e.g., John Locke). Point out the role of memory in each, the differences and similarities, and relate them to the historical times in which they arose. Compare and contrast these views with your own view of the concept of self.
2. Research what is now being done to help individuals get beyond painful experiences and move on with their lives. Investigate a variety of techniques, including talk therapy, EMDR, drugs, and shock therapy. Write an informative essay in which you present and evaluate the work being done for victims of trauma and compare it to the fictional approach taken in this story.
3. [Present students with the excerpt from the script with allusion.] Compare the literary allusions in this story with those in another film such as Into the Wild, Groundhog Day or in a written work of literature. Obtain copies of Alexander Pope's 1717 poem "Eloisa to Abelard" and Friedrich Nietzsche's book Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter VII. Find the lines that are referenced in the film and write an analytic essay comparing the use of allusion to help illuminate theme in the two works.
Note to Teachers: Strong essays will point out that the usual purpose for literary allusion, to have a well-known person restate or refer to the themes of the story, is turned on its head in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The speaker is Mary before she is told that she had an affair with Dr. Mierzwiak and that her memory was erased. At the point in the story when she cites the allusions, she is still in thrall to her love for Dr. Mierzwiak and she is a mouthpiece for his position, an idea that is contrary to the message of the story. Strong essays will note that in both cases the allusions are taken out of context and do not mean, in the original work, what Mary takes them to mean.
4. The stories in Midnight in Paris, Groundhog Day, Big, Edward Scissorhands and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have been classified by some critics as belonging to the genre of "magical realism". Other analysts dispute this interpretation. Find a definition of "magical realism" and write an essay comparing the story in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with the story at least one of these films in terms of the use of magical realism. Take and justify a position as to whether the story in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is or is not an example of magical realism.
Note to Teachers: Good essays will tackle the question of whether drug induced hallucinations are "magical" in the sense of magical realism. Note also that the comparison can be with a book or short story in the genre of magical realism.For more Assignments, see the Supplemental Materials for this Guide.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
Questions 1 and 2 (but not the suggested responses) are adapted from Philosophical Films.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
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Parenting Points: Watch the film with your children and discuss the role of memory in determining a person's identity.
As wonderful as the screen play is, there is one flaw which students may point out. When applied to romantic relationships, Dr. Mierzwiak's memory erasure therapy has a flaw. Many rejected lovers will not, like Joel, want to have their memories erased. They will confront their erstwhile lover with pictures, email and other memorabilia of the relationship. Also, friends of the couple may not comply with the instructions on the card and, as happened in this story, tell the former lover about the erasure. These events will cause endless complications. If a student raises this issue, acknowledge that there is a flaw in the story and move on. After all, this is just fiction. Not everything in a story can be worked out perfectly.
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