The Dimensions of the Spotless Mind: Time, Space, and Emotion

Look at the room that you are currently and take a few seconds to count how many sides there are. You most likely counted six if you included the floor and the ceiling, and you most likely did take a second or two to count. What you just experienced is how we perceive time and space in our world, and if you’re reading this, chances are you’re quite used to this perspective. Often times, we can even take this for granted; that makes it all the more disorienting and jarring when that perception is stripped from us. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004; dir. Michel Gondry) happily uses this fact to tell an emotional story in a completely unconventional manner.

The film is structured in such a way that for large portions, we are trapped in the recesses of Joel’s mind and memories. We view the process of his memories regarding Clementine being deleted by Lacuna, Inc., which starts from the latest and travels its way back to their beginning. These two facts are important for two primary reasons: the laws of physics barely apply, and the emotional journey through Joel’s mind begins at its chronological end. The chaotic and volatile nature of their relationship is perfectly conveyed through this lens. Take the following scene for example:

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The spatial layout of this scene is mind-boggling to say the least. Joel starts out with his car parked facing left, him running left towards Clementine. By the time he reaches the end of the street, his car is there facing the other direction, the business signs have been reversed, and Clem has jumped to the opposite end of the block. Undeterred, Joel chases after her again, but the same thing happens again, except now the business signs are completely void of lettering. Gondry manipulates the audience’s expectation of space to create a disorienting experience; the 180-degree line is subtly broken, the shot seemingly never cuts, which makes the spatial discontinuity even more confusing. While at first it seems out of control, there is a method in the madness. It seems that these excursions into lawless physics are always stacked against Joel, even though we are within his mind. This points to his inability to change what has already happened; he never did catch Clementine, and that won’t change now. What’s interesting to note is that even if everything around humans is falling apart, their nature rarely changes. We want to change our past, even though we know we can’t.

A similarly unsettling event happens in a later scene:

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Joel attempts to determine the identity of Clementine’s new lover by turning him around, but to no avail. He did not see much of the man originally, and so his identity remains a mystery. Again, special visual effects are used here to create the obviously impossible effect of the faceless man.  It comes off as unsettling because nothing is scarier than the unknown. It also adds to the fact that Joel wants to again change his past somehow, but cannot because these are only memories.

The ultimate theme expressed is that even in the safety of our mind, what’s done is done and we can only hope to change the future. The fact that this message was successfully delivered in such an unconventional package speaks to the persistence of the message and was conveyed using film techniques in a new way.




One thought on “The Dimensions of the Spotless Mind: Time, Space, and Emotion

  1. Chris,

    This is an excellent post on how Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind experiments with spatial conventions of film. As viewers, we generally trust that space (and time, for that matter) will be presented to us in fixed and comprehensible ways. However, because we are occupying Joel’s mind for a good portion of the film–namely, all his memories of Clementine–the spatial stability that we might expect becomes severely compromised. You provide some great examples of where and how this works in the film. Interestingly–and I don’t think accidentally–Gondry and Kaufman draw on dream logic in these scenes. It’s not uncommon for space to twist on us or become discontinuous when we are dreaming–for instance, one moment we are in a car and the next we are in the ocean. By mobilizing this logic, it makes these moments seem at once confusing, threatening, and uncannily familiar.

    Great post,


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