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Sequence-Breaking and Eternal Sunshine

by Alex Beachum


The conflict at the heart of Eternal Sunshine is Joel's battle for agency within his own mind. While Joel is somewhat free to navigate the space of each memory, none of his actions can stop their inevitable erasure. In this sense, Eternal Sunshine adopts an opposing viewpoint from Postmodernity by portraying the author (in this case Lacuna Inc.) as the sole dictator of the experience. When Joel says “I'm just exactly where I want to be,” the system responds by dragging Clementine into the darkness as if to preemptively crush this spark of independence.

When Joel tries to escape the procedure, the all-controlling author follows him with a powerful overhead searchlight. To borrow Janet Murray's agency-as-folk dancing metaphor, Joel is attempting the Cajun two-step at a square dance. Despite his best efforts at improvisation – like pulling Clementine away from the train station in a direction they're not meant to go – he is consistently lead back to the path laid by the author.

Interestingly, Joel's actions mirror those of gamers who make a hobby of attempting to break the boundaries set in code by a game's designers. “Sequence breaking” refers to the use of in-game exploits to navigate the game's narrative in a different order from what the authors intended. Other players use glitches to access unfinished environments they were never meant to see – similar to Joel's attempts to hide Clementine in his old childhood memories. These efforts to thwart the author's intentions and escape from the binding rules of the system point at least in part to a larger cultural anxiety over a perceived loss of control in the face of technology. They also point (somewhat obviously) to our general tendency to exert agency whenever humanely possible.

Labyrinth of Thought

by Sarah Scialli

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the audience is subjected to a maze of memory in almost a gamelike manner. At this point in the film, Joel is beginning to have a type of agency over his own thoughts, as he drags Clementine through a plethora of memories and, later in the film, to a “safe” place in his childhood memories.

Janet Murray’s chapter “Agency” from Hamlet on the Holodeck describes labyrinths in games.  She says “The key to creating an expressive fictional labyrinth is arousing and regulating the anxiety intrinsic to the form by harnessing it to the act of navigation” (Murray 135). In this scene, Joel’s anxiety, and therefore the anxiety of the audience, is heightened by the tangled mess of memories that Joel runs through in his attempt to stop Clementine from being erased. Further, Joel’s navigation between memories is directly related to his anxiety as he physically and, of course mentally, searches for a connection to a thought that won’t get erased. In this case, the memories are organized more like the Rhizome that Murray describes, linked to each other in many directions with no boundaries and no way out.

Joel has some degree of agency over his memories at this point. He interacts with his memories and he makes choices about what to do next while attempting to gain control over the erasing process. But although he can change and interact with his thoughts, and although he can navigate through the rhizome of his mind, he ultimately has very little control and is almost entirely unable to prevent the erasing process from occurring. This is similar to the amount of control that a game designer often gives a player- enough control to affect local areas, and the ability to navigate through the areas, but not complete control over the whole experience.

So although Joel has some agency in his own mind, he is trapped in the labyrinth of thoughts with little way of escaping back into the normality of the real world. 

The Player Versus the Operator

by Kristina Thomas

In this scene, we see that Jim Carrey now sees how weird and scary the erasing process can be.  We are often alluded by the fact that the process of erasing the ex-girlfriend from Carrey's mind, may not have some kinks that need to be worked out, while the process continues throughout the night.  It is in this scene we start to see weird things, weird faces, and Carrey wanting out.

As I read the beginning of Galloway's book again, he makes you ask if you are having fun playing the game.  I restate this question because, Galloway saids that when you play a game you have an "operator" and a "machine."  The person who invests their time into the game, are the players, which Jim Carrey plays.  The player gets to have fun finding out ways to win the game, discover new secrets, and learn something in the process of trying out something new.  As much as Carrey doesn't want to continue the process of erasing his ex-girlfriend, he still learns how to maneuver in the game, to stop the "machine" from erasing her.  He is not having fun after he comes to the realization he is really going to lose his ex-girlfriend.  It plays into Galloway's definition to the sphere of electronic media, are games fundamentally cybernetic software systems involving both organic and and nonorganic actors.

Nonetheless the "affect-image" is another thing that comes up in the scene.  In Jim Carrey's mind, the "affect-image" is signaling to the brain that the game is taking place, but there is no gameplay actually happening at the time.  We see the guy operating the computer, everything going right, and then leaving the game on autopilot to do other things.  Yet the game is playing without the operator.  How can this be, when the operator is controlling the situation?  The user is on hold, but the machine keeps working for the operator.  The operator can take a break, while the machine pauses in a pause act and the operator is free to take a break.  This ultimately puts Carrey in a place to change the rules of the game.

Creepy reality effects in Eternal Sunshine

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Handheld camera and camera-mounted direct lighting signify the creepy unreality of hallucination/memory

from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Creator: Michel Gondry
Posted by Critical Commons Manager