Affective Reciprocity in the Cinematic Experience

Affect and emotion are often times misconstrued as synonymous. While affect can be vaguely described as our initial response to some form of stimulus, the emotion or feeling displayed is “the presentation of our response,” (Fuery). An affect can represent an ideology so long as it is universal to a certain extent. Not that everyone has to believe in it, but they must be aware of its existence. The affect of love, for example, can be linked to the dominant ideology of “finding the one”. Depending on the subject, different emotions, either positive or negative, can be prompted by the affect. Some may believe that “the one” doesn’t exist while others desperately search for it; either way they both recognize the ideology’s existence. Cinema is the most effective way to display affect with the goal of evoking a certain emotion or response. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), certain stylistic choices and aesthetics convey the affect of love. They support the dominant ideology in our society of “finding the one”, and specifically what Laine describes as “authentic love”. The spectator can relate due to their knowledge of what love is, whether it’s been personally experienced or not. Every one of Michel Gondry’s aesthetic choices in directing the film are purposeful and meant to evoke the spectator’s personal perception of love. From Clementine’s changing hair to the reverse chronology of the narrative, the affect of love is at play as well as the spectator’s involvement through their own experiences with love.

“Do these instruments (technical base) produce specific ideological effects, and are these effects themselves determined by the dominant ideology?” This question, posed by Baudry, is in reference to the cinematic apparatus. Cinema by its very nature is ideological and one’s participation as a viewer in the cinematic apparatus can effect him/her with regard to the dominant ideology displayed within the film. In Eternal Sunshine, this dominant ideology of love—being that of something we all crave and experience as humans—is conveyed through the cinematic apparatus, which focuses on filmic instruments and the specific ideological effects they produce. One specific aspect of the cinematic apparatus of Gondry’s film is the editing style. Save for the opening and ending scenes, the bulk of the film is told in reverse chronological order. As Joel (Jim Carrey) gets Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased from his memory, the process starts from the most recent memory and works its way back in time, allowing for the reverse chronology of the narrative. Sharing memories is a part of being in love with someone, and as each memory unfolds Joel begins to reminisce as one would flipping through an old photo album. Joel becomes relatable here because, although he is an active part of the world of each memory, he is also experiencing the events in real time as a passive observer. As much as he desires, he cannot alter the outcome of each memory. The spectator can instantly relate. As Laine explains: “the film requires the spectators to reflect actively, both on the film itself and on how they are positioned in the midst of the unfolding of events,” (141). The viewer must “reflect actively” as Joel is forced to do. Joel’s pain in realizing he is still in love with Clementine and realizing he will soon forget her altogether transcends to the audience. It’s the same reason why the audience can find such joy in finding out that they will get back together in the end; because they, along with Joel, have experienced the memory-erasure process in real time through the editing of the film. It’s the ultimate love story about the power of “finding the one”; it proves “that no amount of tech support will silence, sweep, or optimize the drive of the human heart,” (Norris 21).

Furthermore, as Joel traverses through his journey of voluntary memory loss, each time a memory is erased the frame is swallowed in darkness. Life with Clementine is all that Joel knows and he very specifically states this at one point: “I can’t remember anything without you.” One of the more iconic scenes where this is blatantly portrayed is the Barnes & Noble scene where he attempts to make amends by bringing Clementine a gift. This is very early in the memory-erasing process to the point that Joel isn’t aware of it yet. She “acts” as though she doesn’t recognize him and when he storms away in anger “the lights in each section of the store go dark sequentially behind him—like one massive closing, a stepwise collapsing of time and space,” (Norris 21). This isn’t just an erasure of Clementine, it’s an erasure of a whole part of Joel’s life. Laine describes their relationship as displaying “authentic love”; she outlines this type of love as “[avoiding] the mutual desire for shared identity in favor of affective reciprocity,” (139). He does not want to share a life with Clementine, but rather live autonomously alongside her. However, this can only work as a reciprocal relationship. Essentially, he doesn’t know who he is without her. “Lovers who love authentically… see love as something to be actively brought into existence, rather than as a destiny to which one can passively submit,” (Laine 140). Their love is an action, not an experience. Each of these memories exist as an act of love. So when Joel and Clementine are laying on frozen Lake Charles and Clementine gets pulled away into the darkness, it’s because their love has ceased to exist. This is also why when Joel attempts to trick the system and finds himself back in an already erased memory—getting interviewed by Dr. Mierzwiack (Tom Wilkinson)—the scene is enveloped in darkness. The memories, created by love, are now nothing, just darkness.

Certain stylistic choices can go unnoticed to the naïve observer. One particularly interesting choice was the casting of Jim Carrey as the protagonist, Joel. As most people surely should know, Jim Carrey is a comedic actor. Before his role in Eternal Sunshine, he starred in films such as Liar Liar (1997), The Cable Guy (1996), and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). In each of these films, he is the protagonist and plays to what could be known as the “Jim Carrey persona”—he’s a wacky goofball. His casting in Eternal Sunshine is purposeful in displaying him against his general archetype. The viewer will see Carrey and expect wild and exuberant as they’ve come to know through the roles he plays. Joel, however, is quite the exact opposite, and the audience is immediately drawn to notice this casting choice. “Movie spectatorship involves two kinds of perceptual activities: sensory contact with the cinematic image and epistemic access to the image,” (Ponech 85). This means that when the audience sees Joel on the screen they not only see Joel, but they see Jim Carrey playing Joel. Their outside knowledge of the actor forcibly comes into play with regard to how they feel Joel should behave. When he doesn’t act accordingly, the spectator can presume that this is not an ordinary diegesis—Jim Carrey isn’t acting like “Jim Carrey” therefore this cannot be a representation of reality, it must exist outside of the known reality. This proves to be relatively true as it is soon noted that this is a world where memory-wiping companies, such as Lacuna Inc., exist. Such a company would never exist in the world of “Jim Carrey”. It’s the first indicator that something is off. Joel even says: “I woke up in a funk this morning,” which could arguably draw attention to the audience’s “funk” in seeing Jim Carrey in such an against-type role.

One of the more noticeable aesthetic choices of the film is that of Clementine’s hair color and how it seems to change incessantly. In a film that shifts from one time period to another so rapidly, and proceeds in reverse chronological order for a majority of the time, finding out when exactly in the relationship an event is being experienced can be a difficult task. Clementine’s hair serves as a reminder to the spectator as to what point in the relationship any given event is proceeding. Just as well, each different hair color corresponds to a different mood. This is where the spectator must draw outside knowledge on colors and their relations to emotions. Trevor Ponech, in his article about spectatorship claims that “visual experiences of photographically produced motion pictures generally give rise to perceptual knowledge of both the medium and the extra-cinematic world,” (86). Through the viewing of cinema, spectators have been conditioned to correspond certain colors to certain emotions. When Joel and Clementine first meet at the beach party, her hair is green. Green is the color of nature and, by association, life. The particular color of her hair at that time symbolizes the budding life of a new relationship. Also, the fact that she changes her hair color a lot points to her shifting personality. She even says: “I can’t tell from one moment to the next what I’m gonna like.” Whereas Joel seems to be the same all the time, and comfortable with it; where Clementine wears a bright orange hoodie with her green hair, Joel where his gray shirt and brown beanie. This disparity in their attire is in line with Laine’s “authentic love”. They are so different that it brings them together, not for hopes of “sharing an identity” because they know they are too different to do so. They seek “affective reciprocity” in each other; just the comfort of loving someone for who they are and knowing that they will do the same.

As previously stated, cinema by its very nature is ideological. Certain films produce certain affects, to which the spectator digests then responds with their own emotions. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the affect of love and the ideology of “finding the one” is at work. As Laine describes it, “authentic love” is what develops between Joel and Clementine. Most people believe in finding love and becoming one with the other person; this idea of a “shared identity”. Joel and Clementine’s love is more “authentic” than that love due to its allowance of autonomy. They both want to be themselves, but don’t know how to do it without each other. When Clementine is with Patrick, she seems to lose her mind and can’t figure out a reason why. It could be argued that the absence of Joel from both her memory and life created a void that can’t be filled by anyone else. This deep connection between the two is displayed through aspects of the cinematic apparatus such as the editing style and certain constructions of the mise-én-scene. The reverse chronology of the memory erasing process allows for reminiscence on behalf of both Joel and the viewer. Just as well, the blacking-out of the frame whenever a memory is permanently deleted points to the importance of one another in each other’s lives. The spectator’s part in the film in reflecting along with Joel allows for a strong connection to be made with him as the protagonist. At first it can be hard to realize what they see in each other, but as the process traverses on and the beginning events of the relationship are shown and (re)experienced it gets easier to relate to Joel’s pain. The erasure of Clementine from Joel’s memory finally ends with them at the beach house where they first met. The scene consists of the world surrounding Joel as literally falling apart. The house is crumbling and the sea is raging; his emotions are in chaos. This is because it’s much more than the memory of Clementine that he’s losing, it’s also the memory of him at his best self, according to himself. Their love is authentic, which is arguably the truest love of all.


Works Cited

  • Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus.” Critical Visions in Film Theory, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011, pp. 35-43.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Directed by Michel Gondry, performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, Focus Features, 2004.
  • Furry, Kelli. Film Theory and Criticism. Chapman University, https:// course_id=_25556_1&content_id=_465330_1
  • Laine, Tarja. “Love.” Feeling Cinema, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011, pp. 123-163.
  • Norris, Chris. “Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s Head Trip.” Film Comment, vol. 40, no. 2, Film Society of Lincoln Center, 2004, pp. 20-21.
  • Ponech, Trevor. “Visual Perception and Motion Picture Spectatorship.” Cinema Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, University of Texas Press, 1997, pp. 85-100.

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