Writing

Strength and Inevitability in Arrival and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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Mouth of the Matanuska Glacier – Alaska by Dhilung Kirat

I’ve been doing job interviews lately, and they have thinking about two things I wouldn’t normally dwell upon.  The first is that putting oneself into a situation where the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain is really difficult.  That’s essentially the definition of risk, but I would like to emphasize that it is difficult from a will perspective.  Walking into a lion’s den goes against our natural human impulses to seek shelter and comfort.  The second thing I’ve been thinking about is that the interviews would go much more smoothly if the interviewer could see into the future.  Many people act differently in interviews, so how wonderful would it be if they could instantly know whether the candidate was what they were looking for.

Major spoilers for Arrival and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Arrival is a Denis Villeneuve film based on the novel “A Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.  By the end of the first act we know several things about the film’s protagonist Louise, but I will be focusing on two things specifically: she has a daughter that dies from a disease at a young age (presumably cancer), and she is separated from her husband.  Showing us these two things establishes that she is no stranger to immense pain and hardship.  Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind similarly establishes its protagonist, Joel, has had a messy relationship that has caused him great suffering.  We see flashbacks of he and Clementine fighting as Joel undergoes a scientific procedure to erase all of his memories of their relationship.

Both movies are front-loaded with scenes that are out of order in an attempt to arm the audience with specific information; information that we as viewers need in that moment, rather than when it takes place in the continuity of that story.  Films such as Pulp Fiction, and 21 Grams do this to great effect.  By showing us that Joel is unhappy and Louise is alone early in the plot arcs we understand the character and their motivations better.  Additionally, it makes the resolution more effective; we see a build up to the resolution rather than a seemingly sudden plot twist.

Let’s take a step back, and smash head-first into spoiler territory.  In Arrival Louise teaches herself an alien language that rewires one’s mind so that they can know the future.  We come to realize that the scenes of Louise loving and losing earlier in the film have yet to take place in that world’s timeline; she’s still single and unwed.  After the major conflict of the film is resolved, the audience sees Louise and her family experiencing joy, happiness, and love.  Despite knowing full well the hardship that will follow, Louise make the conscious choice to embark on that journey.

Similarly, while undergoing his memory wipe, Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind relives his experiences with Clementine in order from least to most happy.  Partway through the procedure he comes to the realization that the good memories outweigh the bad.  This is where he attempts to fight against the wipe, and hold onto something of Clementine.  The film ends with the two of them meeting on a beach, ready to restart their rocky relationship all over again.  The audience is led to believe that they both have some clue that it will not always be happy.

So why bother?  If you knew with 100% certainty that a quest will not end well, why bother embarking on it in the first place?  In Arrival‘s universe I suspect there will be many people stuck at the crossroads, knowing that all paths (including inaction) will have hardship.  This is what makes Louise and Joel hero characters; they see the path laid out before them, and, despite knowing the challenges they will face, take the journey.  Both are brave enough to endure life’s hardships in order to experience the inevitable joy, regardless of how little or brief that joy may be.

Photo used with Creative Commons licence via Flickr

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