“On the nature of self and memory” film festival

Warning: I’m going to include spoilers to the movies Marnie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Butterfly Effect in this entry.

“Our ‘mistakes’ become our crucial parts, sometimes our best parts, of the lives we have made.”
-Ellen Goodman

Without really trying, Sarah and I had the above-named film festival for the past week. “Marnie” had been sitting in our Netfix pile on our tv for months, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was brought over by my sister after she rented it from Blockbuster, and “Butterfly Effect” was bought off the satellite dish when I realized I had missed it in theaters.

In all three movies the main characters experience a trauma in their past and are unable to come to terms with it. Believing their lives would be better without these experiences, they each relate to their past in flawed ways and ultimately realize that your past, including mistakes and accidents, are a key part of who you are, and can’t be edited for improvement even if you wanted to.

The first film was Hitchcock’s “Marnie“, a film about a woman who witnesses at the age of 4 a traumatic assault and murder involving her prostitute mother and a sailor. The trauma of the experience stays with her even though she blocks out the memory. The trauma haunts her terribly, moreso because she doesn’t understand it’s source as she adopts an adult life of crime. At the climax of the movie she is forced to remember the event and in that moment realizes that forgetting your past does not allow you to escape it.

The second film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, is about a couple who break up and then seperately and without each other’s knowledge, visit a doctor who offers to selectively erase the memories of their failed relationship. Jim Carrey, our main character, discovers that once they’ve removed the entire history of their relationship from his mind, he’s reverted to the person he was when they met, and having done so, loses the personal development that he gained in their relationship.

Throughout the movie Jim Carrey’s character also comes to realize he is attached to his happy memories of the relationship and does not want to lose them. He is the sum of his experiences and by removing even the most unhappy ones, he is not better for it.

By the time we had decided to watch “The Butterly Effect” I was starting to connect the dots of our serendipitous week.

It was with this theme in mind that we watched the third and final film, “The Butterfly Effect“, about a boy (Ashton Kutcher) that time travels to several traumatic events in his past to try and change the outcome.

Growing up he experiences blackouts during particularly stressful events. These blackouts are his future self revisiting his past through time travel and making changes to the events of his childhood in order to avert the latter-life disasters that befall him and his friends. He finally realizes at the end of the movie that he doesn’t really want to tinker with his past and the dangers of the outcomes are too great to muck with.

Kutcher’s character discovers a new found respect for the intact nature of the your own personal history. After tinkering with the past and making it worse, Kutcher finally finds a way to shift the net quantity of pain off of different people he cares about and onto himself. Of course Kutcher’s character is only 26 at this point. We don’t know if the lives he has saved will later turn out to cause even more pain in the future. That is the conundrum of revisionary time travel.

My last reference, not from our serendipitous film festival, is somewhat cheesy, so please forgive me. In an episode of Family Ties aired in 1983 (episode 29, “Not an affair to remember”, thank you Google), the father played by Michael Gross is tempted to have an affair with his assistant. After a rough evening at home he appears likely to finally take up his assistant’s offer of a ‘no strings attached’ fling.

When he hesitates, the amorous assistant says, (roughly quoted) “Come on, nobody will know. It doesn’t have to be a part of the rest of your life, let’s just have a little fun and then you can go back home like nothing happened.”

I leave you with Gross’ epiphany, roughly quoted:

“No no, I can’t live my life like a series of disconnected events. I have to live with the consequences of everything I do, and at the end of the day, they all become part of who I am.”


  1. PinkThunder on October 8, 2004 at 5:48 am

    I highly recommend reading Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography entitled “Speak, Memory”. Nabokov doesn’t pretend to remember everything with a photographic memory, but is honest that his memories must be seen through the gauzy filter of age, experience and regret.

    If time is too short for Nobel Prize winning authors, check out this timely, recent and salient Boondocks comic…!