Article
Culture
Film & TV
4 min read

The Oscars and ourselves

Beyond the shiny escapism, the awards spotlight all our stories.
A closely cropped group of gold Oscar statues showing mostly their head and shoulders.
Oscars.org

The Oscars are a funny old thing, aren’t they? Every year, I find myself wondering why we care about them so much.  

And sure, we could go for the low-hanging answers: because the show is brimming with glamour, because it’s packed with celebrity, because we may be treated to Ryan Gosling performing his Barbie anthem with Slash. We’ve been trained to gravitate toward such things, and that makes the Oscars the jackpot. And so, while shiny escapism is an undeniable aspect of the enormous hype attached to the Academy Awards, I think it would be unfair to assume that these are the only reasons we are still so drawn to this event.   

If we’re meaning-making creatures, and I believe that we are, then these films mean something.  

I once heard renowned mythologist, Dr Martin Shaw, say that ‘story is the best way to talk about almost anything’, and I wonder if cinema is evidence of how heartily we agree. The stories that are being crafted and told are important, they matter, they actually affect things. Or, at least, the good ones do.   

And this year, when I assess the films that swept up the majority of the prizes at the 96th Academy Awards, I noticed a trend. I noticed that these films are essentially humans talking to humans about what it means to be human.   

In many ways, for better or for worse, we spent 2023 telling stories about ourselves. Allow me to break down what I mean.  

These movies tell us of our own brokenness, our own breaking-things-ness.

Oppenheimer, which won six awards, and Zone of Interest, which was the first British film to win the Oscar for Best International Film – they tell our darkest stories. We know the 20th Century horrors of the dropping of the atomic bomb and the Holocaust, but these two movies introduce us to the faces behind the horror. And, what’s more, they hauntingly remind us that those faces could have been ours. They introduce us, not to monsters that we can keep at a comfortable distance, but to people who sanction, create and do the unimaginable, and then go home for dinner with their children.   

People did these things. People like us. These movies tell us of our own brokenness, our own breaking-things-ness. They remind us that the possibility of evil is not beyond us, it is within us, and that the most dangerous thing one could do is to believe otherwise.  

But then there was the acutely tender The Holdovers, and the deeply profound Past Lives. These movies tell of our gentleness, our fragility, our innate need for intimacy; they remind us that we were designed to be known and loved. They reintroduce us to our deepest and most innate needs - The Holdovers, in particular, tells us of the sacrality of relationship. Its success has me wondering if a story of three lonely people forced to spend Christmas together in an empty boarding school could tell us more about what our souls require than any academic deep dive. 

Yet again, these films seek to tell you the story of you; they aim to be windows into the souls of the characters, while also acting as mirrors through which we can catch glimpses of our own.  

Each movie, in one way or another, was a wrestle with personhood. What makes us, us?

And finally, there were two films, Barbie and Poor Things, which, to criminally over-simplify them, are the stories of two women (or, rather, one toy and one new-born baby in the body of a grown woman… don’t ask) who are working out what it means to be a person. Both Barbie and Bella Baxter walk through worlds that are entirely new to them, but completely familiar to their audiences. They assess the good and the bad of humanity as if utterly detached from it, until they are forced to confront their own place in the worlds that they are slowly coming to terms with. As is written into the script of Poor Things and was read aloud over a montage at the Oscars ceremony,  

‘We must experience everything. Not just the good, but degradation, horror, sadness. This makes us whole Bella, makes us people of substance. Not flighty, untouched children. Then we can know the world.’ 

(Is it me, or is there a little touch of – ‘just take a bite of the apple, Eve’ in there?) 

So, you see my point – this year, in the world of film, humans talked to other humans about what it means to be human. Each movie, in one way or another, was a wrestle with personhood. What makes us, us? Where does our propensity for goodness come from? How are we this clever? And how are we this clueless? Why do we do such evil things? And why do we have such tender needs? What is the difference between the worst and the best that we could possibly be? What and why are we? Or, in the simple words of Billie Eilish’s Oscar-scooping song – what were we made for?  

And listen, perhaps this is always somewhat the case. Maybe every film can be boiled down this way, and maybe the Oscars are just a storm in a particularly glitzy tea cup. And maybe nobody would be talking about it this morning had Slash not been involved.  

But I just have this sense that these movies, and the prizes that they won, mean something. These existential-yearning kind of films, I’m not sure they’re going anywhere anytime soon – if we’re wondering what we were made for in such public places, I’m wondering if it’s because we’re also wondering the same thing in the most personal places.  

If you’re asking me, last night was filled with as many cultural heart-cries as it was prizes.  

Review
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.