Memories are the foundations for the complexity of individuals. We are created by the experiences we face, and to delve into the past is to delve into the system of our personal construction. According to Bowman (2004, p. 85), themes of memory in film generate emotion because, instinctively, to lose our memory equates to a loss of identity.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) takes us on a journey through the memories of the protagonist Joel as he desperately clings onto the experiences with his ex-girlfriend, Clementine. A key scene within the film depicts Joel attempting to preserve old memories by ‘hiding’ in an embarrassing memory from his childhood; peer pressured by bullies to smash a dead bird with a hammer (see Figure 1). This scene is particularly mesmeric because it links the memories of childhood innocence and trauma to animals, displaying how birds are symbolic of memory and new beginnings. Such a symbolism is incredibly important as memory and new beginnings are common themes throughout the entirety of the film. Joel and Clementine switch back and forth from their child-selves to adult-selves and vice versa, further representing how the acceptance and release of such memories allows one to move forward in life.
The close-up of the dead bird in the wagon holds meaning because the animal is helpless, presenting an oppositional image to its classic symbolism of freedom (see Figures 2 and 3). The stills I have chosen here show the unique nature of the film’s representation of animals. The conflicting representation to what is “expected” of typical iconographies of birds shows how the film uses distinctive animal imagery to draw attention to the complexity of memory. The placement of the dead bird even seems quite peaceful, which is what exacerbates Joel’s violent actions even more in contrast. The visual design of the shot draws the audiences’ attention to the bird because of the stark contrast between the white (bird) and red (wagon). The human-animal relationship represented here at the beginning is one of domination and ascendance; animals are used solely for entertainment purposes as the bullies jeer at Joel to hit the bird. The film plays on the conventional human/animal relationship of domination/submission, with humans being superior. However, with more investigation it is apparent that the film positions Joel’s character and the bird as parallel to one another, positing a unique symbolism of birds being crucial to the understanding of oneself.
The premise of the film is an attempted escape from the memories of a failed relationship to move forward in life. Joel, both as a child and an adult, and the bird are both helpless creatures. In this scene, Joel is as much trapped by the memory as the bird is in the situation. However, the narrative progresses with the contrasting shot of a bird flying from the tree in a symbolic representation of escape (see Figure 4), linking to Joel’s attempts to be free from his trauma. In this shot, the film adheres to our common knowledge of birds being symbols of freedom and liberty, contrasting to the dead bird which is in a place of vulnerability, showing how the use of animals helps aid the films’ representation of Joel’s character and his journey. This is followed by Clementine coming to ‘rescue’ Joel from the memory, leading him away by the hand in a child-like manner (see Figure 5), dressed in play-costume, the same way she helps him to move past his shame. The narrative choice to create parallel human/animal relations helps the film to represent Joel and the bird as equal, and consequently, any sense of domination is gone. Instead, the film pushes for an empathetic reading of birds from the audience, the same way we are pushed to adopt an empathetic reading of Joel’s character.
In critical readings of ancient and modern forms of art and literature, birds have historically been an indication of both “freedom and imprisonment”, depending on their autonomy in an open space or entrapment within a confined space, and in this scene, we are shown how the iconography of birds relates to how incarcerating memory can be (Rahman Lacey, 2013, p. 12). Such a reading can be linked with this scene as it shows us representations of birds in both a place of imprisonment (in the wagon) and freedom (flying from the tree), which works alongside Joel’s character and the freedom felt when overcoming this negative and shameful childhood memory.
Examples of Ancient pieces of art, literature and poetry, such as Figure 6, represent the historic and spiritual connections made between humans and birds. Drawing angels as having bird-like wings adopts the classic symbolisms of birds being an expression of freedom and liberty, whilst also linking the animal to aspects of spirituality. This relates to the film’s narrative, and the spiritual awakening Joel encounters through the acceptance of his past, leading to a sense of self-liberation. Similarly, Figure 7 also shows the significance of birds in Ancient texts, and their symbolism of power, worshiping birds of prey and drawing humans with the bodies of birds on the bottom half. These two examples help to illustrate the historic symbolic importance of birds, and exemplify the significance of them in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The film helps to articulate how clinging onto negative memories of the past can stop oneself from moving forward in life, but more importantly accepting them can lead to new beginnings. Originally, in his first Lacuna meeting in which he intended to remove any recollection of Clementine’s existence through the memory-erasing procedure, Joel was told by Dr. Mierzwiak that there would be “a new life awaiting” for him. However, his new life really comes from the re-experience of the past and a guidance away from traumatic memories to move forward in life. By placing Joel as parallel to the birds in the scene, the film depicts an important human/animal relationship, presenting the animals as symbolic of Joel’s need to deal with his traumatic past. Originally, the human/animal relationship is one of domination/submission, with the bird seemingly a victim to Joel’s violence. However, the progression of the scene shows how Joel is in fact a victim himself of those traumatic memories of childhood. The violence Joel inflicts upon the helpless bird is symbolic of the violence he suffered because of a failure to accept the traumatic and shameful memories which continued to haunt him. This final act of violence is clearly a ‘breaking point’ for Joel, and the brutal act of hammering the dead bird represents a desire to destroy any shame he has carried through his life because of these memories. With the help of Clementine, he acknowledges the fact he was “just a kid”, and that is “okay”. The shot of the bird fleeing is symbolic of Joel’s sudden freedom from the entrapment that is trauma, which shows how the film consequently represents animals as important by incorporating the traditional symbolism of birds as indicators of freedom to Joel’s own acceptance of his past.
Bowman, J. (2004) ‘Memory and the Movies’, The New Atlantis, 5(1), pp. 85-90.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Directed by Gondry, M. Available at: Box of Broadcasts (Accessed: 9 November 2021).
Rahman Lacey, M.E. (2013) Birds and Bird-lore in the Literature of Anglo-Saxon England. PhD thesis. University College London.
Siferwas, J., (between c. 1400 and c. 1410) Angels. Available at: https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/9200397/BibliographicResource_3000126282607 (Accessed: 5 January 2022).
Siferwas, J., (between c. 1400 and c. 1410) Birds of Prey. Available at: https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/9200397/BibliographicResource_3000126283297 (Accessed 6 January 2022).